Summer YPAR Institute Empowers Youth to Create Change
Posted September 8, 2021
In Dekalb County, the refugee resettlement community of Clarkston is known as the most diverse square mile in America. Here, many parents work long hours and late shifts, and a high percentage of families have only one car or less. Because of this lack of time and transportation, taking their children to after-school activities can often be a challenge.
“Right now, it can be difficult for young people to get around to places like soccer practice,” said 14-year-old Clarkston resident Doss Sebarenzi. “I hope we can improve mobility options so people like my little brother can get around more easily.”
This summer, Sebarenzi was one of six Clarkston teens who took part in a pilot program at Georgia Tech aiming to do just that. The four-week Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) institute was led by Assistant Professor Allen Hyde in the School of History and Sociology, along with Clarkston community partner UPPER90 and GT sustainability initiative Serve-Learn-Sustain (SLS), which provided funding. Program assessment was carried out by the Center for Education Integrating Science, Mathematics, and Computing.
The goal? Help Clarkston youth find a voice in their community.
The method? Teach them to conduct research so they, themselves, can solve the problems around them.
“The focus on youth is important because they are often left out of conversations related to planning and research around mobility and other issues. However, they are a large and important part of the community,” said Hyde. “We wanted to train them to collect data, conduct research, and make recommendations on how to improve their community from their own experience and treat them as the experts they are.”
From research to action
Hyde spent three weeks training the students in research methods and helping them put those skills to work in Clarkston and Atlanta. With support from SLS Director Jennifer Hirsch, summer intern Hudson McGaughey, and Associate Professor AJ Kim at San Diego State University, the students collected and analyzed data to discover how to make it easier and safer for young people to get to after-school sports, activities, and jobs in Clarkston.
In week four, the students prepared and presented their findings to local leaders — including a Clarkston City Council member and city transportation planner — as well as residents, friends, family, and an invited audience from Georgia Tech. The teens had many suggestions for improving mobility for youth in the city, including teaching them how to use the buses with a “learn by doing” program; providing more bike racks and locks at apartment complexes, parks, and stores; and installing lights to improve safety on sidewalks at night.
The next step is turning those recommendations into reality.
Although the YPAR institute ended in July, Hyde, SLS, and the students will continue working with the city leaders and non-profits who expressed interest in the venture. Sixteen-year-old participant Haile Kini said he wants to keep talking to city leaders to get funding for the streetlights and to explore adding Wi-Fi to them for emergencies and to help people travel. Undergraduate and graduate students in Hyde’s Fall 2021 HTS course on Equity and Community Engagement will also lend a hand as part of their class project, and the work will continue via Hirsch’s student-led VIP: Building for Equity and Sustainability as well.
Filling a tool kit for the future
After a tough school year with Covid-19 and remote learning, the YPAR institute instructors also hope the program will inspire the students to feel excited about school again and start thinking about college and their careers beyond it. The teens received “an honorable stipend that provided significantly to their needs,” said UPPER90 Director Jorge Vallejo, and they were able to practice important soft skills like waking up on time and communicating effectively. Now, 16- year-old Ashik Sunuwar wants to invent new technologies to improve his community. “I learned that I need to pursue more education to be able to do that,” he said.
As for Hyde: “I probably learned as much or more than the students themselves.” He researches inequality, immigration, and urban sociology at the School of History and Sociology, but his connection to the project and the teens is closer than that — he’s also been their soccer coach since 2017. For Hyde, Creating the Next at Georgia Tech can happen anywhere, and he hopes not only to inspire Sebarenzi, Kini, Sunuwar, and the others to take action in their city but to actively give them the tools, skills, and — perhaps most importantly — the confidence they need to do so.
“Increased belief that they can make a difference is critical, and we saw that in some of their exit evaluations,” said Hyde. “So often youth are ignored by communities and families even. We want to give them a voice and empower them to be agents of change.”
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