Culture of Health Accelerator: Empowering Youth to be Leaders in Research and Practice

Boston high school aged Youth spent the summer as researchers in their communities and shared their thoughts on what contributes to barriers to wellness for youth of color

This summer I worked on a research team that initiated a project called the Culture of Health Accelerator. The goal was to engage, mentor and support local youth to organize and implement culture of health initiatives in the shared community of Boston, MA. The idea was to empower youth to become active participants in decisions that impact their overall health and well-being. Youth can provide a perspective that is different from adults which can lead to innovative solutions to health problems and unique forms of data collection. Youth who participated in the first iteration of a six week summer institute had the opportunity to conduct and present their own research on the major issues that influence the health of those in their communities. One of the issues that the youth discussed in their presentation was the lack of access to healthy foods. They talked about how many of them purchase unhealthy foods and snacks from corner stores because there are no grocery stores in their neighborhoods.

Another issue that the youth brought up (which is also my primary research interests), is the exposure to violence and the impact of that exposure. In order to understand the youth researchers’ perspective on this issue, I held a focus group with some of them. This discussion was very informative and shed light on many issues that teens of color who live in urban environments face in their day-to-day life. These issues include fear and stress due to high amounts of crime in their schools and neighborhoods, limited resources for productive activities such as playing in a park, barriers to accessing culturally appropriate and affordable healthcare services and lack of widespread education on safe sex practices. More importantly, it provided their perception on community violence, including what they think is the solution to decreasing the high levels of violence in their communities.

Some of what youth told us includes:

“Gun violence. Lots of people, they die from the cause of a lot of gun violence around their neighborhoods and around their homes, which they think is a safe environment, but it’s really not. It’s just you can’t really go anywhere that’s safe anymore. You always got to be overly like … somebody who’s there to protect you or something. You’re not safe in communities anymore”.

“I mean like, all the violence mostly happens on social media. Most of the time like throughout the day. I feel like if they just leave everything on social media or don’t talk smack on social media as much as much as they usually do it would be less of a problem”.  

“It traumatizes kids….Yeah, it makes people scared. Like, I remember like last year at my basketball game and across the street someone got shot and one of my boys, he didn’t go to school the next day. ‘Cause he was just that scared. It messes up people’s heads, seeing that stuff in person”.  

These quotes how youth perceive the impact that violence has on their community. The adolescents in these communities of color in Boston feel that one of the top safety issues in their community is gun violence, and because of the guns, the community is not safe anymore. They are scared to go outside after a certain time of day. The youth also say that most of the violence happens because it is fueled by social media. Even further, another person discussed how the high levels of community violence affects the mental health of the youth because they are being exposed to some horrific things at such a young age. This affects their mental stability, which can lead to depression, for example. Some of them also talked about how when they experienced the murder of a school friend, it impacts them so much that they do not attend school the next day.  

During this session the group also brainstormed ways that they could engage their community in discussions about how to decrease the amount of violence in their respective neighborhoods. One teen said they would target the “youth” because “most of the violence occurs between the youth”. They would ask them “what would they do if they was in a situation with violence and stuff, so we can hear their opinion and see what they would do”. Another person explained how he would reach out to the adults because “the youth look up to them,” and “if they see an adult doing something bad, they will think they can do it too”.    

Some of the major themes that come out of this rich discussion with these youth of color in Boston are that: violence impacts them on a day-to-day basis, they feel scared in their own neighborhoods and schools, they feel intimidated by cops because they are profiled because of the color of their skin, and violence has an impact on not only physical, but mental health status of youth. In the end I believe that considering Youth Voice is important when deciding on policies to improve communities. They too live, work and attend school in these communities and have great insight into the issues and things that need to be changed. It can be empowering and productive for youth to have the opportunity to effect positive change in the places they call home.    

Kendall Johnson is currently studying to obtain her PhD in Social Work at Boston University under the mentorship of Judith Scott (MSW,MPP,PhD). Her research seeks to understand the effects of trauma and community violence, especially homicide, on the Black families’ and communities’ mental health, as well as the supports they utilize in response to traumatic loss and violent events.

 

 

Image by fizkes/Adobestock