The Women Change Worlds blog of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) encourages WCW scholars and colleagues to respond to current news and events; disseminate research findings, expertise, and commentary; and both pose and answer questions about issues that put women's perspectives and concerns at the center of the discussion.

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Exploring Possibilities: Advancing Racial Justice Through Research

dark barn interior looking to brightness outsideThe question of how to address structural racism continues to loom large, both in our national conversation and in social science research. Addressing the white supremacist system (which is also marked by gender oppression, economic exploitation, and heteronomativity) is ultimately the question that connects all other research questions about equitable outcomes for young people. As a research scientist who focuses on child and adolescent development, I am starting with what I have learned from young people, youth workers, and community leaders, which has shaped how I think about the role research can play in advancing racial justice.

Much of my work involves documenting how various interventions support the academic progress, health, and wellbeing of young people — and furthermore, how outcomes are different for youth based on their race/ethnicity, income level, age, gender, learning needs, or language. For example, I might be interested in whether offering a certain kind of enrichment activity to a young person will help them graduate from high school. Can a program help a young person to stay out of “trouble” and go on to contribute to society? This work is important and I enjoy doing it, but this framing also implicitly locates the source of social and political problems within a young person rather than within the system itself.

Given the systemic and pervasive nature of racialized inequalities, I wonder if these types of interventions are sufficient. I wonder if there are ways that researchers, practitioners, youth, and families might collectively intervene upon the system of inequality, and then assess the impacts of systemic changes on the lives of young people, their families, and their communities.

We don’t need research to tell us that every young person and their family has a right to a home, but research might test the hypothesis that providing them with safe, secure housing throughout 15 years of schooling could impact academic achievement. Instead of looking at whether a specific training program helps youth to get jobs, perhaps we can expand our focus and efforts on training employers to resist perpetuating racist tactics in their organizations, hold them accountable to hire people from the communities where they are located, and then document the impacts of these efforts on job access and retention for young people and adults. The scope of this kind of research requires a shift in our current approaches and existing methods, but I believe it is worth exploring.

As the examples above show, housing and employment are racial justice issues. Similarly, many of the systemic issues we aim to address in the out-of-school time (OST) field are also racial justice issues. For example, we are interested in recruiting and retaining a diverse and skilled workforce. I wonder if and how recruitment efforts, retention rates, and program quality overall would improve if each worker earned a full-time salary, healthcare, and benefits. I wonder how youth's sense of inclusion and belonging in these programs is affected when programs are staffed by the families and neighbors of the youth participating in them. And I wonder if the overall quality of the programs would increase if we prioritized funding organizations led by these families and neighbors.

Based on what I know about the ingenuity and stamina of the OST workforce and grassroots community organizations, I am sure that these types of initiatives that I imagine do exist. But can we as research entities elevate, validate, and document the successes of interventions aimed at structural change?

The examples above are the types of questions that have taken root in my mind, and that I’d like to explore. They are complex and come with no easy answers. But seeking answers could give us valuable insights into improving the lives of youth, particularly youth who are systematically marginalized and harmed by a white supremacist system.

As I reflect on the year behind us and the year ahead of us, I think of something Layli Maparyan, WCW’s executive director, said to me recently: We can imagine what is possible through our work. In fact, imagining possibilities for a better future is one of my favorite parts of listening to young people and the adults who support them. They remind me that we need to think bigger, not smaller, and shift the narrative about what it means to do research. Only then can we incorporate racial justice into research in a meaningful way.


Lisette M. DeSouza, Ph.D., is an associate research scientist working with scholars at the National Institute on Out-of-School Time and at the Wellesley Centers for Women. She takes an intersectional approach to the positive development of systematically marginalized youth, with the goal of youth- and community-initiated social change. Lisette is grateful to her collaborators at WCW and in MA 21CCLC, Mimi Arbeit, Kamilah Drummond-Forrester, James Jennings, Kirshby Osias, Julie Parker and Elise Harris Wilkerson, for sharpening her communication about and focus on social justice.

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A Week to Appreciate Afterschool Professionals – April 24-28

It’s Afterschool Professionals Appreciation Week! Perhaps we should back up - what is an Afterschool Professional? Maybe you call them staff, teachers, or care providers. There are many names for the same thing – someone trained to work with youth during out-of-school time.

This week is a chance to recognize the “professional” in Afterschool Professionals. We know that afterschool matters for kids, and that afterschool professionals impact the quality of that programming. Some fun facts:

  • Participation in afterschool programs consistently increased from 2004 to 2014, rising by nearly 2 million children from 2009 to 2014 alone. In 2014, 10.2 million children (18%) participated in an afterschool program.
  • Regular participation in afterschool programs has been shown to help narrow the achievement gap between high- and low-income students in math, improve academic and behavioral outcomes, and reduce school absences.
  • The Afterschool field has defined what it takes to provide quality afterschool programming. The National AfterSchool Association (NAA) has adopted a set of Core Knowledge and Competencies, and at least 24 states have their own versions.
  • Afterschool Professionals are well-educated. A recent NAA survey of its members found that 34% of staff surveyed reported having a Masters or Doctorate degree.

And some less fun facts:

  • Less than half of afterschool professionals surveyed have access to health insurance and 39% do not have any benefits (such as insurance, paid vacation, sick leave, retirement savings).
  • The field suffers from high turnover (with some estimates up to 40% annually), with pay cited as the number one reason people leave their job.

So how can you show your appreciation? The actions of this week should be twofold. First, express your individual appreciation for those in your community who work with youth – maybe your own children - afterschool. Give them a card with words of heartfelt thanks, bake them some muffins, say thanks. But don’t stop there. Second, take some time to appreciate the incredible contribution of afterschool professionals in improving youth academic, behavioral, and social emotional outcomes. Given the proposed budget cuts of the current administration, it seems an opportune time to also suggest you contact your representatives and let them know how much you support afterschool professionals (the Afterschool Alliance also has information to guide you).

This week is a chance to both thank Afterschool Professionals for keeping our kids safe and happy, and to think bigger about what it takes to be an afterschool professional and the huge positive impact they have on the lives of youth. So, to all the Afterschool Professionals, thank you!

Betsy Starr, M.Ed. is a research associate at the National Institute on Out-of-School Time (NIOST) at the Wellesley Centers for Women. Her work focuses on professional development and system-building for the field of afterschool and youth development.

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Views expressed on the Women Change Worlds blog are those of the authors and do not represent the views of the Wellesley Centers for Women or Wellesley College nor have they been authorized or endorsed by Wellesley College.

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