The 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.