Caitlin Cahill: Growing Up in Salt Lake City

Growing Up in Salt Lake City is part of an international collaboration with UNESCO’s Growing Up In Cities project. The project has actively engaged young people in community evaluation, action and change in low income communities in over fifty sites around the world. As UNESCO chair David Driskell explains: “The project is widely recognized as one of the most significant international initiatives for engaging children and youth in action research for community change, resulting in improvements to local communities as well as a wide range of publications and presentations that have helped inform and strengthen participatory practice with young people.”

In a participatory action research process, young people are re-positioned as coresearchers as they frame the questions to be investigated, as they document and analyze conditions in their local areas, identify priority issues affecting young people, and develop and implement action plans to create youth-friendly cities. In addition to developing a growing global database on young people’s perspectives on cities and their ability to create change, the Growing Up in Cities project has also led to many substantive changes in local communities. Because young people determine the focus of the projects, outcomes have varied widely, from local physical changes (such as initiating green spaces or skate parks) to larger scale policy and program initiatives (such as municipal youth policies) (Driskell, 2006; Chawla et al., 2005).

Salt Lake City (SLC) promises to be an extremely interesting and unique site to study. On the one hand, it is clearly quite challenging for young people to grow up in Utah, which boasts one of the highest youth suicide rates in the nation (see Utah Department of Health website). On the other hand, Utah also ranks quite high on the social capital index, a measure of the strength of community foundation (Putnam, 2000), which would seem to suggest that SLC would be a positive place to grow up for young people. There is, in fact, very little research about young people growing up in SLC and even less focused upon young people’s own concerns. This project will address this lack of information while at the same time involving young people as agents of change in researching their own communities. The objective is not only to learn more about young people’s concerns about their social and environmental contexts, but also to improve urban conditions for young people and influence municipal policy.

There are three stages to the project: research, action and dissemination. Key to the long term success of the project will be the involvement of community partners and youth representatives in determining program goals and priorities. The Growing Up in Salt Lake City project is conceptualized as a collaborative project at every level. To begin with I am currently assembling an advisory board of practitioners from youth organizations, the mayor’s office, academic youth researchers, and young people who will guide the project and advocate for the youth research concerns.

Growing Up in Salt Lake City will be implemented starting in 2006. The research will be conducted starting in the Fall 2006 and the action projects will be developed starting in Spring 2007. It is anticipated that project presentations will continue through 2008 in the form of presentations at conferences, community centers, community & city council meetings, schools, and documentary festivals.

The goals of the project are as follows: to facilitate youth civic engagement; to demonstrate young people’s capacity to be constructive agents of change in their communities and to participate in the decisions that affect their lives; to contribute towards creating the conditions for youth involvement in governance through raising awareness of UNICEF’s Child Friendly Cities initiative with project partners, CBOs, and municipal decision-makers. Generally, the project’s goal is to include the excluded–at the heart of participatory action research (PAR) lies “the understanding that people–especially those who have experienced historic oppression-hold deep knowledge about their lives and experiences, and should help shape the questions, frame the interpretations and style the research products that ultimately effect them most intimately” (Torre & Fine, 2005). By engaging young people whose voices are too often marginalized from the public sphere, this project will provide an ‘opening’ for troubling the status quo and pushing scholarship in new directions by asking new questions and questioning old assumptions. Because theory is developed from within the PAR process as opposed to being framed by the concerns of youth practitioners or the literature, there are more opportunities for challenging accepted points of view and dominant social constructions of youth.

Significantly and problematically, the research about young people too often conceptualizes young people as separate from their communities. They are either constructed as innocent children who need to be saved from dangerous communities– this is particularly true in the literature on urban working class youth and youth of color. Or youth are constructed as being a danger to their community. In both cases young people are often assumed to be “at risk” aka in need of reform in order to become productive citizens who will give back to their community instead of dropping out of high school, becoming pregnant, doing drugs etc. The focus in the literature upon youth behavior loses sight of structural constraints. What’s missing is the understanding of young people as part of communities; a transactional perspective in which youth development = community development, which is the emphasis of this project.

A youth perspective is necessary because quite literally ‘the youth are our future,’ as the cliché goes, and young people are under increasing pressure to adapt to the requirements of the new economy. In short, the project provides an opportunity to consider what we can learn from young people about our communities. In turn, the research process will provide an opportunity to develop young people’s skills in research, collective decision-making, community organizing, and action. Project evaluation will consider the personal impact of the project on the youth involved, the impact of the project within community organizations, and the impacts the youth have made on their communities, and on municipal policies. Project participants (youth and community partners) will be involved in evaluating the process and outcomes of the project on an ongoing basis. For the organizations involved, the project will not only extend their programming, but also give them insight into the challenges and opportunities in the everyday lives of the young people they serve.

In conjunction with the Growing Up in Salt Lake City research project, I am developing an interdisciplinary service learning course “Youth Participation in a Globalizing World” for Spring 2007. In this class, students will have the opportunity to analyze the youth data across the two sites in Salt Lake City, to help the youth develop/present their action proposals, and advocate for youth’s proposals for change. As the course will focus upon the theory and practice of youth participatory projects from around the world, the students’ research will allow them to understand the experiences of young people in Salt Lake City, UT in comparison to youth around the world. Special attention will be given to understanding youth development in social, political, and economic contexts.