Youth, empowerment, and social change

May 05, 2013

By , Associate Professor of Psychology 

Associate Professor Regina Langhout

I engage in participatory action research (PAR), which is a model of research where community members and university-based researchers work collaboratively at all stages in the research process. Together, we identify an issue to explore, research it, discern an action to take, implement that action and evaluate its outcome. The ultimate goal of this process is the democratization of knowledge.

Within the PAR cycle, I study the process of empowerment. Empowerment simply means people having control over the psychological and material resources that affect their lives. An important psychological resource is a narrative, or the stories that are told about a group within a community. Community narratives can be a source of strength (“We’ve done it before, and we can do it again!”), or can serve to curtail possibilities for the future (“People like you/us don’t go to college.”).

With respect to empowerment and control of narratives, I am most interested in collaborating with groups that we (as a society) have decided should not have a say in how things work. One example of this is children. Consider the saying,  “Children should be seen and not heard” as evidence of this dominant narrative. I’m fascinated by how communities can remember, hold, and celebrate alternative narratives about themselves that are grounded in their agency and histories of social action.

An example of a PAR project that focused on community narratives as a form of empowerment is a collaboration between my research group (the Community Psychology Research & Action Team) and 4th and 5th grade students in the Change 4 Good after-school program at Live Oak Elementary School. The students created a mural to visually demonstrate and make public community stories. The students also (with our help) created a documentary film about their mural-making process for their mural entitled, “Live Oak Stories,” which you can watch here:

Selected articles about youth participatory action research and/or youth as change agents:

Kohfeldt, D.M., & Langhout, R.D. (2012). The 5 whys: A tool for defining problems in yPAR. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 22, 316-329.

Langhout, R.D. (2011). Facilitating the development of social change agents. Human Development, 54, 339-342.

Langhout, R.D., Kohfeldt, D.M., & Ellison, E.R. (2011). How we became the Schmams: Conceptualizations of fairness in the decision-making process for Latina/o children in a participatory action research program. American Journal of Community Psychology, 48, 296-308.

Silva, J.M. & Langhout, R.D. (2011). Cultivating agents of change in children: An ethnographic analysis. Theory and Research in Social Education, 39, 61-91.

Langhout, R.D., & Thomas, E. (2010). Imagining participatory action research in collaboration with children: An introduction. American Journal of Community Psychology, 46, 60-66.

Ren, J., & Langhout, R.D. (2010). A recess evaluation with the players. American Journal of Community Psychology, 46, 124-148.

Dworski-Riggs, D., & Langhout, R.D. (2010). Elucidating the power in empowerment and the participation in participatory action research: A story about research team and elementary school change. American Journal of Community Psychology, 45(3), 215-230.

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