Thinking Outside the Girl Box: Teaming Up with Resilient Youth in Appalachia
reviewed by Claire Bischoff - May 08, 2015
Title: Thinking Outside the Girl Box: Teaming Up with Resilient Youth in Appalachia
Author(s): Linda Spatig & Layne Amerikaner
Publisher: Ohio State University Press, Columbus
ISBN: 0821420607, Pages: 224, Year: 2014
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Thinking Outside the Girl Box: Teaming Up with Resilient Youth in Appalachia is what mother and daughter co-authors Linda Spatig and Layne Amerikaner call "a love story" (p. ix) about the Girls' Resiliency Program (GRP), a successful yet now defunct youth empowerment program for girls living in rural West Virginia. Started in 1999, the GRP aimed at "helping girls identify strengths, become active decision makers, and advocate for social change" (p. 1). The girls-only nature of the group created a space within which the girls could come to voice and ultimately expand their visions for their futures beyond the "girl boxes," or limiting narratives of girlhood, that they often encountered in their economically depressed community.
The story of the GRP and the way it is told by Spatig and Amerikaner is distinctive, in that the findings of the collaborative ethnographic project (undertaken by Spatig and other researchers from a local university in cooperation with the staff and participants of the GRP) is narrated in an accessible, character-driven accessible manner. Each chapter begins with the portrait of a person who had a large stake in this ethnographic study of the GRPfrom the GRP founder, to the girl participants whose lives were forever altered by their experiences, to graduate student research assistants who had to balance the roles of researcher and confidantand then builds critical theory out of the experiences of these people. The result is a compelling story that invites the reader into the lives of remarkable young women and the adults who care about them, compelling us to set aside any stereotypes we may have about girls growing up poor in Appalachia. It also challenges us to think anew about how we understand community, development, and research.
At the heart of this story is the conviction that "youth development work comes down to people" (p. xi), a principle that informs the research methodology and writing of the project. Chapter by chapter we see how what happened in the GRP, from its remarkable growth to its heart-breaking demise, relates directly to the enabling and constraining actions of the actual people who took part in it. The story of Ric, a VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) volunteer who moved to the area as an outsider but who has remained for over forty years working to improve the lives of youth, illustrates that positive youth development work necessarily involves people who are committed to youth and their particular place in the world for the long-haul. Further, the girls' relationships with Shelley Gaines, the GRP's visionary and first director, demonstrate how relationships built on trust, high expectations, support, and unconditional love can function as "home places" for youth (p. 45). More than anything, it is the relationships of mutuality and respect into which the girls were apprenticed by the adult staff and then developed among themselves that made a difference in their lives.
By carefully and compassionately attending to what happened in the rise, fall, and aftermath of the GRP, Spatig and Amerikaner provide a vision of what is possible in youth development work. In contrast to programs for at risk youth, the GRP demonstrates the feasibility of the principle of positive youth development work: youth are resilient and capable of dealing with their own challenges. Further, Spatig and Amerikaner's study of the GRP suggests methods by which positive youth development work can be accomplished. The girls were given ample time to talk about their experiences with each other and the adults who staffed the program, conversations through which they discovered the power of their own voices. They were also involved in challenging activities such as rafting and hiking; artistic projects, such as publishing poetry and recording a CD; and community service and political action, such as building houses and protesting school consolidationall of which were designed to nurture a sense of agency and accomplishment. By raising the bar and giving the girls the proper support to meet these heightened expectations, the GRP empowered its participants to greatly expand the disempowering "girl boxes" presented to them by family, peers, the community, and media.
Even more radical than the principle of positive youth development work demonstrated by the GRP is the conclusion of Spatig and Amerikaner that "collaborative research and performance can themselves be forms of positive youth development" (p. 172). What began as Spatig's evaluation research of the GRP developed into a full-fledged collaborative ethnographic study, in which the girls and staff of the GRP were involved in everything from developing research questions to presenting research findings at the local university where Spatig was employed. Speaking onstage about their experience to a responsive audience allowed the girls to experience how their voices mattered.
Thinking Outside the Girl Box also makes a strong case for long-term, qualitative research as an evaluation strategy for youth development work, at a time when there is a strong push for quantitative evaluation of youth programs, since this is what tends to garner funding. Spatig and Amerikaner's qualitative and collaborative work contributes to the still evolving field of positive youth development (PYD) by offering a thick description of how the GRP promoted the C's of PYD (competency, confidence, connection, character, compassion, and contribution to community) in the lives of its participants (p. 35). Further, by centering on what this program meant to the girls who participated, Spatig and Amerikaner challenge the notion that a program's effectiveness should be measured by the markers of sustainability and replicability and suggest that success is a complicated and contextual concept that cannot be fully determined by surveys meant to quantify outcomes. Despite the challenges of doing collaborative qualitative research, Spatig and Amerikaner demonstrate that collaborative ethnography is a useful evaluative tool for youth development.
Finally, Thinking Outside the Girl Box is an excellent example of academic writing that can appeal to a broad audience. As Spatig and Amerikaner make clear, writing this book was an experiment in voice, and they do not shy away from acknowledging the tensions and challenges that inhere with telling the story in a way that can be recognized as real and true not just by the university researchers involved in studying the GRP, but also by the program staff and girls of the GRP. The potential audience for this book is wide reaching, from academics interested in youth development or models of collaborative ethnography to practitioners in the field of youth development. It will also be of interest more broadly to those in gender and Appalachian studies, as it not only addresses stereotypes about girls and residents of Appalachia, but also provides an example of how to help us all think outside the boxes that limit our imaginations when it comes to supporting girls' empowerment in rural areas.