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“Slowly by Slowly”: Youth Participatory Action Research in Contexts of Displacement

by Michelle J. Bellino, Vidur Chopra & Nikhit D'sa

Background/Context: Despite substantial evidence documenting the benefits of communities’ involvement in the decisions that affect their lives, much humanitarian action in settings of displacement continues to be driven by the interests and funding streams of donors and international agencies. These dynamics particularly marginalize youth, who fall between interventions designed for children and opportunities for voice and agency that are reserved for adults. As youth-centered approaches have proliferated across diverse fields, pointing to the important insights gleaned from positioning young people as experts on their own lives, we rarely have a sense of how young people were included in the research or planning processes or the extent to which these processes reflect issues that local youth populations consider meaningful and relevant to their everyday lives. Youth participatory action research (YPAR) aims to redress the limitations of traditional approaches, recognizing youth as co-researchers with the agency in shaping the inquiry process, positioning them as both knowledge producers and agents of social justice beyond the research context.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: Youth agency is central to YPAR, but interpretations and enactments of this agency are often implicitly bounded by nation-state constructs of legality and citizenship. How do we apply this approach in contexts where youth populations lack legal citizenship status and experience habitual threats to spatial movement, freedom of expression, and social belonging? In this paper, we explore how youth locate openings to enact the agency that YPAR assumes of them and the dilemmas that emerge as they aspire to address local challenges and contribute to the common good in contexts of forced displacement.

Research Design: We examine these questions in the context of YPAR collaborations we carried out with displaced youth living in refugee camps and urban settlements in three country contexts: Burundi, Jordan, and Kenya. We approached YPAR collaborations with distinct research methods, positionalities, and timelines, and varying levels of resources and institutional support. In each case, by granting youth agency as co-researchers, we implicitly and explicitly raised questions about how young people come to understand the limits of their rights and agency when forcibly displaced by conflict.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Across the three collaborations detailed in this text, we underscore the ways that YPAR became a novel, and at times a radical, form of democratic citizenship education for a youth population traditionally positioned as passive recipients of both school curriculum and humanitarian aid. Notwithstanding significant challenges, we point to ways that this approach “slowly by slowly” created openings for young people to claim their rights and organize toward changes. It underscores the empowering potential of developing young people’s civic capacity and instilling their rights to understand and interact with their communities in exile.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 123 Number 11, 2021, p. - ID Number: 23885, Date Accessed: 1/28/2022 12:31:59 PM

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