This blog post, written by Dr. Kevin Burke of the University of Georgia’s College of Education, is the seventh in an ongoing series, 10 Years Deep, that celebrates the evolution and growth of Deep Center’s programs in our first decade. 

(Read all posts in the 10 Years Deep series here.)

On October 8th, 2019, Deep Center released our first-ever policy brief with recommendations for the public school system, the courts, and law enforcement. We grounded our recommendations in several strands of community-based research, a core strand of which is called “youth participatory action research” (YPAR). To conduct our YPAR, the five members of Deep’s Action Research Team (ART) collaborated with Deep staff and expert researchers from the University of Georgia’s College of Education and Missouri State University. Dr. Kevin Burke of the University of Georgia drafted a report summarizing the findings of our YPAR, entitled “‘Savannah Is Covered by a Beautiful Wallpaper, but Behind It Hide Skeletons’: Summary Report on Youth-led Research into Chatham County’s Supports and Barriers for Young People” (available upon request from Deep Center). In this guest blog post, Dr. Burke shares his experience working with Deep’s passionate young people over the past year.

We Could All Be Elsewhere, but We’re Here with Deep

I’m sitting in the back of a mini-tour bus, jangling over potholes and surrounded by kids ablaze with fervor and fury. It’s mid-April, the streets are sun-dappled, and as the morning has shifted into early afternoon, we’ve all stuffed our long-sleeved shirts into backpacks to keep pace with the rising spring warmth. It’s a Saturday; we could all be elsewhere, but instead we’re here with Deep, and each other. 

Dr. Kevin Burke. Photo by Laura Mulder

We’re headed back after a trip through layers of history, brought to a fine point in one of the many segregated cemeteries that dot the landscape. Two rows in front of me, youth work—across aisles, over headrests, above the din of the engine—to make sense of the hydra head of racial injustice, and together wonder aloud how to think about what it means to be black and brown in a system that seeks to make one’s existence a crime. 

“You don’t want to let it control your life.”

“Being mad can hold you back.”

“It’s gotta be righteous anger.”

“You publish the book to make people more aware.” 

The following day, I catch youth I’ve come to know over the course of our three years of regular visits to Savannah for quick interviews in the midst of a busy day of structured community conversations around justice, healing, and systems change. I wonder with them—in between moments of intergenerational conversations about structural inequity in the city—about what keeps them coming, what allows them to speak without, as one adult muses, “asking for permission,” and how they came to view themselves as experts.

“People in Deep are good at listening.”

“They believed in me.”

“They’re conditioning us to have conversations like this.”

“We’re a community, and we’re not going to hurt you.”

“Deep gives you space.”

“Deep allows us to be ourselves.”

“It’s about the process.”

At the end of the session, after gathering up stray Post-it notes and waiting with the teaching artists until all youth have found their way out of the library and back into the other spaces of their lives, we pack up and spend the next four hours in the car back to Athens ablaze. We pull at threads to tease out the story of Savannah that needs to be told, so that educational researchers, teachers, candidates, and policymakers might find a different model for listening well to youth—so that we all might figure out how to honor the expertise most often overlooked in the rooms we’re often in.

Photo by Laura Mulder

Three Questions

For the past three years, I have been a part of a team of researchers from the University of Georgia and Missouri State University engaging with Deep Center around three particular questions: 

  1. How can we utilize Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) to help shift public policy in meaningful ways?
  2. In what ways are multiple affordances of art access points for engaging youth in meaningful conversations about what they value?
  3. What are lessons about community-based research that might be learned from an organization that takes youth creative capacity seriously?

Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) is a process rooted in critical and activist research traditions that prioritizes the local and particularized knowledge of experiences of youth. (For more on how YPAR manifests at Deep Center, read Community Engagement Coordinator Raphael Eissa’s blog post, Our Stories Are the Evidence.) YPAR also works explicitly to train youth in research methods so that they can advocate for changes that emerge in the process of generating the data. So when youth narrate their experiences through a sense of injustice in relation to disciplinary processes embedded in a school system, the work of the research is to get the youth researchers in conversation with those with the institutional power to make change for the better. This process is often most difficult when it comes to the big ask for the adults in power: will you take the work of youth, as they advocate for what they need, seriously? To be clear: Deep initially contacted us for help in thinking about how to do YPAR. Most of our early communication was in asserting, as loudly and as often as we could: you’re already doing it, and much more effectively than anywhere else we’ve seen.

Photo by Laura Mulder

Over the course of three years, Dr. Heidi Hadley of Missouri State University and William Wright of the University of Georgia have each served as vital co-researchers, initially of Deep itself, and then as co-researchers with youth into the systems in Savannah that inhibit the thriving of young people, specifically marginalized young people. Though we began by studying what Deep did well in their work of bringing multiple literacy programs to young people, we soon shifted into thinking with Deep youth about how to train other kids in Savannah in YPAR methods. 

Working with ART

This past year, we worked closely with the Action Research Team (ART)—Chris, Hennessys, Rush, Nick, and Roni—and their adult co-researchers, Raphael and Megan, to think about what it means to help other youth to assert their expertise in the stories of their communities through research. This has meant training, in various capacities, over 30 youth—aged 14-19—in multiple qualitative methodologies. In YPAR, the process is part of the product, just as the people are also in process. Not only did ART produce a profound policy brief in concert with the adults at Deep, but they also helped produce a large team of youth researchers who are now ready to advocate for community change through the photographs, surveys, narratives, and interviews they have collected, coded, and analyzed together over the last few months. 

We were fellow travelers in this work, witnesses to the righteous anger of the youth and the systems that hold them back and witnesses to the process by which they came to know that their data mattered. We hope to stick around for a few more years to see the changes those data points might unleash, imagining how the community of Deep that won’t hurt kids might expand to the community of Savannah-Chatham County that can make the same commitment.