Reflections from McCreary’s Youth Research Academy
Reprinted from the "Youth Facing Health Inequities" issue of Visions Journal, 2020, 15 (3), pp. 33-35
The Youth Research Academy (YRA) is a group of youth aged 16 to 24, with experience living in government care (including foster care). Members are hired as youth researchers for the McCreary Centre Society, a not-for-profit research organization based in Vancouver, which conducts research on youth health issues.
The role of the YRA is to assist with research projects of interest to youth in and from government care, and the agencies that serve them. We are trained in community-based research methods, and we learn general workplace skills. The YRA is a cohort-based model, with each cohort consisting of between six and eight youth, and we are typically hired for about nine months. So far, there have been four cohorts of the YRA. The authors are members of the fourth and current cohort.
“Research is a field typically populated by university students and graduates. For youth facing multiple barriers, there are very few opportunities to be included. But youth are experts in their own lives and their lived experience is invaluable to researchers. Without youth perspectives, researchers may not know what they should be researching.”
The YRA has worked on a number of projects over the past seven months. For example, a naturalistic observation day looked at the recycling habits of people at a popular summer event, and members have learned how to use software to analyze data from over 38,000 surveys completed by high-school students in BC.
“I love research so much and always have, but I never, ever thought I’d get to do it as a job. For the first time in my life, I feel like I’m actually living—and all I had to commit was my time. I have been shown that I have a voice, and that my voice matters. Moreover, I now feel that not only should I speak up but I also owe it to all my fellow youth from care to do the best I can for us.”
The YRA has used the data to look at helmet use, dating violence among LGBTQ2S+ youth, substance use and the effect that having a pet has on youth. They also conducted a literature review focused on engaging youth who use substances and experience multiple barriers in meaningful decision making. This literature review is now being used to inform their current data analysis on supporting youth who use opioids.
“I think that genuinely inclusive, low-to-no-barrier jobs are imperative for marginalized youth in order for them to obtain and maintain meaningful employment. I know that for me, I can now see a future for myself, where I couldn’t before. It’s amazing to be able to say that I come in to work because I want to, out of my own motivation and passion for what we’re doing.”
“Giving youth the opportunity to conduct research about youth not only provides those youth with more career opportunities and important skills and knowledge but it can also get other youth more interested in studies and research. In my experience, being employed as a researcher gives me a feeling of real responsibility and purpose—knowing that what I’m doing matters, that I’m involved in creating real change. I think that’s something that youth desperately need, especially in the current social and political climate.”
This cohort has also worked hard to collaboratively create a series of workshops to teach healthy relationship skills for LGBTQ2S+ youth. Informed by YRA research and knowledge of what LGBTQ2S+ youth don’t often get from mainstream sex education, this curriculum is designed to address the unique needs and difficulties that LGBTQ2S+ youth face today. YRA members’ contributions and consultation are shaping the curriculum into something that Genders and Sexualities Alliance (GSA) groups and LGBTQ2S+ groups across the province will be able to access.
“Youth-led research teams provide key insights into the lives of other youth, especially youth facing [social and educational] barriers. A youth researcher can provide context for an issue that an adult, especially a more (or differently) privileged adult, may not be able to provide. Knowing that a study about a marginalized group of youth was conducted by people who have had similar experiences makes the study more authentic, relevant and trustworthy to me. As a transgender youth, I tend not to trust studies on transgender/non-binary/gender-variant youth if they are conducted by cisgender adults.”
Overall, youth are able to provide a clearer perspective on what other youth will understand, and know which areas are better to focus on. A youth-led project about youth is more likely to be a move in the right direction and focus on relevant issues. When the content and the context are better understood, the findings are more accurate. Youth are also more likely to be open and honest with other youth researchers; adults can be intimidating at times. Being involved in the research process can also give youth skills they need for future jobs or post-secondary opportunities.
Tips for engaging youth
The Youth Research Academy has several recommendations for organizations that would like to engage youth who face barriers:
- Set meetings at times that are convenient for youth, such as in the afternoon or evening
- A more casual work environment would make youth more comfortable. Often, office-appropriate attire is expensive and uncomfortable for many youth
- Washrooms can be difficult places for youth, especially LGBTQ2S+ youth. Having private, single-stall washrooms is ideal. When this is not possible, having gender-neutral washrooms helps
- Consider providing an honorarium for the time and work you’re asking youth to give
- Providing food and bus tickets would also make it easier for youth to participate
- Marginalized youth are often excluded from opportunities like youth councils. If you want them to participate, make sure they know they are welcome and that their opinions matter to the organization
- Youth who face multiple barriers may not always have access to a computer or a phone. Consider advertising the opportunity by putting up posters in the community and in places where youth gather, such as parks, libraries, youth centres, youth clinics, counsellors’ offices and alternative schools