Youth-Nex Faculty Profile: 5 Questions with Prof. Smith

By: Leslie M. Booren

Chauncey Smith, an assistant professor at the UVA School of Education and Human Development, discusses his approach to youth development and innovation and his work to understand youth’s sociopolitical development.

Chauncey Smith has always been interested in race and youth development across contexts. When he found the UVA School of Education and Human Development’s Youth and Social Innovation (YSI) program, he appreciated how it bridged across multiple disciplines and contexts.

“I remember feeling like this program was for me,” said Smith.

In addition to his work with the YSI program, Smith also conducts research with Youth-Nex, the UVA Center to Promote Effective Youth Development. Both merge multiple disciplines, aligning well with his research and approach to doing youth development work after finishing his Ph.D. at the University of Michigan. But what does it mean to be multi-disciplinary?

“I think about school, home, community, the self, policy…” explained Smith. “I think about innovation as a context. Across these spheres, I’m examining the ways that youth grow and develop, mainly on the social side.”

To learn more about Smith’s approach to youth development and innovation, we sat down with him and asked five questions.

Q: How has innovation played a role in the work you are interested in?

A: My work examines the negotiations of social justice at the intersection of race, gender, and class within schools and communities. The social innovation part of this is youth’s imagination about creating a better world. Reimagining community values and centering them on youth needs. How do youth innovate around imagining a better environment, like in school? School is a context that is important to youth and where they spend most of their time. In some of my research, I am working with youth to identify problems, imagine a new reality for school, and then helping them to develop a voice around that.

Q: What are some of the areas of youth development you are most interested in?

A: Some of my work over the last 8 years has examined youth’s sociopolitical development or SPD. I’m thinking about the ways in which youth understand and critique issues in their environment and how that then translates to their action. I focus on how youth understand the role of power or oppression in their environment and, most importantly, in their daily lived experiences. The idea is that I am examining the ways that youth develop their voice around the oppression they see and then act in an effort to make changes to their environment. 

Q: What are some ways that youth are developing their sociopolitical perspectives?

A: From a classic perspective, many will think about civic engagement with activities like voting behaviors, writing letters to representatives—these are all ways to advocate or work within the system. From another perspective, there are ways to work outside the system such as protesting and other forms of activism. First, youth are consuming and making meaning of images, videos, media reports and many different opinions on political manners through social media and other outlets. They are co-constructing perspectives and learning more together, and in some cases organizing into action.

A big piece of the work for us as adults is supporting youth as they move from thinking “there needs to be change” to “I think I can make a change.”

Q: What is one of the most important factors in youth’s sociopolitical development or SPD?

A: Quite simply, it’s the ways we support youth. We need to support youth in their thinking about, believing in, and making a change in their environment. These statements sound lofty, but let’s break it down. In terms of “support,” supporting youth as they question and challenge oppression in their environment may involve some handholding and facilitating. Alternatively, support may look like making sure youth have the space and resources to organize and then getting out of their way so they can innovate. A combination of these two approaches to support is the healthiest. And in terms of “making change,” this depends on youths’ perceived capacities and the needs they see in a given environment. Also, remember, youth under the age of 18 are not able to vote so they exercise their voice differently in political spheres. So, they often put forth a different type of effort when they decide to take up the project of making the changes they want to see.

Q: What is the impact of this work?

A: When we say we care and want to genuinely engage youth in the conversation, we need to do that in meaningful ways. From the research side, my hope is that other scholars are reading the qualitative work and taking it seriously – not just because it is what I do, but because it attends to youth’s stories. I hope these stories impact the ways researchers approach measurement and analysis. From the youth worker and parent side, I hope more adults listen to youth, and take the time to hear and understand their stories. Listening is key and needs to be in the toolkit for every adult working with youth.

Smith teaches courses on Adolescent Development (EDLF 3170), Race, Ethnicity, and Diversity in Youth Development (EDLF 5700), and Youth Sociopolitical Development (EDHS 5400) in the School of Education and Human Development. Smith is also a faculty affiliate at the Center for Race & Public Education in the South (CRPES).

Youth-Nex was founded in 2009 to expand and apply the science of positive youth development to address fundamental challenges facing societies around the world. Through science and community partnerships, Youth-Nex enhances the strengths of children and adolescents and prevents developmental risk. Our vision is that our nation’s youth - a rich, often untapped resource - may flourish.