Youth activism is on the rise, especially over the last 18 months during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now more than ever, youth are getting involved in their communities, spurring meaningful change on issues from social justice to the climate.
This is true for the Charlottesville community too. Now finishing its second year, the Youth Action Lab (YAL) was inspired by the passion and impact of youth activists advancing equity in their communities. Members of Youth-Nex and the Equity Center saw the work of local youth and youth activists across the country and wanted to offer University resources to support those efforts.
Postdoctoral Research Associate Kimalee Dickerson has been leading YAL since receiving her Ph.D. from UVA in Educational Psychology-Applied Developmental Science. We sat down with Dickerson to learn more about YAL and her research.
Question: How is the Youth Action Lab unique compared to other youth-serving organizations?
Dickerson: The YAL initiative brings in a research component. It was designed to help young people develop social science research skills to transform their lives and communities. YAL uses a Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) curriculum to train and support youth as they conduct research and take action on social issues they care about. There are also many inspiring organizations, educators, and initiatives that have been using YPAR with youth for years, and we wanted to develop a similar opportunity in the Charlottesville area. YAL partners with educators and youth organizations to provide lessons facilitated by a team of UVA students who serve as mentors for the youth—in other words, youth mentoring youth. In developing YAL, I also wanted to provide UVA students a meaningful community engagement experience where they are able to explore community assets and issues along with dynamics of power, privilege, and personal identity with youth.
Question: What makes the work of YAL different from other research with young people?
Dickerson: Traditional social science research involves young people as research subjects whose role is to provide data to adult researchers. YAL and YPAR are different because youth are the researchers. As researchers, young people share power with adults and make key decisions throughout the research process. YAL centers youth in every aspect of research from selecting the research topic and questions to sharing research findings and deciding what action to take.
Question: What are your hopes for the future work of YAL and where do you see YAL going?
Dickerson: I hope that YAL continues to grow and is able to serve more educators and youth organizations. I have received positive feedback from the youth and UVA students involved in YAL who were able to develop relationships with each other, build research skills, and feel more empowered about their ability to change their communities. In addition to supporting more local youth, I hope YAL is able to expand its reach in the future to build partnerships beyond our local area.
Question: How has YAL fit into your research interests and professional goals?
Dickerson: During the last two years, the primary focus of my postdoctoral research assistant position has been taking YAL from an idea to launch and implementation. I have been fortunate to work and build relationships with amazing community partners, youth, colleagues, and UVA students dedicated to using research to take action that improves our schools and community. I’ve also had the opportunity to develop and deliver curriculum, manage and grow an educational initiative, and expand my knowledge and practical experience with YPAR and community-based participatory research. Ultimately, my research interests and professional goals center on advancing equity. YAL has allowed me to further those goals in my hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia.
Dr. Dickerson earned her Ph.D in education from the University of Virginia and her JD from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. This fall, she will be joining the UNC School of Government as an Assistant Professor.
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.