The Good You All Are Doing
Youth Action Research Sparks Community Dialogue in Lower Roxbury
By Elizabeth McColloch
Youth who know how to ask the right questions of their community have the power to make a positive difference in the city. With knowledge of their community’s history and some innovative thinking, young people from the Lower Roxbury area of Boston are contributing to the growing conversation and action around Boston’s housing and development crisis. The 2019 Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) project connected young people from the Lenox/Camden neighborhood with mentors to foster neighborhood unity in the face of gentrification and its local impacts.
Unlike many nearby neighborhoods, the Lenox/Camden neighborhood of Boston struggles to build cohesive activism. The many housing developments in the area are each run by different management companies. Furthermore, the Lenox/Camden neighborhood has no common space to bring people across housing developments together. There is no neighborhood association for the area, as the housing developments mainly focus on serving their residents.
Thus, collaboration—and even communication—between businesses, individuals, and groups in the neighborhood poses a severe challenge. To face this challenge, the youth of the 2019 YPAR project focused their research on building neighborhood unity by learning from senior citizens about this community’s past.
About Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR)
Since 2017, EGC’s Boston Education Collaborative (BEC) has worked with Lenox/Camden area organizations to oversee Youth-led Participatory Action Research (YPAR) projects. According to YPAR Hub, the YPAR model is “a cyclical process of learning and action. Research is done not just for the sake of it but to inform solutions to problems that young people themselves care about.” The project model empowers youth to develop “skills in inquiry, evidence, and presentation” to become “agents of positive change.”
The 2019 YPAR project, called “Learning from the Past to Build a Stronger Future” project, the team focused on learning from senior citizens in the community. The project was the brainchild of the late Brent Henry, a beloved community leader who passed away suddenly in April.
In 2012, Henry co-founded Vibrant Boston, a drop-in after school program intended to provide community and support to children and youth to pursue their unique dreams. Through Vibrant Boston, he served and loved students and families selflessly and wholeheartedly for many years. He was a mentor, father-figure, and positive role model to the children and youth involved with Vibrant Boston.
For the YPAR projects, Henry collaborated with the BEC, who added research support, resources and project oversight, and Crosstown Church, who provided a facilitator and other project needs. Vibrant Boston recruited local youth and community participants for the project.
The local partnering organizations are all connected through the Melnea Cass Network, a collaboration that began in 2016 with the mission of “ending youth poverty and violence one neighborhood at a time.” For the 2018 YPAR project, 11 youth explored neighborhood opinions and experiences about education, poverty, drugs, violence, and employment in the Lenox/Camden community.
For the 2019 project, the team focused on building neighborhood unity. Melany Arevalo (BEC intern), Malcolm Thomas (CrossTown Church member), and Ruth Wong (BEC director) partnered to train eight local youth in community research methods, facilitate discussions with elderly community members, and inspire community action. Throughout the YPAR experience, dialogue between the young people and seniors in the neighborhood meant fruitful exchanges of reflections, advice, and shared aspirations for the future of the community.
COMMUNITY PRESENTATION & Dialogue
Eight young people from Lower Roxbury persevered through a six-month research journey filled with challenges and setbacks. In the end, they, along with Ruth Wong and Malcolm Thomas, hosted community meetings to share their research findings.
The events, held at St. Augustine & St. Martin’s Church on June 26 and Mandela Residents Cooperative Association on June 29, consisted of a formal presentation followed by a question and answer session. The audience included project partners, the seniors interviewed for the project, and other community members. Lengthy question and answer sessions created space for honest dialogue between youth and members of the community.
The atmosphere was respectful and engaging, with both groups desiring to learn from one another. One participating senior expressed appreciation for the opportunity: “We never hear about the good you all are doing!”
What the Youth Learned
Students asked seniors a variety of questions about the Lenox/Camden community. Topics included the community’s level of connectedness, positive qualities, challenges, safety, sources of tension among residents, and transitions the neighborhood has experienced. They also asked the seniors for reflections and suggestions for improving neighborhood unity.
The young researchers learned from their assessment that seniors have mixed feelings toward their community. Some seniors said they felt connected to the Lenox/Camden neighborhood through church and neighborhood groups, while others pointed to gentrification as a catalyst for division and decreasing involvement in the community. While all respondents felt a general sense of safety, they expressed frustration at the tensions that have emerged from rising housing prices, transient college students, and gang violence.
Community members offered suggestions for building neighborhood unity, including:
encouraging people to attend community events
creating meeting spaces for both the youth and seniors
improving respect for elders
increasing police engagement with residents.
One senior also proposed the need for a “positive mission.” She explained,
I have thought about the one thing that this territory could unite around. When people get united, it seems to be about anti-gentrification, which I think is legitimate, but it’s not a winning strategy. It’s a negative strategy. If you go to war with somebody and defeat them, then that’s what you’ve done. You’ve defeated them. But you haven’t done anything for yourself. So I’m hoping that at some point we will figure out how to develop something that we can all get behind that will help us all to thrive.
During the second presentation, discussion arose regarding the significant role a community center could play in bridging divides and addressing loneliness among younger and older generations. A community center is one example of a positive mission—something to fight for, rather than to fight against.
Seniors also offered life advice to youth, such as:
Hold onto a “taste of home” wherever you go.
React with a positive attitude toward others, even in the face of ignorance and prejudice.
When asked what the youth learned throughout the research process, one student responded, “Senior citizens have good advice. They know a lot about the community, and they should get more credit for what they give.”
Another youth added,
I thought this community was taking care of its senior citizens, but I guess not. Based on what they were saying, they’re not getting the support they need. And that is kind of odd to me because I thought they would prioritize them because they have certain needs to be met.
Throughout the presentation and in the question and answer session, students also discussed action steps they would take as a result of their findings:
They dedicated themselves to honoring Henry’s legacy through their work.
They agreed to help coordinate activities at a “Shawmut Avenue Community Day.” One of the seniors proposed the event, and the young people committed to plan it with the support of several churches, Mandela Homes, and neighborhood residents.
They planned to organize a Bingo night for seniors, responding to the seniors’ frustration about the isolation their generation feels in the community.
Much work remains to be done in the Lenox/Camden community to build neighborhood unity in the face of deep-rooted city issues. The YPAR project youth took concrete steps in that direction: they created opportunities for constructive community discussion, and they participated in community-led solutions.
About the Author
Elizabeth McColloch is a junior at Boston College, studying Operations Management, with minors in International Studies and Public Health. She interned with EGC’s Applied Research and Consulting division in the summer of 2019, where she loved learning about the Lord’s heart for justice through the work of her and her colleagues.