Bright Idea: Principal Investigators

Engaging Youth in Community Research

How do you help homeless young people in rural communities get back on their feet? You ask them what they need. And there’s no one better to survey young people than young people themselves.

At least, that’s what the Colorado Department of Human Services found when they began working with the Youth Leadership Team at Hilltop Community Resources on a community survey to determine whether adults and teens think youth homelessness is a problem in Montrose County and, if so, what services are needed.

“If it’s about a youth issue, young people are the ones who understand the issues best, and they know the language to ask the right questions,” says Amy Engelman, a researcher who coordinates the Colorado Youth Development Team for the public health department.

Across the country, young people are conducting research intended to influence programs and policies on a range of issues affecting them. Whether the goal is to improve adolescent sexual health or the quality of school life, beautify a neighborhood, prevent violence or curb tobacco use, getting young people on board makes good sense, Engelman says.

We asked Engelman and Katie Donahue, who coordinates Hilltop’s runaway and homeless youth programs, for advice on engaging young people in community research:

Start a conversation. If your organization or community has a youth advisory board or leadership group, that’s a good place to engage young people, Engelman and Donahue say. Or, if you work in a residential program, you might speak to youth at a regular residents’ meeting or in a life skills class. Engelman suggests presenting the issue, then generating a discussion. Listen to youth, and ask for their feedback and opinions, she says. Most young people will be happy to speak their minds. At the end of the session, invite youth to volunteer to work with you on the project.

Let youth make decisions. Present a general topic that young people can connect with, such as homelessness. Then let youth home in on what matters to them, Engelman says. Youth are more likely to follow through with a project if they feel invested in it.

Also let youth determine the tools they will use to conduct the research. There are many techniques available, from focus groups, surveys and interviews to documentary photography and film. “Let youth decide,” Engelman says. “But if you don’t have a budget for a digital camera, then you already know what tools are not in your toolbox. Present to youth … what really are possibilities.”

Ask for help. Your state or county department of health or a nearby university may be able to train youth in research and analysis methods, review survey questions composed by young people, help code data, and give general advice about how to conduct your study.

Trust young people’s abilities. Says Donahue of her youth leaders’ research project, “In the beginning we certainly gave them ideas, but the youth are pretty driven. One in particular spent two Saturdays in front of Wal-Mart because she knew that’s where youth were going in and out.”

For more information about involving youth in research, contact NCFY.

National Clearinghouse on Families & Youth | 5515 Security Lane, Suite 800 | North Bethesda, MD 20852 | (301) 608-8098 |