Flipping the script: U of T Youth Wellness Lab engages young people in research
When it comes to research about young people, Cam Bautista says young people themselves are often reduced to token status – “a box that needs to be checked.”
The Youth Wellness Lab, by contrast, aims to do things differently.
The collaborative hub at the University of Toronto’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work seeks to brings together academic researchers, community-based partners and youth advisers with a shared goal of improving services and outcomes across multiple intersecting domains by, with and for young people.
“It’s great to be working in a space with academics where I feel genuinely included,” says Bautista, who is the lab’s youth outreach co-ordinator.
The project grew out of discussions between co-directors Stephanie Begun and Bryn King, both assistant professors in the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work whose research explores issues related to youth from marginalized communities.
“We were meeting for coffee back in 2018 and agreed, in a half-joking way, that one day we would create a centre for youth research,” says King. “About a year later, we just decided to make it happen. Our plan was to bring all the relevant faculty together with key community agencies, put young people at the heart of it and see what happens.”
Begun says the wealth of expertise among young people in social work and across U of T made it easy to build the research membership. “There are a lot of fascinating studies going on and a real appetite to share knowledge, so people welcomed the opportunity to be part of it,” she says.
The lab was established in early 2020, and a formal launch is scheduled for this fall. To date, there are more than 20 community partners, 11 staff and youth advisers, five institutional partners, and seven U of T research affiliates, including faculty and graduate students.
Initial funding for the lab came from a Dean’s Network Award, which aims to foster collaborations among social work faculty members, other U of T departments or faculties and community partners.
The lab has since received multiple grants to support its development and youth-led research projects.
Bautista began as a member of the lab’s youth advisory committee, a team of young researchers aged 29 and under with diverse backgrounds and lived experience. The committee wrote the lab’s mission statement: To create a safe space for sustainable empowerment and expression through research and collaborative conversations for youth, by youth.
Now, Bautista also helps to co-ordinate their feedback as advisers and collaborators with the lab’s community partners.
“There’s so much apprehension among young people about doing research or being included in research because it has historically been tokenistic,” Bautista says. Like other members of the advisory committee, Bautista is from a racialized community and sees the lab as a way to shift the power imbalance between researchers and young people.
Begun and King designed the lab to reverse the traditional roles in research about youth.
“Instead of being the subjects of study, young people steer the research,” says King. “This ensures that the results – whether they’re interventions, services or policies – are relevant and meaningful to them.”
The fundamental goal of “flipping the script,” says Begun, is to improve the quality of research, which will improve youth outcomes. “Engaging youth in an authentic way in research helps us to stop getting it wrong. We as a collective society continue to make bad systems, bad policies and bad decisions about youth without their voices driving what things should look like.
“We need to ask them what they want and need.”
The lab’s “Real TO” project demonstrates what a role reversal in youth research looks like in practice. Its objective is to promote public dialogue led by Black youth on how anti-Black racism and systemic inequalities affect their lives. Digital storytelling, where young people create short videos, and a youth-led Instagram Live speaker series, where youth interview researchers, will produce knowledge to inform policy briefs, position papers and other research material co-authored by youth, researchers and community organizations.
“We founded the lab in a pandemic, and the Real TO project reflects the fact that many young people, including members of our youth advisory committee and the wider lab team, have experienced a dual pandemic of COVID-19 and anti-Black racism,” says King. “It’s part of the lab’s larger effort to amplify youth voices and create lasting youth-adult partnerships that will increase the transparency and credibility of youth-related research into the future.”
While several current projects concentrate on Black youth, the lab is committed to partnering with young people across diverse populations, including members of the LGBTQ+ community and Indigenous Peoples. Current and future research areas range from mental and reproductive health to homelessness and the child welfare system.
Travonne Edwards, a PhD student in social work and the lab’s research co-ordinator, is investigating the over-reporting of Black families in child welfare in collaboration with members of the lab and the Black Community Action Network (BCAN) of Peel Region.
“There should be no question that we as researchers consult directly with youth about issues that affect their everyday lives,” he says. Edwards’s personal experiences as a Black male in the education system, along with first-hand observation of the over-representation of Black youth in foster care and group homes in his professional practice, propelled him towards research aimed at creating policies to better serve Black young people.
While a long history of exclusion and tokenism gives young people good reason to be wary of research involvement, King is optimistic about the lab’s potential to create change.
“People tend to think that young people are jaded or angry,” she says. “But there’s a level of hope, even in their rage and protest, that we often lose in research and policy-making. Connecting to that allows us to envision something different and better with them.”
Krysta Cooke, the project co-ordinator at the lab, works with the youth advisory committee to get their ideas and opinions on social media. A master of social work student who completed her practicum at the lab and who will graduate in June, Cooke says she finds the enthusiasm of the committee’s members energizing.
“We work together to create Instagram stories, Facebook posts, and other digital content, and when they see the final product in that public forum, they’re so excited. It’s a true collaboration.”
Bautista, who’s currently in the child and youth care program at Humber College, hopes to pursue graduate studies and build a career in research and policy.
“Working at the lab has allowed me to believe that I can breach the barriers in academia that have kept people like me and the other youth advisors out of research. It’s giving me support and encouragement to continue on.”