Centering Young People Is the Through-Line of Our Work
By Jonathan F. Zaff, Founding Director of the CERES Institute for Children & Youth
I’m brought to this work by the recognition that too often communities, especially historically marginalized and disenfranchised communities, have been “worked on” and not worked with.
Ethically, this is wrong. But also, by researching this way, we don’t necessarily end up asking the right questions nor developing the methods to get to the right solutions — to improve the lives of the people and communities we purport to be supporting with our work.
The through-line of all we do at CERES is placing the lives of young people at the center of our work. We don’t start with questions about how to build the best programs or how to create the best schools. Instead, we work with communities to ask “who” young people are, “what” do young people need, and “how” do we get them what they need. We co-construct more specific questions about the young people in their community (and with young people, themselves!), recognizing that the expertise about what life is like in communities, in schools, and in programs rests with the people who live in those communities, work in those schools, lead those programs (and attend those schools and programs). They’re not giving us information, they’re working with us to create the knowledge that they want and need to support their young people.
When we’re gathering data, we’re clear that the data belongs to the people in these communities. It’s not ours.
At the CERES Institute, we are not the experts on how communities can strengthen their supports for their children and youth – we have seen too many times that self-described experts have parachuted into communities with “solutions” that fell flat, wasted valuable and limited resources, and left children and their families no better off than before. The experts are the families in communities who charge themselves every day with the task of raising their children, the schools in communities that charge themselves with the responsibility of educating every child, and the community-based organizations that charge themselves to support every aspect of a young person’s development.
We believe that when we can meet the expertise in communities with our expertise in authentically community-engaged applied research and evaluation, we can identify the core problems that young people are facing, design solutions that capitalize on the inherent assets of young people and their communities, and continually learn and improve on these solutions until we achieve the positive educational and life outcomes we, collectively, want for all. Importantly, we support communities in building their capacity to learn and improve so that we are no longer needed; so that communities place children and youth at the center of everything they do, so that they understand more fully who their young people are, what their young people need to thrive, and their practices, programs, and policies that actually will get their young people what they need.
Jonathan F. Zaff is Research Professor, Applied Human Development and the Founding Director of the CERES Institute for Children & Youth at the Boston University Wheelock College of Education & Human Development.
Welcome to Episode One of Re-engaging & Re-connecting With Students: A conversation with researchers and administrators on successes in the face of adversity. This web series, co-presented...
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The Center for Promise is the applied research institute of America’s Promise Alliance, housed at Boston University Wheelock College of Education & Human Development. Its mission is to develop a deep understanding of the conditions necessary for young people in the United States to succeed in school and life.