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The benefits of community-engaged research

By Joanna Tzenis

Youth life mapping activityI am a community-engaged researcher in the field of youth development. What does that mean?

It means that I approach research as a process to collaboratively strengthen the well-being of a community while contributing to the field. Here’s how I did this working alongside youth, families, and community members of Somali heritage in Minnesota.

I collaborated with stakeholders to identify issues critical to the community

My 10-month longitudinal study came about as I developed youth programs together with leaders of a Somali-youth serving organization, Ka Joog. Together, we created youth programs. We determined desired outcomes of these programs situated in community assets and needs around improving youths’ educational outcomes.

Research questions emerged through increased stakeholder interaction that lifted up the need to more deeply understand youths’ lived experiences. In doing so, we could do two things. We could illuminate larger lessons (to the field and to community stakeholders) regarding how youth of Somali heritage navigated their educational pathways. We could also gain new knowledge to modify programming inputs and design.

I was dedicated to learning alongside the community

Side-by-side learning over time (longitudinal methodology) was foundational to developing mutual trust. Through a steadfast presence, homework help, conversations about Netflix shows, and sometimes by bringing my young daughter along youth and families began to grant me access to their lives. Our discussions allowed us to co-construct knowledge of how faith and family shaped youths’ educational aspirations and guided their actions to aspiration achievement. This was new knowledge to the field and informed our program delivery. Club leaders focused less on academic content and prioritized creating spaces for youth to safely discuss their identities and educational experiences. 

I ensured reciprocity 

My presence as a researcher has mutual benefits for Extension and the community. I recently attended an event in the neighborhood of one of my research/program sites. I ran into one of my youth participants and his mother and was introduced to others as such:

“This is Joanna. She helps my kids.”

As an Extension educator, I walk the line between scholar and practitioner. I am unequivocally both. Always in my one-to-one interactions with this mother, I was conducting research. Still, she sees me as someone who helped her children.

One primary way I achieved reciprocity was through a seamless integration of research, teaching and outreach. I developed research instruments that doubled as non-formal educational activities such as identity wheels, mapping activities and vision boards. Club leaders and I found ways to fit these activities into the program. They helped participants safely reflect on sensitive experiences, while thinking critically about their educational futures. One mother told me that her child had her “map to her perfect future” displayed on her bedroom wall for motivation and inspiration.

Through this community-engaged research process, community stakeholders and I responded to community needs, strengthened our partnership, forged greater trust, and created opportunities to bring findings into practice. 

This is how I conduct community-engaged research. What does your process look like?

-- Joanna Tzenis, assistant Extension professor

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  1. Great blog, Joanna, as it beautifully describes your involvement and relationship with Somali families. I suppose each of us as educators has these side by side learning experiences that are rich, but we don't always have the tools/design in place and the discipline to capture them in a way that contributes to the field as research. Thanks for the reminder that we need to design our research Qs and formally capture the work so it can benefit families and the field of youth work.


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