Youth Engagement Project: Youth-Guided Approach to Engaging High-Risk Youth

Principal Investigator: Yoshitaka Iwasaki

Funders: Alberta Centre for Child, Family, and Community Research (ACCFCR); Homeward Trust Edmonton; United Way of Alberta Capital Region; Killam Research Fund, Interdisciplinary Health Research Academy, and Faculty of Extension, University of Alberta.
Duration: 2012-2014

Engaging high-risk, marginalized youth presents a significant challenge in our society, considering the prevalence of disconnect and distrust these youth often experience with their system in which they live. Yet, meaningful youth engagement is a key concept not only for positive youth development, but also for a systems change to more effectively support high-risk youth and families.

A series of community dialogue sessions with key stakeholders in and around Edmonton, Alberta identified a pressing community issue is to more effectively support high-risk youth living in marginalized conditions such as poverty, homelessness, discrimination, social exclusion, and mental health challenges. Since 2012, Dr. Yoshi Iwasaki led a homegrown "youth engagement" research initiative.

The target goals/outcomes for this participatory action research (PAR) project are social change and transformation of the system to more effectively support optimal development of high-risk, marginalized youth through actively engaging youth in working collaboratively with community and university partners. The focus of the research is on giving voices to youth and our partners and mobilizing them for a systems change. The improvement of support systems (policy & practice) and environments (neighborhoods, schools, & communities) is a key objective.

Our research team consists of representatives from government and non-profit agencies, school systems, health systems, and academic departments. This community-driven project is one of the first of its kind to engage multiple partners (including youth, practitioners, policymakers, and researchers) across systems, sectors, and disciplines in dialogue on how to build collective capacity to better engage and support high-risk, marginalized youth at personal, family, and community levels.

Essential to our research is the role of 15 youth leaders aged 16 to 25 with diverse backgrounds and lived experiences (e.g., homelessness, addiction, school drop-out, mental health challenges), including Aboriginal and immigrant youth. These talented youth leaders have been identified and recommended by our agency partners including:

  • Alberta Health Services
  • Boys & Girls Clubs/Big Brothers Big Sisters of Edmonton & Area
  • Centre for Race and Culture
  • Edmonton Catholic Schools
  • Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers
  • Edmonton Multicultural Coalition
  • Edmonton Public Schools
  • High Risk Youth Services, Edmonton & Area Child & Family Services, Region 6
  • iHuman Youth Society
  • Multicultural Health Brokers Co-op and
  • YOUCAN Youth Services Edmonton

Our youth leaders continue to gather regularly at 3-hour semi-monthly meetings. One major outcome from these dialogue sessions is a youth-developed framework of youth engagement. This framework provides a guideline and plan of action for youth-driven, meaningful engagement to produce positive outcomes both for youth themselves and their surroundings/communities/systems. The youth leaders have brainstormed, discussed, and interpreted their ideas, lived experiences, and insights to identify a number of organized themes of Basis (philosophy/principles), What (outcomes/goals), and How (Actions/Processes) that constitute the youth engagement framework. These themes focus on relationship building, co-learning, mutual understanding and respect, and the use of strength-based, growth-oriented approaches at various system and community levels.

A youth-oriented framework of youth engagement has significant implications for practice, policy, and social change. We will share and mobilize knowledge and build capacity locally/provincially, nationally, and globally to better engage youth at personal, family, and community levels and to more effectively support and promote the development and well-being of high-risk, marginalized youth.