Tuesday, June 18, 2019

An Interview with a Youth Development Champion: Ben Kirshner

By Sam Piha

I first met Ben Kirshner in 2002 when he was working alongside Milbrey McLaughlin (Stanford University) on a qualitative evaluation of the San Francisco Beacon Centers. This evaluation was unique in that it relied on the experiences of youth and the collection of data by youth ethnographers. After graduate school, Ben went on to join the faculty at the University of Colorado (CU- Boulder). Because he is a champion of youth development and youth organizing and participatory action research, we chose to interview him. Below are some of his responses to our questions. 

Ben Kirshner
Q: Throughout your career, you have focused on youth development and the learning within out-of-school time programs. Why is that and who were your major influences?
A: My early career experiences working in out of school youth programs (New Orleans, Providence, and eventually San Francisco) shaped my subsequent interest in youth programs as contexts for learning. I saw how out of school spaces could prioritize community, relationships, and belonging. I gained personal fulfillment being part of those spaces and I was inspired by the kinds of intergenerational partnerships that happened organically as youth and adults worked on projects with shared goals and values. 

I especially want to credit four talented mentors and colleagues from San Francisco’s youth development scene--Tom Ahn, Anthony Mickens, Teresa Arriaga, and McCrae Parker—for seeing how youth work could embody a powerful intersection of social justice, creative design, and community. 

When I found my way into academic spaces I found a new set of mentors in Na’ilah Nasir, Shawn Ginwright, Milbrey McLaughlin, and many others who showed me ways to design, study, and understand powerful and equity-driven youth development spaces.

Q: You have studied why youth activism and civic engagement are important avenues for youth development. Can you share some of your findings?
A: In my initial research I wanted to challenge dominant frameworks for youth civic engagement and community service, which were based on middle class and affluent assumptions about “service”, and were not capturing the kinds of community resilience and youth activism happening in communities of color. 

My research carried out with multiracial youth organizing groups in the Bay Area showed how youth participants developed a capacity for critique and collective agency to challenge unjust systems and negative stereotypes. These developmental achievements, it turned out, also spoke to unique elements of learning environments in youth organizing groups. Through peer to peer mentoring, apprenticeship learning, and commitments to young people’s dignity, these settings offer great promise for learning environments in and out of school.

Since then I’ve developed more strategic research collaborations with youth organizations and schools, in which we use research to understand and address compelling challenges jointly identified with youth or organization leaders. For example, I was part of a participatory action research team to study the impact of a high school closure on students, which showed students’ creative and resilient adaptations but also the stressors that displacement added to their lives. 

More recent work extended core findings about youth organizing groups as developmental settings and tested out their relevance for classroom learning in collaborative work with high school educators. 

Q: You have promoted the engagement of youth in gathering data for program evaluation. Why do you believe this is an effective/important strategy?

Youth are the best reporters and advisors
on whether and how an environment feels
welcoming, safe, supportive and fun. - Youth Voices

A: Youth participation in program evaluators is smart for several reasons: first, it’s a terrific learning opportunity for youth to do that kind of research and analysis in partnership with adults. Just as important, good evaluation centers the experiences and goals of its target population, and so it makes sense to me that youth would have a say in figuring out optimal ways to define and evaluate the quality of their experiences. Research by others (such as Shepherd Zeldin) has shown that organizations that engage youth in governance and evaluation tend to show more accountability to their mission.

Q: You have studied program attributes that attract youth participation in afterschool. Can you share some of your findings?
A: One thing we know is that this varies a bit by age group, such as whether youth are elementary, middle school, or high school age. My work has tended to focus on high schoolers, and has looked at a few different kinds of contexts, ranging from community centers to more focused digital media programs. 

Some of the key ingredients are general and might strike readers as obvious: compelling programs provide a sense of community and belonging, treat youth with dignity and respect, and offer activities that are aligned to their interests, such as music making, creative writing, or social justice activism. High school youth, particularly those living in marginalized communities, tend to avoid programs that have a deficit or savior orientation. 

But I should add that there is not one cookie cutter rule for programs that attract youth – some youth may be drawn to highly structured, adult-directed environments (such as competitive sports), and others want to be in youth-driven spaces that enable flexible participation, from hanging out, to exploring new activities, to geeking out in fields like tech or art (as Mimi Ito and colleagues write about). Because teenagers tend to have more autonomy over how they spend their time, it’s important that schools and neighborhoods offer plentiful and varied opportunities for youth.

Q: It is often said by youth that the climate and behavior of adults in afterschool programs are very different than those from in school. Is this true in your studies? If so, can you elaborate? And why do you think this is true?
A: Yes, in my experience it is true that youth programs enable adults and youth to interact differently relative to school teachers or school administrators. Some of the differences are visible in concrete ways: youth program staff tend to go by first names, they often are more representative of young people’s communities, and they skew younger. But the underlying structures and job responsibilities are also different. Many youth programs have less obligation to teach specific content, which frees them up to prioritize relationships and mentoring. And, because, in most cases young people are there voluntarily, some of the underlying power dynamics that show up during the (mandatory) school day are absent. 

Of course, there can still be tensions, and power imbalances, but on the whole the vocation of “youth work” calls for an approach that is more relational and empowering than what is permitted by the job responsibilities of teachers in typical comprehensive high schools. 


Ben Kirshner moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in his twenties, where he was a youth worker. These experiences motivated him to study educational equity and the design of learning environments, which he pursued at Stanford's Graduate School of Education. Ben is now a Professor in the School of Education at CU-Boulder and serves as Faculty Director for CU Engage: Center for Community-Based Learning and Research. In his work with CU Engage Ben supports programs and people who develop and sustain university-community research partnerships that address persistent public challenges guided by values of social justice and grassroots democracy. 

Ben's research examines youth organizing, critical participatory action research, and new forms of digital media as contexts for learning, development, and social change. His 2015 book, Youth Activism in an Era of Education Inequality, received the social policy award for best authored book from the Society of Research on Adolescence. Ben is Editor for the Information Age Press Series on Adolescence and Education. His new projects involve collaborations with youth organizing groups that use research to build organizational capacity and campaign strategy, and partnerships with school districts that promote transformative student voice. In his spare time Ben enjoys listening to South African jazz, trail running, and hanging out with his family.

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