Laura Ruth Johnson has spent two decades observing the lives, struggles and triumphs of young parents in Chicago.
Throughout those years, the associate professor in the Department of Educational Technology, Research and Assessment has seen many young parents thrive in spite of a lack of programs that could help them.
“Some of them are missing school to work, but not because they don’t value education,” Johnson says. “It’s because they’re extremely responsible. Some are working an extra job to provide for their children or help their parents pay the rent.”
Johnson will turn her attention this summer to how young parents in Humboldt Park engage with their community – and if that civic engagement can inform and enhance their advocacy skills, for themselves and their children, as well as for other young parents.
Findings from a Youth Participatory Action Research study, funded by a summer Research and Artistry grant, hope to “inform services, programs and policy aimed at young parents, and challenge pejorative stereotypes of young parents as having ‘ruined’ their lives with little hope of academic or professional success because of their ‘bad’ choices.”
Instead, Johnson strives to show that young parents can be deeply involved in their communities and academically successful, if provided with the appropriate supports and resources.
Data will come from interviews, focus groups, observations and written assignments completed by young parents. Over the summer, a small group of young parents will work with Johnson to collect and analyze data, in the process gaining valuable research skills.
Research will take place at Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School, an alternative high school that currently serves about 190 students pushed out of the public school system, through its embedded program the Lolita Lebron Family Learning Center, which serves the needs of young parents attending Albizu Campos, which make up about 20 percent of the student body.
Many students there are familiar with Johnson’s topic: Parents attend a class, co-taught by Johnson, called “Social History of Parenting,” which helps them develop advocacy skills and involves them in creating campaigns that confront pejorative stereotypes about young parents.
But the need lies beyond Albizu Campos High School and the Family Learning Center.
“Having young parents involved in community and civic engagement is important, but their voices are largely absent,” she says. “So much policy is made for them, but they’re not included as a part of the conversation – and they need to be. They’re the ones these programs are aimed at.”
Quality mentorship offers a start, says Johnson, who has implemented such programs in Chicago for the last four years.
Whereas much of the civic engagement literature has focused on more traditional sorts of activities, such as voting, this study aspires to document how students’ involvement in community-based projects and grassroots activism that address issues that are meaningful to them can help them to develop leadership skills.
Among her questions: How do young parents view their communities? What issues are important to them? In what ways are local projects involving and engaging young parents? What skills do they gain from participating? How does their involvement shape their identities as active citizens? What role will it play in their postsecondary pursuits?
“Very few programs are aimed at young parents,” Johnson says, “and it’s harder for them to become involved. Most work. They have to take care of their own expenses. They have a child. And, as a result, they’re rendered invisible.”
Compounding the problem, she says, is that many programs focused on young parents are designed merely to prevent teens from becoming parents in the first place. Only a few mentor teens who already are young parents, she says.
Unfortunately, she adds, not many high schools offer child care.
Nonetheless, young parents can and do defy the odds. Four recent valedictorians at Campos High School have been teen parents, she says.
“Young parents right now see education as more important than ever,” Johnson says, “but for teen parents, it’s a challenge. They have to take care of a child and go to school. It’s a challenge of having support, of having child care or of having transportation. I know some young parents who walk, with their children, to school in the cold because they have no money for the bus.”
In the Puerto Rican community where Johnson conducts her advocacy and research, she witnesses some attitudes of fatalism among youth.
What difference can we possibly make outside of our neighborhood? How can these projects really change the way things are? Why don’t politicians actually care about us? They say what they think we want to hear, but they don’t know what we go through or actually listen when we tell them.
Even external forces are contributing, she says, pointing to a recent teen pregnancy advertisement that featured pop singer Carly Rae Jepsen and the message, “You’re supposed to be changing the world … not changing diapers.”
“As if mothers can’t be activists and be involved!” Johnson says. “We’re really trying to change that narrative and paradigm.”
She finds signs of optimism in Humboldt Park, where teen parents are thinking about greater social issues and historical events in relationships to their neighborhood – where they can act locally.
“They’re invested even more when they have a child because they want to have a better future for their child, and they see that they can link all of the issues,” Johnson says. “Now they have a child to think of. Having safe parks. Having access to fresh fruits and vegetables.”
Healthy food, for example, offers lessons of urban agriculture, such as community gardens and greenhouses. It reinforces the importance of healthy food for growing children. Politically, it illustrates the social problem of “food deserts” or the public health crisis of diabetes.
Projects that Johnson has worked on with students include public service announcements filmed and posted on YouTube, social media postings and participation in hashtag campaigns such as #noteenshame and #teenparentpride.
Other young parents are podcasting.
“They’re interviewing one another and creating podcasts on their lives, collecting and editing their own stories,” she says. “I see that as a method of civic engagement because it’s having them participate in larger conversations, something that will help other young parents find resources that are of assistance to them.”
She also hopes to host community events where she – and the teens – present their findings.
A few of those involved in an intergenerational mentorship project for current and former young mothers recently took a national stage, presenting their work and research at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association in San Antonio, Texas. Johnson received funds from the NIU College of Education and the Youth Connection Charter School to bring young parents, mentors and teachers to the event.
“I know some who really found that through their participation in a project, it expanded their view of their ability to make a change in the world, and they’ve taken that to their families,” she says. “Most of the students are really excited to become involved, and they have a lot of great ideas.”