The Benefits of Engaging in Participatory Approaches to Research

This Q&A is the 1st publication is a YPAR series, which aims to explain participatory research, youth-led measurement and evaluation approaches, and strategies for youth-adult collaborations in YPAR. This Q&A was originally posted on the EHD website.

Source: EHD

Shereen El Mallah, an assistant research professor with the UVA School of Education and Human Development’s Youth-Nex and CASTL research centers, argues it’s time to rethink how academics engage with the people affected by their research.

In a recent publication, El Mallah wrote about an approach called youth participatory research, the importance of engaging historically marginalized populations, and tips on how facilitate the adult-youth collaborative process. 

El Mallah is interested in the intersection of applied science and social justice as both a scholar and activist, and regularly engages in research-practice partnerships intent on interrupting inequitable practices, policies, and research. We sat down with El Mallah to learn more about participatory research.

Q: What is participatory research?

A. Participatory research is an approach to research, rather than a single research method, that aims to co-create knowledge and solutions with individuals or communities directly affected most by the research issue. It draws on their “insider expertise” that can improve the rigor, relevance and reach of developmental science. 

Those who were previously identified as “subjects” of the research are involved as partners in the process of inquiry. Together, researchers and their collaborators develop or shape the research questions, design the study and/or execute implementation. 

Q: How does participatory research differ from traditional research approaches?

A. Participatory research often involves going beyond fact gathering and report writing to using local knowledge to guide and energize collective change in programs, organizations or communities. Participatory research is typically achieved through iterative cycles of inquiry and action, rather than a sequence of linear steps. It is also grounded in principles of equity, so it is oriented toward reducing hierarchical power dynamics between the researcher and researched. All of this moves us away from the longstanding assumption that only the researcher holds expert knowledge, which is embedded in more traditional research approaches.

There is growing consensus that existing measurement approaches in academic research have been found to reinforce stigma and sustain power imbalances. More specifically, many measures are White normative and adult centric meaning they are largely constructed through a narrow White adult lens, with the perspectives and real-life experiences of diverse and under-researched youth populations overlooked or undervalued. Moving towards culturally sensitive measures requires challenging generational and cultural notions of power and control—and participatory approaches are rooted in self-determination: The capacity of individuals and groups to chart their own courses. 

Q: What are the benefits of participatory research?

A. Participatory research adds value for both academic and non-academic partners which can be seen at each phase of the research process—from identification of what to study, to enhancing the quality and validity of data collected, to ensuring more accurate interpretation and wider dissemination of results. 

For example, when determining the purpose and scope of the research, there is consistent evidence demonstrating that “insider knowledge” helps researchers acknowledge and consider cultural assumptions and norms, the community’s history and context, and the reality of structural inequities. For non-academic partners, active participation in the early stages of the research process initiates ownership, empowerment and capacity-building.

As the research is being implemented, there are contextual advantages on both sides. Non-academic partners can help researchers develop more appropriate study designs and methods for the population and setting under study. This includes working together to determine which measurement tools should be used to gather information, how information should be shared in the community, and whose information needs to be prioritized. Take for instance a community that relies heavily on narrative and storytelling. Non-academic partners may recommend qualitative data collection rather than surveys. In return, academic partners offer specialized research knowledge, skills and experience that can help non-academic partners address concerns and engage in problem-solving they determine are important for their community.

Read more from the original Q&A.

Missed a post in the YPAR series? Check out all the tips and resources:

  1. The Benefits of Engaging in Participatory Approaches to Research
  2. Why Young Investigators Are Important
  3. Youth Voices in YPAR (includes youth)
  4. Strategies for the YPAR Collaboration Process (includes downloadable resources)
  5. How Can Youth Voice Amplify Research? Listening & Leadership Are Key
  6. 4 Universal Facilitation Tips for YPAR Collaboration
  7. Asset & Power Mapping as Tools for Youth-Led Research (includes downloadable resources)
  8. Why YPAR Matters: Youth Are “Looking at the World Differently” (includes youth)

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Dr. Shereen El Mallah is interested in the intersection of applied science and social justice. As a scholar-activist, her work draws heavily on rapid cycle evaluation, participatory approaches, design-based research, and the framework of QuantCrit to address three notable gaps: 1) The gap between what works in research and what works in practice, 2) The gap between valuing what we can measure and measuring what we value, 3) The racial/ethnic and socioeconomic gaps in developmental and educational outcomes that are rooted in longstanding structural and systemic inequities. El Mallah regularly engages in research-practice partnerships intent on interrupting inequitable practices, policies, and research, as well as explores communication and dissemination strategies that facilitate the use of evidence. She is committed to working with and for underrepresented, marginalized, or systematically minoritized groups to leverage both quantitative and qualitative data in challenging dominant narratives.

Pass the Mic Series: Social & Justice Systems

By: Zaharra, a 13-year-old


  • Youth-Nex recently hosted their 8th conference entitled Pass the Mic: Amplifying Youth Voice & Agency, co-chaired by Drs. Wintre Foxworth Johnson and Nancy Deutsch.
  • In this Pass the Mic blog series, we are highlighting each of the sessions from the conference, sharing videos, and uplifting youth voices to summarize and reflect on what was discussed.
  • Zaharra, a 13-year old youth panelist and conference attendee, summarizes and reflects on the second session about “Social and Justice Systems.”
Source: Youth-Nex

During session 2 at the conference, we heard from moderator Joanna Lee Williams, Ph.D, and panelists Chidi Jenkins, Renee Spencer, Andy Block, and Sage Williams. This panel focused on child well-being and how to respond to the needs of youth in our community. I feel so honored to have had the opportunity to watch and listen to this panel live. 

The Panelists

Sage Williams talks about his unique experience at the Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center and how he worked as the president of the Student Government Association. Briefly after, a new community treatment model was implemented and it helped to foster rapport. Andy Block was the one who came up with the idea, and it is a unique perspective to see them both successful and on a panel together. Renee Spencer is a youth mentor, previous social worker, and is focused on building youth relationships; she is passionate about the Youth Initiative Mentoring program. Lastly, Chidi Jenkins works with Youth-Nex as well as a policy program that focuses on child well-being; she has helped to lead discussions around what is being talked about on this panel. 

Their Discussion

Sage Williams has the unique perspective of someone that has experienced what it was like on both sides of the spectrum–knowing what it felt like to be isolated and then the change of the policy within the Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center. He represents the positive effects of engaging with youth and building relationships. 

Andy Block is an exact representation of what it means to break out a box that shouldn’t be there. What I mean by that is people get stuck in their ways, which is understandable, but what he had to do was challenge that. By taking a risk he changed the system and helped to save lives; this is what educators and other people should be doing when building relationships. 

Renee Spencer talks about the institutional structures that we have created that devalue or denigrate youth relationships. Being human to children and not isolating them is considered “soft” is really perpetuating toxic relationships. She reminds us of something she learned in graduate school about resilience.

Young people who have safe, supportive, nurturing relationships are bound to succeed.

This is a privilege. Even having this type of relationship allows youth to re-approach negative experiences in a positive way. 

Source: Youth-Nex

Did you miss one of our six sessions from the Pass the Mic: Amplifying Youth Voice & Agency conference? Go back and watch these panels with youth voices, and read the summaries, primarily written by the youth participants, on the following topics:

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Zaharra is a thirteen-year-old attending Renaissance School. She is an activist, musician, athlete, artist, and writer. As an Ethiopian-Italian-American, Zaharra has learned to embrace her culture. Throughout her life in Charlottesville, she has experienced microaggressions and racism; this has helped her to acquire the skills to educate those who are uneducated, and fighting against bias inside and out of the school systems is her focus. Zaharra’s recent involvements include having two films, that she collaborated on, shown in the Youth Film Festival ’22, one of them winning the Audience Choice Award. During the ’21-’22 Renaissance School awards ceremony she was awarded the Doc Wilbur as an Eighth-grader, and she has also participated in numerous endeavors such as the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Teen Stylin’ Event in 2022 and being a Panelist at a Virginia Humanities conference in 2022.

Youth Performing Arts Series: The Theatre Community

By: Ruby (9th grader), Owen (8th grader), Maya (9th grader), & Rachael (8th grader) from Empowered Players (EP)

This blog post is the third of four in a Youth Performing Arts Series by teens involved in the performing arts. For more posts, please visit our blog.


  • Empowered Players (EP) is a Fluvanna-based non-profit in VA designed to make a difference in the community through the arts. Their mission is to uplift the human spirit through access to quality arts experiences, youth empowerment, and community service through free & accessible K-12 theatre education and programming. 
  • In this Youth Performing Arts Series, youth involved with EP will share more about their experiences and perspectives engaging in the performing arts. 
  • In this third of four blog posts, Ruby, Owen, Maya and Rachael talk about community, social interactions and how these new skills will help them as adults.
Source: Empowered Players

We all know that community and social interaction is a vital part of humanity. Without it, we can’t grow and expand our knowledge of the world. Empowered Players aims to create a safe and diverse community that is accepting and inclusive. Being part of the Empowered Players community has changed us for the better, and here some examples of how: 

  • “We have met many new friends. Empowered Players is a family, and we are all very grateful to be part of it.” Rachael Broxon, an aspiring playwright and author, explains. “With the addition of Empowered Players to our lives, we’ve had more chances to make friends and interact with people we never would have met otherwise.”
  • “Theatre changed our lives by introducing us to new people. Some of the people we were introduced to were people from different grades, homeschoolers, and people from other counties.” Owen Kaider says. According to Owen, if he had never joined theatre he wouldn’t have started his shoe company, Elvara Custom. Theatre gave him the confidence to pursue his dreams. 
  • “Empowered Players has given me more confidence. It helped me to learn to speak louder and how to convey things without using words.” Maya Blackburn, a martial artist and animal lover, mentions. “Without theatre I would be much less assertive, and would probably care more about what people think. In theatre you regularly embarrass yourself and do ridiculous things. By doing that in this safe place, it’s easier to do in public.”
  • “Ever since I joined Empowered Players, I have been much more confident. I would have passed up countless opportunities if I had never joined Empowered Players. Before doing my first show, I probably would’ve passed out at even the thought of performing on stage.” Ruby Godlewski says. 

Building Community 

Theatre changed our lives by introducing us to new people. Ruby wouldn’t have joined high school theatre if she hadn’t participated in Empowered Players. It helped Ruby to already have connections and know more people. If Maya hadn’t joined Empowered Players, then she wouldn’t have made as many friends, and it helped her to think faster on her feet.

Empowered Players gives new perspectives to kids. Older and younger kids mix, which gives the younger kids people who are not much older than them to look up to. The teenagers have the younger ones around, and that helps them to remember what it’s like to be little, and holds them to a standard that should keep them being responsible. The different age groups mix, and they get along more than some would think. That is beneficial for both of the groups.

The Theatre Community & New Skills

We had to learn how to work together for a production to go well. Those same skills can also apply to real life, too.

If an ensemble doesn’t work well together, then the show won’t be good, and the audience will be confused. Most workplaces function the same. If staff don’t get along and don’t collaborate well, then people could get fired and the business won’t succeed as much as it should. We learned to work well together, even if we weren’t friends or didn’t particularly like each other. Previous theatre groups we attended weren’t nearly as efficient because their community was not quite as advanced as it is here with Empowered Players.

Theatre gets kids out of their shells. Before joining Empowered Players, we were shy, and much quieter. Now we are more outgoing and less soft-spoken. When we need to be loud, or talk authoritatively, we can, whereas before, we didn’t know how. We’ve learned how to speak in different ways, and that helps us when speaking to adults, or to younger kids. Theatre has helped us learn how to better express ourselves, and by learning how the characters feel, it’s helped us to figure out how we feel. When we had to identify how our characters felt, so that we could better embody them it helped us to learn how to identify feelings in general, including our own. 

Because of our growing, nurturing, and accepting community, Empowered Players continues to “change the world, one show at a time.”

The posts in the Youth Nex Youth Performing Arts Series are submitted by teens who are a part of the Empowered Players Teen Arts Board (TAB). The TAB is designed to create a space for teens to shape the arts landscape of Fluvanna County, VA, volunteer in their community, and co-create arts programming for EP. Each blog will feature topics selected by TAB members, and is designed to uplift their thoughts around the importance of the performing arts.

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please email Please visit the Youth-Nex Homepage for up to date information about the work happening at the center.

Author Bio: Maya is a freshman at Fluvanna County High School and has been involved with theatre since 4th grade. She has been with Empowered Players for five years, and has been in both musicals and plays. Maya is part of the tech crew, and did the lighting for the fall Rudolph Musical. Last fall was her biggest role with Empowered Players in which she was Wednesday in the Addams Family Musical. This is her first time writing for a UVA blog.

Author Bio: Owen Kaider is an 8th grader at Fluvanna County High School and has participated in Empowered Players for five years. His previous roles with EP include Charlie in Willy Wonka, Rooster in Annie, Marty in Madagascar, Olaf in Frozen, and Sam the Snowman in Rudolph. He is also an aspiring sound designer and managed sound for EP’s series of original plays this past fall. Owen also recently founded a shoe company titled Elvara Custom. He looks forward to designing sound for EP’s upcoming production of The SpongeBob Musical: Youth Edition.

Author Bio: Ruby Godlewski is a freshman at FCHS. She’s been a member of the Empowered Players community for about 6 years. She is a member of the EP Teen Arts Board, and you can catch her onstage starring as SpongeBob in The SpongeBob Musical: Youth Edition this spring.


Author Bio: Rachael is in eighth grade and has been with Empowered Players for six years. She loves doing musicals and is looking forward to performing The SpongeBob Musical: Youth Edition this spring. She is an aspiring author and is currently working on a top secret project that’s not really that secret at all.