The Development of Youth Voice in a Community-Based Social Action Program

Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Jeffrey N. Jones, Ph.D.

Second Advisor

Jill Hermann-Wilmarth, Ph.D.

Third Advisor

Ángel Gullón-Rivera, Ph.D.


Community based, mentorship, social action, youth activism, youth development, youth voice


The purpose of this study was to investigate the dynamics of youth voice development within the Great Lakes PeaceJam program, a community-based initiative aimed at engaging high school and college students in social action. This research builds upon scholarship that explores youth development in the context of community-based and social action programs. Situated within the overlapping fields of youth development, developmental psychology, and sociopolitical theory, these narratives frame youth voice as a normative process influenced by social interactions and cultural contexts and as a driving force in youth activism, civic engagement, and social action, highlighting the role of youth in societal change.

Employing a qualitative methodology grounded in interpretive interactionism and ethnographic techniques, the study captured the experiences of participants, offering a comparative lens on the youth voice phenomena between two distinct age groups, high school participants and their college-age mentors. Through in-depth interviews and participant observations, this research reports on the transformative potential of PeaceJam in nurturing civic engagement, leadership skills, and a sense of agency among the participants, that can serve to foster and enhance youth voice.

The analysis underscores the significant impact of PeaceJam on enhancing youth voice and engagement, particularly in cultivating social consciousness and activism among high school participants and college mentors. High school students involved in the program demonstrated a strong commitment to social justice and community engagement, with a focus on environmental and educational issues, which in turn influenced their personal and professional aspirations towards community service. The program also influenced participants’ moral development, and fostered a deep sense of social responsibility. College mentors also noted the transformative influence of PeaceJam, citing personal growth, clarity of purpose, and enhanced moral reasoning. Central to the findings is the differential impact of the program on high school students and college mentors, revealing a complex interplay of factors that facilitate or hinder the expression and evolution of youth voice. The study identified the significance of supportive environments, mentorship, peer interactions, and reflective practices in cultivating an empowered youth identity capable of contributing meaningfully to community and societal betterment.

This research highlights the critical role of structured yet flexible programs like PeaceJam in fostering youth voice, suggesting that such initiatives can serve as catalysts for personal growth and social change. The dissertation contributes to a more nuanced understanding of youth voice as a multifaceted construct, influenced by individual, relational, and systemic factors. It advocates for the integration of practices to promote the development of youth voice into educational and community programs to enhance participatory democracy and address the pressing social challenges of our times.

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