PUKAR’s Youth Fellowship Program reminded me very much of work I had supported in east Tennessee several years ago with the Clearfork Community Institute (CCI), where my colleagues Michelle Mockbee, Marie Cirillo and Carol Judy designed a Community Led Action Research (CLAR) program which worked with young adults from the mountain communities in Campbell and Claiborne Counties of Central Appalachia. As was central to the CLAR work at CCI, Anita says that the purpose of the youth fellowship is to “generate the capacity to aspire” for young people living in challenging circumstances.
The youth fellowship program is open to anyone 35 and under, with no educational credential required to join. The participants in the program are a cross section of the city, from students at secondary schools to young construction laborers. The fellows commit to one year of learning and researching, giving up their Sundays for twelve consecutive months to participate in the weekly training sessions.
Students are organized in research teams of ten members. As a participatory, co-generative process, the participants have wide leeway in selecting the topic of their PAR inquires. PUKAR’s only guidance is that the work must be anchored in the young person’s locality and in the issues which effect their life’s condition. Through the process of designing the action research project and implementing it, Anita emphasized that participants learn not only research skills but also consensus building, teamwork and a capacity to work across diverse populations.
Although such projects require much support from PUKAR, the organization has managed to scale this program impressively. 300 youth researchers are trained through the fellowship program each year. The curriculum for the fellowship includes three core themes: 1) self-discovery 2) research skills and 3) social realities (caste, religion, inequality/justice). The research teams progress through a series of modules then begin to work in their teams as their action inquires begin. They are supported throughout by a research mentor from the PUKAR team.
At the end of the process, PUKAR holds a massive research dissemination event in which all of the fellowship teams present their research to their families, community members, research partners and other interested parties. This research findings fair is followed by a celebration of the young researchers, who take the stage to reflect on their experience of the program. I attended the end of program event this year in June and saw these young researchers in action. Their topics ranged from creating safe spaces for children in informal settlements, to addressing government policies to revive a community street market for local traders, to equitable public bathroom facilities for transgender individuals, and many more.
Having written extensively about how to evaluate change in action research using a 5 level ‘transformative knowledge’ framework (Bivens 2014), it was gratifying to hear Anita articulate a very similar cascade of impacts in terms of the changes the youth fellowship program produces:
"There is an enormous amount of self-transformation that the process brings. The transformation happens in them. It happens in their families, in the communities with whom they work, and of course it happens in PUKAR. We have changed a lot since this whole thing started."
While I had not made the family unit one of my levels of change in my earlier transformative knowledge framework, PUKAR’s projects, with their youth focus, do indeed expose families to new experiences. Anita provided an example of how one youth researcher’s family was deeply moved by attending a theater performance developed by transgender individuals in which the performers shared their daily challenges and dangers of life in Mumbai. The performance was a research output of the young person’s PAR work with a transgender group. The youth researcher's mother and the aunt were originally uncomfortable with the topic, but in order to support their young person's work, they were willing to attend the performance, to learn and ultimately to have their perspective on the issue turned upside down by their direct engagement with the transgender individuals and their stories which were surfaced during in the research process and performance.
Moreover, PUKAR’s youth fellowship programs have had measurable impacts in communities more broadly. Anita pointed to a youth fellowship project which managed to increase the child immunization rate in a particular Mumbai slum from 29%-90.7%. By mapping and documenting the situation, the youths’ work made it easier to get policy and ministerial assistance to support a targeted immunization campaign in the community.
Although these direct outcomes are important, Anita also emphasizes the meta-level significance of such work in building an “electoral, inclusive, participatory democracy.” This is often a theory of change underlying PAR work. PUKAR believes that building research skills simultaneously builds capacity for active citizenship. Given the sheer volume of young people in the world at the current time—young people under 30 comprise between 50-70% of the populations of most countries in the global south—PUKAR’s work to empower youth through research at scale is powerful. In her interview, Anita urges others to build programs which facilitate such deep, constructive youth engagement:
"Understand the importance of youth and their aspirations. Work with them because the world is so young. The world has never been this young before. If you want to bring about long term changes in the way this world is going, we think it needs to be made inclusive. Development has to be inclusive, development has to be participatory… These are the people who are going to decide where the world is going to go. It is important to enable them with knowledge and skills and right attitude. That will help everybody. Your security will depend on the equality or inequality for people in ‘third world countries.’"
Anita’s words resonate strongly as I write this. I am currently partnering with the United States Institute of Peace to use participatory action research as a method to empower marginal youth in several Sub-Saharan African countries. Through this project I am collaborating with colleagues and young people in Uganda, where 68% of the country’s population is under 30 years old. The future of this country, often called the “Pearl of Africa”, depends on the how effectively the nation's young people are prepared to take their country forward. I would argue, like PUKAR, that engaging youth to start now in building the communities and countries they want to live in is best way to build a future that they—and we—can all share and value.
Inclusion and participation aren’t just ways of making development more youth or community friendly. Participation is fundamentally about instilling in people a belief that they can shape the world they want to live in, cultivating their agency to put that vision into action through critical thinking, collaboration and civic engagement with the wider institutions of one’s community, country and society. These are skills the world needs desparately at the moment, in the global north as well as in the global south. PUKAR's youth programs provide a clear and effectively methodology for helping young people to develop these skills while simultaneously contributing to the betterment of their communities.