Social Scientists Partner on Youth Violence Study in Lansing

August 29, 2022 - Emily Jodway

Carole Gibbs and Jennifer Cobbina of the College of Social Science’s School of Criminal Justice, along with Psychology research associate Sean Hankins, are in the midst of conducting an ongoing research project with adolescents in the Lansing community. The project, titled ‘Putting Violence in Context: How Neighborhoods Shape Youth Decision Processes,’ aims to investigate the ways that one’s neighborhood influences can shape their decision-making process, especially when it comes to engaging in crime and other forms of violence within their community. 

“Our decisions in our everyday lives are shaped by where we live,” Gibbs said. “And a lot of studies of crime don't take that context into account, in terms of how people make decisions about getting involved in violence or selling drugs or anything else. Our question is, how does neighborhood context shape the decision process for engaging in crime, particularly among youth?”

Gibbs serves as the principal investigator, with Cobbina on board to co-lead the project and conduct interviews, while Hankins serves as a community liaison, connecting the research team with youth organizations in Lansing that he has built relationships with over the years through his Adolescent Diversion Program

The project originally came from conversation and initial planning between Gibbs and several former Social Science faculty members in addition to Gibbs, Cobbina-Dungy and Hankins. Alaina de Biasi, now at Wayne State, and Louie Rivers III at North Carolina State, continue to collaborate on the research and are an integral part of the team. 

The project centers around hands-on, collaborative research within the local community on decision-making, particularly decisions among youth regarding violence. Researchers take into account the conditions of the neighborhood they live in as well as the ways these communities are underserved, such as a lack of resources for schools and community organizations, less access to healthy food options, and few options for extracurricular activities and employment. They then analyze how these factors can make an impact on how youth consider decisions on both getting involved in and avoiding violent situations. 

In the team’s pilot project, they interviewed dozens of members of Lansing’s neighborhoods, both community-based youth service providers and young members of the city itself, to get their perspectives on youth violence in Lansing. 

“We asked about neighborhood violence and how it influences them, as well as the resources that are available to address youth violence within their neighborhoods,” Cobbina-Dungy said. “The whole point though is to get their perspective and understand their lived experiences, rather than making assumptions.”

Through ongoing interviews with 13 to 18 year-olds in Lansing, the team is able to build up a rapport within the community and further the conversation on some of the issues young people are facing in their neighborhoods, such as a lack of resources at school, food scarcity and other environmental factors that can draw someone into participating in crime. 

The team saw value in conducting research like this within the smaller context of Lansing, while previous research has often covered significantly larger urban areas. 

“Lansing is an interesting town because it's not really that big, but it's very diverse,” Hankins said. “So a lot of these kids, although diverse being in small towns, [they] shared some of the same issues as those in a larger city.”

“We're interested in the landscape because we're so close by at MSU, and we care about what happens in our neighboring city,” Cobbina added. “Too often the focus is on larger cities like Detroit and dealing with impoverishment [there], but here, we also see high rates of crime and violence.”

The group found that building personal relationships with Lansing’s youth as well as directly partnering with local organizations created a layer of trust and encouraged the community to give input and share ideas. Going out into Lansing and doing hands-on work and research is one way that they hope the community will see they are truly dedicated to spurring positive change. 

“A lot of time researchers come in, and do their research and then they leave, and they're not really working with organizations in the community,” Gibbs explained. “We really want to build long-term relationships and make sure that we are learning from them in terms of how we approach the project, and really include these community organizations in all aspects of the research.”

“Especially with young people, they’re not used to hearing an adult say they want to hear their perspective; we have to make it very clear, there's no right or wrong answer. I just want to hear their perspective. We want to understand their thoughts,” Cobbina-Dungy said. 

Through Sean’s community connections, the research team has found several groups to collaborate with and that they are hoping will be interested in coming on board in an advisory capacity, to work together towards this common goal of reducing youth violence in the city. 

Sean has played an instrumental role in helping us recruit people in the community,” Cobbina-Dungy said. “Because of Sean's connections, he's really helped us to get the number of respondents [we’ve had] for our project.”

Carole Gibbs (Criminal Justice), speaks with fellow researchers Jennifer Cobbina (Criminal Justice), and Sean Hankins (Psychology) at The Fledge Community Center in Lansing. Jerry Norris, far left, runs The Fledge and is helping to facilitate their project titled "Putting Violence in Context: How Neighborhoods Shape Youth Decision Processes." Photo credit: Jacqueline Hawthorne, MSU.

One such group is The Fledge, a local community center run by Lansing resident Jerry Norris as an inclusive place where young people can go to receive support and feel safe and welcome. The Fledge frequently hosts affordable events, community speakers and vocational trainings to mentor and connect with the neighborhood’s youth. 

“The Fledge has a lot of influence amongst the young people in the community, they're flocking there to hang out,” Hankins explained. “Because Jerry and his organization have showed that they really care. They really care about young people and want to see them not just survive, but to thrive.”

There is already a sense of positive change being created within the community following the team’s preliminary study. And looking toward the future, Gibbs, Hankins and Cobbina-Dungy hope to further assist these Lansing-based groups with developing programs and initiatives within their shared passion, and reducing violent activities among the city’s young people. 

“As we were sharing our preliminary findings, I think there was some value in people feeling heard,” Gibbs said. 

“It showed many of the youth service providers that we really do care, and that we're trying to see how we can help the community in the long run,” Cobbina-Dungy added.

Through grant funding and increased public knowledge on the work that this team is doing, MSU’s researchers can continue to make a real difference in the local community. As the state’s capital and the heart of Michigan, Lansing has more value and impact to be tapped into than meets the eye. 

“A lot of times, people in the community are so passionate about helping but they may not have that research background to sustain their vision,” Hankins explained. “The long term focus is on expanded development, and having people with the expertise and the knowledge, like Jennifer and Carole, to develop these community programs. From there, I think the more people know about what's really influencing them, the more they can understand their decision-making process.”

“It's not just about changing people's decisions, because the individuals are not the problem,” Gibbs added. “We have to think about,  what is it about the neighborhood that is creating this impact on the decision-making process and how to address that - [We need to] get more to the root causes. We want to see how we can use [this work] to help create and fund programs in collaboration with these organizations and how it can be applied in practice over time. We're hoping long term that new iterations and new questions can emerge as we learn. The key is going to be us securing external funds.”