Youth Equity Project researchers continue working to reduce youth disparities in Lansing

July 6, 2023 - Emily Jodway

Researchers affiliated with the College of Social Science’s Youth Equity Project are entering the second phase of their investigation into youth violence in Lansing and the surrounding neighborhoods. The project, titled Rational Choice in the Real World: Unpacking Neighborhood Influences on the Decision Process for Youth Violence, will build upon initial research done in 2021 by taking a deeper dive into how the neighborhood context shapes youth decision making regarding violence. 

Carole Gibbs (Criminal Justice), Jennifer Cobbina-Dungy (Criminal Justice), Sean Hankins (Psychology), Alaina De Biasi (Wayne State) and Louie Rivers (North Carolina State) will work with local community center The Fledge to conduct interviews with men aged 18 to 24 who have been involved in violence. The researchers plan to hire a postdoctoral scholar whose office will be located in The Fledge to serve as a base for building relationships and recruiting interviewees from the community. 

From initial interviews in 2021, the team found that the decision process behind an involvement in violence is much more complicated than theorized in criminology, with much of their actions being a direct result of struggling to manage the complex neighborhood and school environments in which many youth involved in violence live.

“Previous research typically ignores context, emphasizing that people engage in crime as if we all have individual agency, but oftentimes they don’t consider the context of the situation that shapes their decision-making process,” Cobbina-Dungy explained. 

“The way that [violent situations] go down are not just the result of one person’s decision during the interaction,” Gibbs added. “Young people find themselves in situations that you wouldn’t normally see in other communities, like a drug sale gone bad or dealing with rival groups of youths. Or they experience normative adolescent bullying, but in communities that have learned they must settle such matters themselves. We’re hoping we can get more in depth this time to understand more about how the community context impacts young people’s thoughts, feelings, and actions during these incidents.”

Researchers also found in the first round of interviews that older youths were more reflective and capable of discussing their decision making-processes, leading the team to conduct these interviews with an older age group. Each respondent will be interviewed twice, giving researchers the chance to build a rapport with the youths before delving into questions about violence in their communities. They are seeking to show and emphasize how context, such as poverty, unemployment and lack of resources impact human behavior and decision-making.

“It’s really a disservice to our field that it has not connected the decision process to the neighborhood context, because neighborhoods are still largely segregated and differ vastly by race, especially when you look at predominantly Black communities,” said Gibbs. “This research is very relevant to how we handle crime because we tend to demonize those who are involved in criminal activity. Especially with violence, we assume there are bad people and bad decision-makers, but our findings show that violent incidents are a lot more complicated than that.”

The team’s connection to The Fledge, run by Lansing native Jerry Norris, gives them the chance to meet a variety of youth from the area. The Fledge is both a community center and a safe space for those in need of housing, transportation, childcare or other services. The Fledge offers skill development and educational courses as well as resource and job fairs. It also serves as a gathering place that hosts events such as open mic nights and art lessons.

“These are communities that are facing persistent poverty and a lack of economic opportunity, and [Norris] offers entrepreneurship programs and helps youth develop pathways out of poverty,” Gibbs said. “He also brings an environmental focus to things, teaching people how to live sustainably in a way that doesn’t require as much money. He’s a really holistic thinker.”

Nearly half of Lansing youth lost to gun violence in 2021 were somehow affiliated with The Fledge, so working directly with The Fledge to engage the community and its youth is that much more important. It gives the researchers the chance to hear firsthand what their struggles are and the changes that they hope to see happen in their neighborhoods. Their goal is to build a deep relationship with community members and, rather than collect the necessary data and move on, to do research with the intention of continuing the partnership and giving back to the community. 

Local youths that they have talked to so far are eager to voice their opinions on the tools and strategies they need available in their neighborhoods to stay out of violence. The team explained that it’s not unusual for individuals directly involved in violent experiences to want to see change happen, helping stop the cycle of violence by making the community safer for younger folks. However, Cobbina-Dungy said, the voices of this group are typically dismissed, overlooked or ignored, which they are hoping to change. 

“Something that resonated with the younger interviewees was the idea that their voices and experiences could be funneled into something positive, and I expect that it will be similar when we talk to the older group,” said Gibbs. 

Gibbs, Cobbina-Dungy and their team seek to improve understanding of decision-making and violence in order to address problematic aspects of criminological theory and how current policies respond to crime without consideration for neighborhood context, especially in marginalized communities. The research will hopefully directly influence policy change and how criminologists both educate and think about the habits of violent youths.  

“We really want to make it a point to emphasize the role of social structure and agency in decision-making, Cobbina-Dungy explained. “Too often we focus on individual agency and ignore the impact that social structure, the community and its context has on decision-making.” Gibbs added, “We hope to shift the lens away from blaming people for being involved in these incidents toward understanding, and seeing how the context shapes the pathway that leads them to these moments and this behavior.”

The team would like to thank Jerry Norris and The Fledge for partnering on this project, and the National Science Foundation for awarding the grant, as well as the College of Social Science for providing the pilot funds for the initial project. Read more about the Youth Equith Project and work researchers are doing in the community and beyond here.