Conference examines diversity in youth development programs

Anthony Burrow, co-director of PRYDE and assistant professor of human development, speaks with practitioners at the ninth annual Youth Development Research Update conference, held May 29-30 in Ithaca.

Neuroscientists have found that activity in the amygdala – the part of the brain that responds to excitement, interest and fear – is heightened when study participants ages 10-19 view images of ethnic groups different from their own.

But in a similar study involving children ages 6-10, there was no heightened amygdala activity when viewing the photographs. According to Anthony Burrow, assistant professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology, this is a telling developmental story.

“What’s going on there?” he asks. “It’s not something innate, not something biological. It’s something that we learn, to think about diversity in a particular way.”

Burrow, co-director of the Program for Research on Youth Development and Engagement (PRYDE), made this argument during opening remarks at the program’s ninth annual Youth Development Research Update (YDRU), May 29-30 in Ithaca, New York.

PRYDE is part of the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research in the College of Human Ecology (CHE). Funded by College of Human Ecology alumna Rebecca Morgan ’60, PRYDE’s overarching goal is to make the New York State 4-H Youth Development Program a “living laboratory” for research and evaluation, using science to determine the best ways of promoting optimal youth development.

The conference brought together Cornell Cooperative Extension educators and program leaders, youth service providers from community agencies and faculty members from Cornell as well as nearby universities to explore and discuss research on youth development.

This year’s conference focused diversity and how it encompasses many aspects of youth development – including youth and educator attitudes, program delivery and policy.

“Diversity isn’t just a hot topic item, it’s not just a provocative conversation,” Burrow said. “It’s a context that we’re all living in, we’re all navigating.”

Cornell impacting New York State

The conference included a series of talks by researchers from across New York state, a panel of practitioners, brainstorm breakouts and other activities.

Peter Rich, assistant professor of policy analysis and management, shared data on how “micro decisions” about neighborhoods and schools contribute to “macro segregation” and the persistence of inequality over time and between generations.

“The way I understand race is that it is not some fundamentally biological innate thing that divides us,” Rich said, “but it’s actually a group-based identification that has associated with it rights, laws, resources and history, and has unequally distributed those things in a way that is incredibly problematic for a democratic society.”

He also spoke to how these selection processes reflect and reinforce racial and socio-economic gaps in educational attainment, wealth accumulation, childhood health and economic opportunity.

“Whether you live and work in a racially diverse area, in a mostly nonwhite community, or in a mostly white community,” he said, “we’re dealing with a structural problem. It’s not just one person’s problem – it’s everybody’s problem.”

Lorraine Maxwell, associate professor of design and environmental analysis, discussed her work in environmental psychology, focusing on the physical environment and how it affects child and adolescent development, behavior and well-being. She used the example of a noisy neighborhood and how it might affect a child’s ability to sleep at night.

“Think about when they get to school and how they are going to feel,” she said.

Complementing academic work, 4-H and Cornell Cooperative Extension leaders discussed perspectives from the field and what they see in their communities as priorities to help youth from the various regions of New York state to thrive.

“In addition to sharing new and exciting research findings, our goal for the YDRU is to provide a space where researchers get to learn from practitioners and explore together how these findings translate into working with youth,” said Kristen Elmore, the assistant director of PRYDE.

Stephen D’Angelo is assistant director for communications for the College of Human Ecology.

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