The pandemic’s effects on youth organizations

Dr. Heather Lawford and her team of faculty and undergraduate researchers are studying the changes and adaptations of youth programs in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, assisting government and community organizations in better understanding both the negative impacts of the pandemic and any positive outcomes that may have arisen from their responses to it. Working in partnership with the Students Commission of Canada, Dr. Lawford and her team have sent surveys to youth in programs across Canada and interviewed their staff. 

Dr. Heather Lawford

As with many systems in society, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the delivery of youth programs across the country, which particularly impacted marginalized communities such as LGBTQ+, Indigenous, and neurodivergent youth. Dr. Lawford set out to explore the effects of the virus and the restrictions on daily life that it brought, focusing on Canadian youth from equity-seeking groups.  

Sharing Youth’s Stories of COVID: Youth voice as a basis of understanding the broader impacts of adaptations in youth programming with a focus on micro population is one of two COVID-19-related projects at Bishop’s University focusing on the pandemic’s impact that the Canadian Institutes of Health Research is supporting as part of a competition it launched to address the challenges of the pandemic. The operation grant is the first time BU researchers have obtained a CIHR grant as principal investigators. 

Since starting the project, the research team has conducted extensive interviews with youth program staff on Prince Edward Island; in Toronto, Ontario; and Saskatchewan. They gathered information about how their policies changed, how they communicated with colleagues, and how their focus shifted in what they tried to accomplish. While there were some differences (for instance, in Prince Edward Island, some in-person programming remained possible), each of the groups they spoke with described pandemic restrictions as detrimental to their abilities to offer their services. The study seeks to work with program staff and the young persons they work with to better understand the impact of these restrictions on the quality of life of youth, particularly marginalized, racialized, and politicized groups. 

This is a participatory project, involving collaboration with the research subjects. Dr. Lawford’s team listened to participants to best leverage modern, popular modes of communication among Canadian youth to ensure an accurate sample for their survey. They built relationships between the project’s supporters and stakeholders, making decisions about collecting and storing the project’s data and getting young people to engage with it. This included uncommon methods, such as contacting prospective participants through their organization’s Discord server (an online platform for clubs and communities). The results of the survey were then made accessible to their staff by Dr. Lawford’s team. 

Dr. Lawford is not simply producing an academic work summarising what happened to youth and youth programming but is working with concerned program staff and youth to best focus the research on answering the questions they have in their work. In fact, it is the continued dialogue with the stakeholders of the project that is keeping both the researchers grounded, and the data as useful as possible. The research is directly related to her work as Co-Director of the Center of Excellence for Youth Engagement, part of the Students Commission, where she studies youth engagement, mental health, and development. 

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