This blog is the fourth of a series of case studies based upon the work of the Equitable Futures Innovation Network. The network brings together scholars and practitioners to identify cutting-edge practices for promoting racial equity within youth career development programs. Career development historically can get reduced into dialogues of how to increase access to certain careers for underrepresented youth without acknowledging why or how access was an issue in the first place.
The Equitable Futures Innovation Network (EFIN) is a project of the Connected Learning Lab at UC Irvine, focused on fostering career equity in asset-based and identity-affirming ways. This post is the second in a series of reflective case studies of partnerships between EFIN researchers and organizational leaders.
In this post, the second on Timbuk2 Academy, I discuss navigating healthy tensions1 in building a partnership with the youth of Timbuk2, by honoring their pre-existing context, agency, and voice, and engaging in an ethic of care for the partnership by utilizing artistic inquiry. At the end of the blog, I share an example of a poetic transcription composed from the voices of Timbuk2 youth to illustrate a combination of their reflections and statements.
Timbuk2 Academy, created and led by CEO Ms. Ayana, is based on the work and legacy of Ms. Ayana’s parents’ original Timbuktu organization. My first blog post about Timbuk2 Academy discussed the organization’s origins and ethos, describing the work being done as moving beyond representation as a form of racial equity.
Timbuk2 Academy invites youth to be their authentic selves to increase academic and career efficacy. The organization engages Black girls to ensure they are anchored in Black ways of being and knowing. The Timbuk2 youth are a community of Black girls who have navigated the ebbs and flows of Trenton, New Jersey. While they all identify as Black girls, they come from a myriad of familial and school backgrounds. Ms. Ayana indicated that the girls came from different schools within Trenton. While their Blackness united them, the Timbuk2 ethos further anchored and deepened their relationships. The Timbuk2 girls who partnered in the EFIN Network collaboration are Diauna, Camille, Madison, Zyairah, Chantell, Yah’Najah, Kiara, Keyonna, and JahQuasia. The collaboration with Timbuk2 was predominantly online.
Navigating healthy tensions of youth voice: What is for oneself versus public consumption
In navigating this collaborative research journey with the Timbuk2 youth, healthy tensions1 came about. Healthy tensions can be named “healthy” when “adults…reflect upon the ways they have taken up space in ways that cramp youth exhibiting their intellectual prowess. However, this tension is necessary to shift the power dynamics that persists in youth adult partnerships.”1 Healthy tensions can be experienced as fruitful in youth adult partnerships when tensions are acknowledged and addressed in dialogue with everyone impacted. Lived experiences and wonderings were shared that I grappled with making known to folks outside of Timbuk2. There was tension around the question of: What is for public consumption versus what should remain sacred in the Timbuk2 space? I constantly felt the urge to protect content and wisdom shared within Timbuk2, because of my knowledge of how sometimes our experiences as Black girls and women can be highlighted in problematic ways. So, I carried this notion of refusal2 in divulging sacred experiences and wisdom from the youth, in order to protect and further build trust.
Ms. Ayana, the Timbuk2 girls, and I engaged in an activity known as the 5 Whys, which is often used in education spaces to support deeper thinking around what is often not acknowledged beneath the surface within systems. For instance, the youth were interested in better understanding varying experiences they had in their community, so we went through a round of “Whys” with each other to unveil what they wanted people to know about them and their community. However, as we engaged in the initial layer of the 5 Whys, youth were sharing sacred information and inquiries that I felt were just for their youth space and Ms. Ayana to know, which I experienced as a tension.
Holding an ethic of care with inquiry through language
The underlying tension reflects what is shared, kept sacred, and what we as researchers and practitioners choose to share publicly. As I began to hear the youth’s inquiries, I felt the need to pivot toward ensuring a continued dignifying experience with them while online. One way we reconciled tension in a dignifying way was to pivot language from community violence to the inquiry of what they are doing when violence happens within their community. Speaking of community violence would suggest that there is an “innate nature” or “propensity” toward violence from the community, which is a pervasive, deficit-oriented lens toward communities of color. The shift in language toward asking the Timbuk2 youth about what they are doing when violence within the community is occurring allows for a public health lens, which includes social determinants of health within analyses of experiences within the community. I chose not to dwell in the space of deficit inquiry and interrogation of their communities. Deficit thinking is reflective of the notion that the experiences of communities of color are based on their own deficits rather than the myriad of ways historical and current systems impact those experiences. Such deficit thinking about communities of color can lead to spirit murdering3;4. Spirit murdering consists of Black youth experiencing wounds to the soul, often from educators and adults, blaming youth for circumstances they navigate due to racism. With this in mind, we pivoted the conversation to inquiring with the girls on what they are doing when violence is occurring, in order to hone in on their wellness (see the first Timbuk2 blog post for more on this). We then continued the activity of navigating and unearthing “why” questions about what they were experiencing in their communities. Hearing their “whys” allowed me to learn from them, but also positioned them as experts. Furthermore, this allowed for a redefinition of themselves and their communities from an asset-based lens.
Though I identify as a Black woman, I was still external to the Timbuk2 organization and needed to ensure my sensibilities toward valuing youth contexts were felt and understood. When brokering the relationship with Timbuk2 to invite the organization to be a part of the Equitable Futures Innovation Network (EFIN), I had to build a sense of trust in an online context in 2021, while the country was still navigating COVID-19 and the deepened racial reckoning. With the aforementioned sociopolitical context in mind, it was vital that I share how I position myself as a Black female scholar practitioner from another state in the Midwest, who deeply values youth agency and voice. Furthermore, it was vital for me to ensure that the journey of engaging Timbuk2 youth in research would support the feeling of freedom dreaming that Ms. Ayana already had in place. Freedom dreaming5 is indicative of a shift from drowning in thinking about problems toward thinking about possibilities. I did not want to insert myself as an expert; especially knowing that the youth were already navigating racialized experiences that have been dismissed in their schooling contexts. Instead, I aimed to understand the layers of critical consciousness and shared meaning making with the Timbuk2 youth in ways that engaged their pre-existing wisdom with an ethic of care. Utilizing varying forms of art was normal for Timbuk2 as well. For instance, Ms. Ayana would ask youth to share about their experiences through videos.
In order to ensure that trust was being built with the Timbuk2 youth while elevating their knowledge and lived experiences, I utilized artistic inquiry and play as a way to hold space with joy, love, and wellness. Conducted online in 2021 during the pandemic, I ensured every session was grounded in embodied ways of knowing and being by relying on art, music, and other mediums to engage in dialogue with the Timbuk2 youth.
I wanted to deepen partnerships and relationships with the Timbuk2 youth by eliciting their wisdom with dignity through artistic mediums. To normalize the presence of art and how wisdom can be shared in artistic ways, I asked them to share how they felt through photos.
Using photos to understand and enter youth’s worlds through a screen increased opportunities for us to engage one another vulnerably. From the above image, JahQuasia indicated she related to “Number three because I loved music and number 2 because I be in my room…and my room is peaceful and it is peaceful when I am in there myself.” After listening to them share, I reflected through the prism of the images and focused on number three, sharing, “Number 5 because it was this constant not knowing what’s going to happen next…it was just windy at all times and had to feel my way through things.” Using these images, Timbuk2 youth were able to share anything on their minds, from what happened at school that day to something they were wrestling with in navigating their dreams.
Image 3, below, was shown as I played Beyonce’s song “I Was Here” for them to have an opportunity to reflect on ways they lived, loved, and did things in their life that may often be made invisible and are in need of recognition. For instance, a youth shared they had lost folks in their life around their own age. I then reciprocated vulnerably by stating “I lost two Black women within the last couple of weeks, which is why Ms. Ayana and I wanted to talk with you all about Black mental health as well…I honor who you lost as well and may they rest in power.”
The aforementioned “I lived, I loved” activity allowed for the much needed connection of youth voice to an ethic of care. As I asked youth to share their experiences with an ethic of care, it demonstrated to them that I not only heard their experiences, but also have a deep belief in their ability to heal. Reflections from Timbuk2 youth reflected their experiences navigating COVID-19 in conjunction with mental health.
Ziara shared, “I’m used to these covid masks. To be honest I really don’t know. I just live through this covid mask now and I think that’s pretty much it for right now.”
Camille shared, “If I know for sure you love and care for me I’m going to care for you also.”
JahQuasia shared, “I showed love by helping someone in class who was cutting on themselves and told them they should talk to somebody instead of doing that.”
It is critical that we take moments to offer space for youth to share about their experiences in playful ways and through artistic mediums while reciprocating the vulnerability they share with us as adults. The responses reflected everything from navigating COVID-19 in ways that had taken away time from the youth, to be able to think about their own experiences, to being able to think deeply about their own experiences with love. What is vital is that the range of perspectives be honored without judgment. Listening to their reflections on love and how they show love offers a nuanced perspective and entry into the youth’s lens of how they experience their mental health and the world. Knowing the ways they express love allows for not only me as an external partner to learn from them, but for the youth to be affirmed in their agency and voice.
Timbuk2 Wisdom through Poetic Transcription
Another way for adults partnering with youth to decenter ourselves and center youth voice and their agency is through poetic transcription. Through poetic transcription, researchers are able to engage in “the creation of poemlike compositions from the words [of participants]”6. Poetic transcription speaks from the lenses of participants in the unveiling of their own lived experiences through their own words. Poetry is a form of artistic wisdom that “places the personal at the centre”.7
In order to create the Timbuk2 youth’s poetic transcription, I relied on their words and simply put them together to flow as one passage, blending their words. Rather than separate statements, I composed a chorus of the voices of Timbuk2 youth, layered and presented with themes to illuminate the experiences and identity affirmation taking place within the organization. This commitment to centering youth voices in dignifying ways is indicative of the Timbuk2 ethos that every Black girl is born WORTHY. The collection of phrases below depict the collective reflections and visions of Timbuk2 youth.
What the world should know
Something I would like the world to know about my experience at Timbuk2 Academy is that it is inspiring me to be not just a change in the community but within myself, and the ones who are around me. [It is a] great learning experience and has different programs [you] can join. [Timbuk2 is] an inspirational and important contribution made to the community and kids! Everyone learns valuable lessons. [Timbuk2] creates good character in young women, provides trips for learning and observing but also for your enjoyment. You will actually learn a lot about yourself and others and even find that you have a lot of things in common! Timbuk2 is a great platform.
My voice and agency matters
Ms. Ayana kept pushing me not to not give up on myself. [I and other] kids grow and develop a better mindset for [our] own wellbeing. [I had] an excellent experience…[even as someone who is] shy because it help[ed] me interact with other people. [My]… opinions and thoughts [were] heard because you may have different perspectives on things that are talked about. Being here help[ed] [me] look at things differently. [Timbuk2] [taught me] everything you should know as a woman [like] teaching girls how to choose the right person to be with.
What I felt in my experience
[In my Timbuk2 experience, I felt] patience, happy memories…wisdom, safe, [love and care].
Timbuk2 Academy has played such a huge part in helping me find myself, my passion, and career path. [I] learned a lot about black history and our ancestors, [including] things I didn’t know about…African history that is very important for young [B]lack kids to know!
[I now know that I can ] accomplish and achieve [my] future goals. [Timbuk2] taught me you can be whatever you want in life, just do what needs to be done to get where you want to be in life. [Thank you Timbuk2 for] helping me decide the kind of woman I shall be…in the future and for those who I want to fight for and uplift.
Timbuk2 Academy is a real eye opener for young ladies to experience more [because we are born WORTHY].
From my experiences of working with Timbuk2, I have grown as an educator and researcher in immeasurable ways that are indicative of the multifaceted layers of navigating research-practice partnerships. I desired to demonstrate a depth of gratitude for Timbuk2’s leadership and youth through the sharing of my journey as a researcher, but also the blossoming of their journey I had the opportunity to bear witness to over the past couple years. With this in mind, I chose to end this post with the power of the voices of Timbuk2 youth, in the aforementioned section, as a form of homage. In alignment of Ms. Ayana’s ethos “bornWorthy,” I desired to ensure their voices and agency were displayed with an ethic of care while sharing their creative genius.
To learn more about Timbuk2 Academy visit: www.timbuk2academy.org
To learn more about bornWORTHY.visit us: www.iambornworthy.com
[NOTE: The youth of Timbuk2 consented and agreed to be co-authors of this blog. Release of information waivers were collected by Ms. Ayana the CEO of Timbuk2 Academy].
- Mackey, Janiece, Julio Cammarota, Jihee Yoon, Ricardo Martinez, Julliette Gonzales, Leilani Gomez, Jocelynne Farfan, Jose Flores, Elizabeth Ortiz, Shukri Mahamud, Nevaeh Goodman, Nancy Hechavarias, Malika Davis, Karla Torres, Saja Ibrahim, and Vijay Williams. 2021. “Counter-storytelling Across Varying Youth Contexts and Intergenerational Work in YPAR Settings.” The Assembly 3(1):71-85.
- Tuck, Eve, and K. Wayne Yang. 2014. “Unbecoming Claims: Pedagogies of Refusal in Qualitative Research.” Qualitative Inquiry 20(6).
- Williams, Patricia. 1987. “Spirit-murdering the Messenger: The Discourse of Fingerpointing as the Law’s Response to Racism.” U. Miami L. Rev. 42(12).
- Love, Bettina L. 2019. “How Schools Are ‘Spirit Murdering’ Black and Brown Students.” Education Week, May 23.
- Kelley, Robin D. 2022. Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
- Glesne, Corrine. 1997. “That Rare Feeling: Re-presenting Research Through Poetic Transcription.” Qualitative Inquiry 3(2): 202-221.
- Jones, Anna. 2010. “Not Some Shrink-wrapped Beautiful Package: Using Poetry to Explore Academic Life.” Teaching in Higher Education 15(5):591–606. https://doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2010.491902
Post by Dr. Janiece Mackey with contributors: Ms. Ayana, Diauna, Camille, Madison, Zyairah, Chantell, Yah’Najah, Kiara, Keyonna, and JahQuasia
Dr. Janiece Mackey grew up in Aurora, Colorado where she still resides as a wife and mother of 4 children. Dr. Mackey is a Black race scholar activist who has built her career of servant leadership from her narrative. She knew Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPoc) either weren’t interested in activism at a young age or they didn’t have a conduit to civically engage. Due to being one of a few Black folks within academic, civic, and professional spaces, she created an organization entitled Young Aspiring Americans for Social and Political Activism (YAASPA). YAASPA endeavors to build the self-efficacy of youth to reclaim academic, civic and career spaces through race conscious leadership and transformative organizing. Due to her converging interests in education and policy, she earned her PhD in Higher Education with a Public Policy and Curriculum and Instruction emphasis at the University of Denver. She has been an Equitable Futures Postdoctoral Research Fellow and is now a research scientist while running her organization. She co-edited a book entitled Black Girl Civics, has been an Ethnic Studies and Political Science Adjunct Faculty and published many chapter and articles in the realm of youth participatory action research (YPAR), race-grounded approaches to public administration and education and beyond. She desires to deepen, further develop, and expand “healing praxis” (hooks, 1994) for more BIPoC young adults and professionals within the public sector. She believes that those who commit to transformational justice and racial equity must validate and innovate academic, career, and civic experiences that sustain, retain, and rejuvenate minoritized youth and young professionals.