"It's like I can be myself here" : adolescent identity and agency in an arts-based out-of-school context




Jefferson, Jennifer Elizabeth

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My dissertation, “‘It’s like I can be myself here’: Adolescent identity and agency in an arts-based out-of-school program” is a three-year post-critical ethnographic study (Noblit, Flores, and Murillo, 2004) of YouthArts, a free, out-of-school arts program for adolescents who self-identify as having a low socio-economic status. YouthArts, under the auspices of a non-profit art space, offers participants both a range of activities, such as field trips, artist-led workshops, and critique sessions, and materials, such as supplies and an electronic portfolio, to help foster artistic identity development. The program design demonstrates the complexity of artistic endeavors beyond technical prowess and highlights the role of collaboration, communication, inquiry, and curiosity in the process of art creation and consideration. I employ participant-observation methods, semi-structured interviews, and artifact collection, as well as narrative analysis and content analysis, to create a dynamic representation of how adolescents engage in this program. My theoretical approach to this project brings together social production theories, such as figured worlds (Holland et al., 1998), social and cultural capital (Bourdieu and Passeron, 1977), community cultural wealth (Yosso, 2006), situated learning (Lave, 1990; Lave and Wenger, 1991) and the field of youth studies (James, Jenks, and Prout, 1998; Best, 2007) to explore learning, identity, and agency. I provide a thick description of the program’s professionalizing activities and offer detailed case studies of four focal participants in order to demonstrate the ways that the program helps participants transition from high school to post-secondary paths and from being students in high-school art classes to becoming practicing artists. I privilege youth voices to highlight the ways they see their identities as being informed by multiple communities, including their out-of-school activities, their schools, their families, and their friends and through intersecting classed, raced, gendered, and sexualized discourses, as well as to consider the ways that they enact agency in these multiple contexts. I highlight the need for more studies that research out-of-school learning from a place of positive youth development and explore the role of relationship building in learning environments.



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