Ways to promote social justice in developmental research for African American youth

Smith, C. D., & Lee, J. R. S. (2020). Advancing social justice and affirming humanity in developmental science research with African American boys and young men.  Applied Developmental Science, 24(3), 208–214. 


Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: 

  • Barbarin, Tolan, and Gaylord-Harden proposed a model of Adversity, Adaptation, and Positive Development of African American Boys & Men (AABM) in 2019.
    • The goal of the model was to account for systemic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal outcomes of racism in America, as well as the resulting trauma that many AABM experience from this. 
  • The aim of this commentary is to discuss ways of advancing the two aspects of Barbarin, Tolan, and Gaylord-Harden’s framework: 
    •  Acknowledge the complicated and prevalent effects adversity has on AABM
    • Apply this knowledge to amend current theories about how normal behavior is defined within a toxic environment
  • This paper highlights the need for a social justice framework in developmental science research.

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

This commentary engages the three elements of a social justice framework in the study of African American Boys and Men’s (AABM) positive development, proposed by Barbarin, Tolan, and Gaylord-Harden (2019). In agreement with the importance of and in support of employing a social justice framework in developmental science, we offer theoretical and methodological options to advance each element. The options we describe are aimed at centering the humanity of AABM in the study of their development.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

Barbarin et al.’s (2019) model of Adversity, Adaptation, and Positive Development of AABM posits that AABM negotiate a toxicity in their world that manifests in multiple vulnerabilities to their positive development. However, AABM employ multiple strategies and are assisted by cultural strength-based assets to survive and thrive despite that toxicity. The call for a social justice framework is a logical addition to the discussion of development among AABM, as social justice foregrounds the existence of toxic environments and the power of human resilience. We engaged this call by discussing potential levers for promoting a social justice framework that affirms humanity and confronts oppression in developmental science research. Initially, we emphasize the importance of centering the humanity of AABM prior to centering the trauma they face. Then, we introduced SPD and PAR as helpful applications of a social justice framework for the development of AABM.

Finally, we offer one last note regarding the centering of cultural strength-based assets in a social justice framework. In their model, Barbarin et al. (2019) highlight the role of religion, spirituality, racial identity, and racial socialization as cultural strength-based assets; these assets serve as sites of coping and community building. Racial socialization and racial identity are collective and individual processes of reclaiming, redefining, and reinforcing the humanity of African Americans; these constructs are already at the center of social justice frameworks. For example, the two constructs are often employed to define aspects of SPD (Lozada et al., 2016). Additionally, African American religious institutions (e.g., the Black church, the Nation of Islam) served as iconic sites for social justice work during the African American Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Given this, we affirm the call for the incorporation of these assets into a social justice framework; however, we call for specificity in the definition of these assets for AABM in particular.

We also call for greater attention to the ways in which AABM make meaning of themselves and the world around them, specifically their definitions of strength, community, and space. Once again, this is a call for the foregrounding of their voices in a social justice framework and in studies of their experiences. This is a call for qualitative and participatory action research that pulls AABM’s narratives from the margins to the center of developmental science. Furthermore, we imagine the inclusion of more cultural strength-based assets of development that are defined and maintained by AABM. This expands the scope of our research to an examination of spaces designed by and for AABM—and not the examination of AABM at individual level, with no regard to context. In this examination, we will not only learn about the healthy aspects of AABM’s spaces, we will also learn about the needs and points of growth within these spaces. For example, in their study examining African American boys’ meaning-making of high school experiences while they were participants in a YPAR program designed for African American boys, Smith and Hope (2018) observed that boys initially employed deficit narratives to describe African American youth at their school. Eventually, with guidance from program facilitators, the boys in that study revised their narratives to engage in a critique of racial injustice at their school. More work around the construction and maintenance of AABM’s social spaces will reveal more levers for supporting them in their fight for social justice and their humanity.

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