NA TIG Week: Lessons Learnt from Participatory Needs Assessment and Asset Mapping with Youth by Madhawa Palihapitiya

Greetings! I am Madhawa “Mads” Palihapitiya, an evaluator from UMass Boston. I have been using participatory approaches to needs assessment and asset mapping with youth for a while now.

I have been evaluating The Youth Conflict Resolution & Restorative Practices Program administered by Massachusetts’ statutory state dispute resolution office (MOPC) for the past eight years. This program aims to reduce youth violence through positive youth development strategies.

The evaluation aimed to uncover significant strengths as well as needs in the community where “at-risk” youth live in order to develop successful public programs and policies. Community problems, such as youth violence are often characterized in terms of needs defined as deficiencies that require external input, without much regard to harnessing inherent strengths and capacities. Research on evaluation demonstrates the importance of leveraging the strengths of youth in contributing to their development as well as the development of programs, communities, and society as a whole.

Key Lessons:

Asset-based evaluation approach works well with youth: Asset-based assessment can increase self-esteem of individuals and communities as well as their coping abilities, which may lead to less dependency on external services over time. The evidence from this project also indicates that youth obtained skills for comprehensive recording and analysis of personal and group histories, injustices as well as positive experiences like resolving conflict through sports, mediation, problem-solving and dialogue.

Participatory approaches like PhotoVoice empower the powerless: Participatory approaches, particularly PhotoVoice can unlock the creative potential in marginalized youth and, combined with photo elicitation dialogues and storytelling meetings, empower them while generating a significant amount of evaluation data in the process. Participants can interpret the data in group sense-making exercises facilitated by the evaluators resulting in more accurate analysis and the identification of critical deficits as well as existing community assets.

Examine negative, but also positive relationships where possible: Evaluators should strive to examine not just the negative (deficit) but also the positive (assets/capacity-building) relationship between various groups. In this project, we identified trust development between local police representatives and black youth, and that mentoring by older black men for “at risk” young black men fostered good-decision making and leadership skills, as well as lessons in self-care, social responsibility, personal development and career awareness among the youth.

Cultural sensitivity or lack thereof can make or break your evaluation: We paid particular attention to the ethnic/racial background of evaluators, trainers, facilitators, and even interns to ensure that they looked like the youths themselves. This enabled deeper dialogue, trust and increased sharing of personal trials and tribulations.

Photos, videos and stories can be more powerful than an evaluation report: The project generated many outputs. Key among them was the photos and videos, including digital stories, interviews, footage from training sessions and group discussions, surveys and discussions with adult program staff, to name a few. This material, particularly the photos, videos and narratives has been useful in sharing evaluation findings and program advocacy.

Hot Tip:

Share digital stories from participatory evaluations using an online exhibition like Artsteps.

The American Evaluation Association is hosting Needs Assessment (NA) TIG Week with our colleagues in the Needs Assessment Topical Interest Group. The contributions all this week to aea365 come from our NA TIG members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators. The views and opinions expressed on the AEA365 blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the American Evaluation Association, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

1 thought on “NA TIG Week: Lessons Learnt from Participatory Needs Assessment and Asset Mapping with Youth by Madhawa Palihapitiya”

  1. Hello,

    Thank you so much for sharing your experience and knowledge with us!  As an educator who has worked directly with “at-risk” youth for many years, I am intrigued by the key lessons outlined in your article, and by the concept of asset-mapping. 

    I have found that it is really common for educators to approach these students with a deficit-based lens. Programming and resources are developed based on what a student “doesn’t have” and “can’t do”. While I believe that this is done with the best of intentions, in my experience, it has a negative impact on student self-esteem and fails to capitalize on the many strengths and assets these students DO have. Within our school community, we have tried to flip this narrative and instead work to focus first on a student’s strengths. Giving them autonomy and voice over their own learning also has a big impact. 

    I am very new to evaluation theory and practice, but an asset-based evaluation approach makes a lot of sense to me. Empowering youth to leverage their strengths and use their voice to make change is hugely impactful. Many of the marginalized youth I have worked with feel powerless over their own lives and yet, have much to contribute. Participatory approaches to evaluation can give them that voice and allow them the opportunity to have an impact on the world around them. 

    Thank you again, for sharing your experience. 

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