An exploratory study that aimed to identify elements of community organizations that youth judged effective and the accomplishments of the youth participants, Community Counts (McLaughlin, 2000) included exploratory research aimed at better understanding the organizational settings youth found supportive and inviting—settings that reflected many of the features of settings presented in Chapter 4. The sample was purposely biased to include “effective” programs; youth steered researchers toward organizations they identified as good places to spend their time—places where they felt valued, respected, and challenged in positive ways. The organizations and activities studied were a diverse lot—Boys and Girls Clubs, dance troupes, YMCA/YWCAs, basketball teams, and improvisational theater. More than 1,000 youth participated in these groups; all were poor, and the majority were members of minority groups.
During the first phase of the study, research associates living in each of the communities carried out primary data collection. These researchers spent full time for three years getting to know the communities, the youth, and their organizations. They and the principal investigators conducted interviews, observations, and focus groups with youth, community-based organizations, and community leaders over a three-year period. The study developed a strategy to engage youth in data collection and interpretation. Approximately five young people from the organizations in each of the three communities were recruited and trained to serve as ethnographers. These youth were responsible for interviews with youth and adults in their organization and neighborhood and for providing field notes from activities that researchers could not attend. Phase 2 of the research continued these data collection strategies, employing “traveling” research associates instead of community-based researchers. Phase 2 also included a survey that asked a subset of questions from the National Education Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NELS:88) instrument in order to “locate” the characteristics and accomplishments of participating youth in terms of representative American youth.