A pioneering international study by researchers in Canada, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, is generating insight into how to prevent youth crime. Richard Maclure from The University of Ottawa’s faculty of education and Kathryn Campbell, from the university’s criminology department, are leading the study with support from Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC).
Researchers are studying the factors that can shape young lives for good. What they are finding is that the best and cheapest way to steer youth away from crime is to invest in positive social capital.
Simply defined, social capital is the set of resources and relationships from which one derives benefit. Before this study, many researchers investigated the risk factors contributing to youth crime, but few took a comparative look at how social capital could prevent it.
To answer that question, researchers decided to focus on Moreno in Managua, Nicaragua, Britannia Woods in Ottawa, Canada, and Mejicanos in San Salvador, El Salvador. While social conditions vary between the Canadian and Central American sites, all three are low-income neighbourhoods with reputations for higher-than-average levels of youth crime.
The impact of social capital
“A question we wanted to look at was, even if we identify indicators of social capital and a connection to youth well-being, how far does it go…in consideration of different environments,” says Maclure.
To understand social capital’s positive impact, researchers applied an ecological approach, looking at the full range of young people’s relationships with their families, peers, schools, and the wider community. Researchers also studied the relationships between local organizations, schools, and government, all of which provide services to residents.
What they discovered is that all these relationships play vital roles in building the foundation for healthy productive lives, regardless of context.
“Peer relationships are important, family relationships are very important. If you have a mother and father together and at least one of them is working, chances are that this is going to be beneficial,” says Maclure. But there are limits to what social capital can do.
When living conditions fall below a certain level, social capital can be undermined. “If you have abysmal housing — in El Salvador, you have six or seven people in two rooms — that affects family relationships,” says Maclure.
Overcoming stigma, isolation
Relationships, of all kinds, are what it comes down to. “In good quality schools, it’s the relationships they have with the teachers, with their peers. Generally if these are positive relationships, then generally, they are doing well in school,” he says.
When those relationships are bad, it contributes to stigma and isolation which are risk factors for youth delinquence, says Iris Tejada, a researcher at the University Institute on Public Opinion in San Salvador.
An example is the relationship between police and young people. “It was very interesting to compare the policing models in Nicaragua, Ottawa, and here in El Salvador,” says Tejada. “The police in Nicaragua and in Ottawa have problems, but compared to El Salvador, they are friendlier, they have a community-oriented view and a service view. Here it’s more repressive and more violent,” notes Tejada.
As a result, she found, that negative relationship actually increases insecurity and stress in the community. In one part of Mejicanos, fear of the police further isolates residents already cut off from their surroundings by locked gates, installed to keep out warring gangs. Along with social stigma — a common problem in all three neighbourhoods — this isolation cuts residents off from vital social capital which provides opportunities for people to improve their lives.
Relationships between the institutions that serve disadvantaged communities are also critical. By working together they can increase the social capital that prevents youth delinquency, which can flourish when young people don’t have access to good jobs or education.
In Ottawa, Britannia Woods Community House has developed strategic partnerships with a host of civic and governmental institutions that allow it to leverage a broad range of services for the residents of Britannia Woods.
A local school provides space for after-school activities and a summer day camp. Local churches and charities, Ottawa Police Services, the City of Ottawa, and the Ottawa Food Bank, all contribute resources that allow Britannia Woods Community House to hire young residents and help the community in ways that far exceed what its small but committed staff could achieve on its own.
“Partnership is the key to our success,” says Britannia Woods Community House interim executive director Christine Verhulp.
Tapping into knowledge
In keeping with the theme of partnerships, the research project is being conducted in collaboration with community organizations and residents who in turn, are using the research findings to improve programs and services.
This approach has also allowed the researchers to tap into the knowledge of community members. For their part, community members have been trained in how to conduct research and learned from one another across three countries.
“I got to learn about qualitative analysis, how all this data comes together, and how it can be analyzed and implemented,” says Rasha Al-Katta, one of four young Brittania Woods residents who interviewed 100 of their peers as part of the research.
In Britannia Woods, a newly formed youth advisory committee is set to review the research findings and put forth proposals for programs.
“It’s going to be a very valuable tool,” says Verhulp.
Jonah Engle is a Montreal-based writer