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Investigating an Arts-Based Approach to Youth Identity and Peacebuilding

Tue, March 7, 8:00 to 9:30am, Sheraton Atlanta, 1, Georgia 10 (South Tower)


Around the world, youth are frequently identified as the group most vulnerable to recruitment into extremist and terrorist organizations (Lombardi, Ragab & Chin, 2014). With increased concern regarding the potential for youth to participate in violent extremism, non-formal education (NFE) programs targeting youth in conflict settings have gained significant attention (Kemper, 2005; USAID, 2013a; USAID, 2013b). NFE programs targeting youth in these settings aim to engage youth as catalysts for positive change and to prevent energetic, capable young people from engaging in terrorist activities (USAID, 2013b). Despite the increasing use of NFE for youth in conflict settings, little is known about these programs: the mechanisms they employ, how effective they are, or how they operate in various contexts.

At present, BST is concluding a 2-year arts-based NFE program for youth in Afghanistan, funded by the US State Department. The US State Department identifies the need to engage youth in positive activities to “combat violent extremism,” provide “an identity and a sense of purpose,” and to “facilitate a sense of national identity” (RFGP, 2014, p. 3); thus presuming a likely link between identities and extremism, and believing that by helping youth develop a national identity, the threat of violent extremism can be reduced. Yet although NFE efforts such as the BST program aim to promote positive identities in youth, the link between identity and peaceful or violent attitudes and behaviors is unclear. Beyond BST, there is significant interest among aid workers, educators, and psychologists in employing arts education to inspire empathy, encourage social skills, and provide youth with opportunities for cooperative, peaceful activities (Aguilar & Retamal 2009; Bergh & Sloboda, 2010; Cohen, Varea & Walker, 2011; Hamber & Gallagher, 2015; Wood, 2015). Scant rigorous research exists on these programs in conflict settings (Jordans et al., 2009; Tyrer & Fazel, 2014).
This paper presents preliminary findings from a mixed methods study that investigates how the BST program interacts with the identity characteristics and identity narratives of its youth participants. Quantitative pre- and post-program questionnaires were collected to investigate if there is any measurable impact of the BST program on identity formation, as measured by levels of social connectedness, civic engagement, and a sense of common humanity, in participants (N=375) compared to a group of non­participants, using propensity score matching. Semi-structured interviews with youth primarily focused on how participants situate their identities within their cultural context; how they resist or accommodate prevailing national, international, and cultural narratives; and whether and how participating in the BST program affects their sense of self and perceptions about the nation. Findings from this study will shed light on the link between identity and peaceful attitudes and behaviors, and enhance our understanding of what non-formal arts education might do to mitigate extremism in youth.


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