A Quest for Hope: Researcher Gives a Voice to Marginalized Youth

“No one is born a good citizen; no nation is born a democracy. Rather, both are processes that continue to evolve over a lifetime. Young people must be included from birth. A society that cuts off from its youth severs its lifeline.” – Kofi Annan

The cause is social justice. The population is marginalized youth. The torchbearer, bringing light to issues facing under-represented groups in our society, is the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Dr. Brandy Kelly Pryor, an assistant professor of recreation, parks, and tourism sciences.


Photo courtesy of Texas A&M University

A recent Texas A&M University doctoral graduate turned faculty member, Dr. Kelly Pryor has hit the ground running, already making a substantial impact on youth across the country, particularly those groups that are socially disadvantaged.

“My research focuses on how our society categorizes our young people in democracy,” she said. “When do our youth get a voice? Also, how do they go about getting that voice?”

Dr. Kelly Pryor’s involvement with marginalized youth began while working as an AmeriCorps member in Washington D.C.  Continuing her work at a youth campand pursuing her master’s degree in Education Policy Studies at George Washington University Dr. Kelly Pryor’s  research career began to bud

“At the camp in D.C., I was directing programs for middle school students. I worked with students from both low-income families and high-income families,” she added. “Seeing their different worlds converge was phenomenal and conflicting.”

In 2007, Dr. Kelly Pryor’s interest in youth those between the ages of 12-22 years old, grew into a yearlong independent project as she traveled across the country interviewing nearly 200 young women of African descent about ethnic and gender identity development. The project has been titled HerDentity.

This exploratory qualitative study took Dr. Kelly Pryor to 50 cities in 30 different states. Along the way, she stayed with family, friends, and even a few strangers. She talked to a variety of young women from all walks of life.

“With HerDentity, I wanted to capture what it was like growing up as a girl in America,” she said. “After talking to multiple young women, themes of hope began to surface. It was a hope for themselves, hope for their community, and hope for the world at large.”

This theme of hope and where it comes from for young women of color was of particular interest to Dr. Kelly Pryor. Little did she know, this voluntary project and these unanswered questions would shape her future academic career.

Upon completing HerDentity, Dr. Kelly Pryor took a job in Baltimore working with youth on social justice issues. It wasn’t long though before she decided to pursue her doctorate degree in youth development at Texas A&M University.

Five years since her previous sojurn for her doctoral research, Dr. Kelly Pryor decided to revisit the questions surrounding the development of hope in young women of color from HerDentity. She selected 12 women, now between the ages of 21-25, to further interview. This time, she used the unique method of photovoice, an arts-based method that relies on individuals documenting their lives through the use of cameras, to collect data for a more in-depth definition hope.

Sara’s Story
Of the 12 participants in her doctoral research, one young woman’s photos in particular stood out. Sara’s images and the commentary that accompanied them supported the idea that recreational spaces have a profound impact on the development of marginalized youth into self-aware, productive citizens.

Sara, a 22-year-old first- generation college student, was raised by her grandmother in a southern metropolitan city plagued by poverty. Due to a tumultuous relationship with her mother, she spent a good deal of her childhood at the local YMCA. Sara was now teaching pre-school at the exact YMCA she grew up calling her second home.


“A Leap of Faith”;  Photo courtesy: Kelly, B.N. (2013). Ripples of hope: Women of African descent emerging into adulthood and the performance of hope. 

This picture, entitled “A Leap of Faith,” represented a feeling of hope as Sara describes the personal transformation that occurred during the first time she learned to swim.

This is taken here.
I grew up at the Y when I was little.
This is where I used to come after school and in the summer
And throughout the summers when I was little I never did learn how to swim
But when I started working up here my friend, he taught me how to swim
And he taught me how to swim by pushing me in off the diving board
And he was like “I want to see if you can make it back up to the top on your own”
And to me I feel that is hope
Because hope is like believing and a positive outlook on what you think is a positive outcome and the positive outcome was that I made it back up.
And to me that symbolizes a leap of faith and making my way back up to the top even though I may go under. (Kelly Pryor & Outley, 2014)

Through this photo and others that she took, Sara showed the positive role recreational spaces, like the YMCA, had on her life just as they’ve had on the lives of other urban youth. Dr. Kelly Pryor found that, “leisure professionals can begin to empower urban youth to see the spaces where they live and recreate as a places in which they can make positive social change” (Kelly Pryor & Outley, 2014).

Next Steps
Although most of her research, internationally and domestically, has involved urban populations, Dr. Kelly Pryor is now focusing on another group of marginalized young people – rural youth. She will be working with youth in south, east, and west Texas communities and portions of Mississippi,to find out how they define social justice and the issues that impact their civic engagement.

As with her doctoral research project, Dr. Kelly Pryor hopes to use photovoice as a means for these young people to reflect personal events happening within their lives and around their communities.

“Our youth have incredible stories to tell,” Dr. Kelly Pryor concluded. “They are speaking, but are we as a society listening? It is my desire to be their megaphone.”

Kelly Pryor, B. N. & Outley, C. W. (2014). Just spaces: Urban recreation centers as
sites for social justice youth development. Journal of Leisure Research, 46(3), 272-290.

Kelly, B.N. (2013). Ripples of hope: Women of African descent emerging into
adulthood and the performance of hope.
(Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Texas A&M University, College Station, TX.