Constructing Meaning About Violence, School and Community

McIntyre, A.  (2000).  Constructing meaning about violence, school and community:  Participatory action research with urban youth.  The Urban Review, (32)2, p. 123-154.


Alice McIntyre’s (2000) article, “Constructing Meaning About Violence, School and Community:  Participatory Action Research with Urban Youth,” aimed to engage sixth grade students in an urban school through the use of “creative techniques” with a goal of “better understanding the individual and collective nature of young people’s experiences living in an urban setting and, in response to those experiences, developing action programs that would support and foster youth-initiated strategies for community well-being.”  The primary focus was on violence, not only the type that involves crime, drugs, violence and weapons, but also the idea of “environmental violence, which is characterized by trash, pollution, graffiti, abandoned houses, and drug paraphernalia in the streets” (McIntyre, 2000).

The team began their research in October 1997 with 17 students.  By November, the classroom size increased to 26 students, but at the end of the year, only 24 students remained.  The participant information reflects the end of the year total of 24.  Twelve were boy and 12 were girls, ages 11-13.  Most of the students lived within walking distance and others were bused in from other neighborhoods. The ethnic makeup of the students was as follows:  11 African American, 4 Puerto Rican, 2 Haitian, 2 Jamaican, 1 Dominican, 1 Columbian, and 2 biracial (Puerto Rican and White).

At the beginning of the project, the research team also began to develop relationships with various entities including “business people, churches, local residents, teachers, parents, other school personnel, and university-based participants” (McIntyre, 2000).  Three of the researchers visited the classroom weekly, where they observed and participated in the classroom, to develop a rapport with the students.  The team “conducted community resource inventories” to engage them in various activities to get them talking about what their community meant to them.  Students created collages, told stories and used photography to facilitate discussion about their community.

Almost all of the students reflected on the amount of violence that occurs on a daily basis throughout all three projects.  The students created collages that reflected the community through their eyes.  Their collages reflected an array of things, such as guns, drugs, careers, music and education. Their discussion of the collages ranged from guns, drugs and violence to the dirtiness of the community to the positives their community offered (McIntyre, 2000”.

For the photography project, students participated a training to learn the basics of photography and a university photography course.  The students ended up taking more than 650 pictures that reflected how they perceived their community.  Students chose three of their photographs to include in a “school-community exhibit” (McIntyre, 2000). The majority of the photos “reflected their concerns about the environment,” such as trash and dilapidated housing, but also included photos of friends and family (McIntyre, 2000).  Their photography exhibit was later moved to a community center and then to McIntyre’s university where she taught.

During group discussions, they exchanged stories of the deaths, beatings, and drug dealing that they had seen, heard about, and/or how it directly affected their families.  Oftentimes, the storytelling became a means of one upping the previous stories.  The research team attributed some of these stories as ones that were dramatized, but acknowledged that many of them did indeed witness these events.  McIntyre stated that she was disturbed by how easily the students could bounce between discussions of horrible events, such as the brutal death of an 11-year-old girl, and a basketball game while appearing unaffected by the acts of violence (McIntyre, 2000).  “This way of being in the world resonates with Martin-Baro’s (1994) description of ‘normal abnormality’ (p. 125) and results from engaging in daily life but with ‘a sixth sense’ that one is never really completely safe and that violence is the organizing principle in one’s life” (McIntyre, 2000).

Through their collages, storytelling and photography project, students were able to develop action plans with the goal of improving their community.  They developed a “clean up project that will be maintained and sustained by the community in collaboration with city officials, businesses, and other local residents.  They also codeveloped a short-term career exploration program last fall which assisted them in exploring educational and occupational goals” (McIntyre, 2000).


McIntyre’s use of Martin-Baro’s idea of “normal abnormality” was crystal clear in her findings.  I think that this played a critical role in the work the students produced.  Even though students created their own works of art and told about their own life experiences, “normal abnormality” was the dominant theme in their work as a whole.

I understand the need for selecting a school that has issues, which are usually low income and racially diverse schools, but I wonder about her method for selecting this school.  It is a no brainer that the researchers knew what kind of community they were walking into.  With this knowledge, it is not a surprise that students reflected on these problems.  I am not sure what else the researchers expected to find.

While the study provided partial transcribed dialogue of some of the discussions that occurred, I am interested to know the numbers of the various topics that were produced through the students work.  For example, 10 students used an image or words that referred to drugs.  I would be able to develop a clearer picture of what was actually reflected in their work.  For all I know, 6 out of 12 students may have referred to drugs or was interpreted by the researchers as a reference to drugs.


I was intrigued by idea of participatory action research (PAR) that we read in Bautista, Bertrand, Morrell, Scorza and Matthews’ (2013) article, “Participatory Action Research and City Youth: Methodological Insights From the Council of Research.  So, I decided that this was something that I wanted to explore even further because I want to try this out when I conduct my research.  I stumbled upon McIntyre’s article and was drawn in by the title.

We, my students and I, live in a community (our reservation) that is rampant with violence.  It is not uncommon to hear that someone was shot/stabbed and killed or someone’s house was a target of a drive by or that gangs walked the streets looking to cause trouble.  As I read the article, I was able to connect much of what McIntyre’s participants went through to my students.  The environmental violence resonated with me because I often drive through our villages and am appalled by all the trash strewn about on the sides of the road, the graffiti that is tagged on anything that could be tagged, and the terrible state of some of the homes.

The idea of the “normal abnormality” exists here.  The community as a whole knows that it is unsafe to walk alone at night.  And, if they have to, they are armed with some type of weapon.  It is a “normal abnormality” for our youth to participate in illegal activities with their parents/guardians.  The array of flyers for wakes and death anniversaries cover our public bulletin boards.  For my students, serving time in juvenile detention is not out of the ordinary.  And, you are weird if you have not been incarcerated in any of the 31 years you have been alive (yep, that’s me!).  Becoming a teenage parent seems expected of our youth.  I can list 15 of my students (both current and former) whose child(ren) will start elementary school at the same time or within a year of my 13-month-old son.

I am excited to learn more about PAR.  It seems like a daunting task, but one that would hold so much value.  It is my hope that I can incorporate this type of research somewhere down the line.


Bautista, M. A., Bertrand, M., Morrell, E., Scorza, D., & Matthews, C.  (2013). Participatory action research and city youth : Methodological insights from the council of youth research. Teachers College Record, 115(100303), 1–23.