Clutching clipboards and clad in purple shirts, 30 teen-age girls hit the streets of Chicago recently to investigate exactly what services, programs and opportunities their communities offer girls.
The "girl mapping" project is part of a two-year study into teen-age girls' lives. The goal is to provide communities with information about the needs of young women aged 13 to 19 and how those needs are being met. At the same time, the mappers are broadening their knowledge of their neighborhoods and learning leadership skills.
"We see girls as strong and bold and powerful and wanted to create a research initiative where teen girls themselves became the researchers," said Betsy Brill, executive director of the Girl's Best Friend foundation, the study's sponsor and one of a handful of organizations across the country dedicated exclusively to funding programs for girls and young women.
Before hitting the streets in the mapping project, girls from three Chicago communities spent months in case study discussion groups and took tape recorders home to interview their friends on issues important to them. They also kept journals of their perceptions of home and school.
Then, in a two-week mapping blitz, the girls canvassed their communities block by block, surveying young people, adults, businesses and organizations about their attitudes and perceptions toward youth and about their sense of what resources were available and what was needed in the community.
The girls themselves helped develop the surveys and went through intensive training to learn how to approach people on the street. They produced more than 700 surveys, which are currently being analyzed.
Youth mapping, where young people canvas their communities to record resources available to youth -- including everything from schools to the YMCA to video stores -- has become popular, and such projects are under way in places from Des Moines, Iowa, to Detroit to Pinellas County, Fla.
"The mantra in communities is, 'There are not enough things for young people to do,'" said Raul Ratcliffe, a program director at the Center for Youth Development and Policy Research in Washington, D.C., who is assisting 32 cities across the country with youth mapping projects. "But nobody knows what exists. This is getting the lay of the land. What currently exists and what are the gaps?"
More than that, said Ratcliffe, mapping can be a way to mobilize communities. Baltimore used youth mapping as a means to bring youth and adults together. Denver used youth mapping to determine where it should locate beacon schools. Detroit made the information it gained through youth mapping available at kiosks, where young people can locate everything from help with their math homework to internship or employment opportunities.
Chicago's girl mapping project is the first to focus specifically on girls. "Too often, when programs are designed for youth in general, they are designed with boys in mind," said Lynn Phillips, a psychology and women's studies professor at the New School for Social Research in New York City and a researcher on the Girl's Best Friend initiative.
"Even in the research literature I've seen, far too often when people study youth, all of their subjects are male. They're getting the perspectives and the needs of boys and assuming that that's going to translate into the needs and perspectives of girls, but it doesn't necessarily."
Phillips and Brill say they hope the information they're gaining will be used to direct funding and to design programs for girls that focus on their strengths and well-being. The next phase of research will involve girls from downstate Illinois in the same process of case study discussion groups and mapping. A preliminary report is scheduled to be released in early 2000; the final report should be out a year later.
"By the end of this we'll have a good sense of the needs and expectations and strengths of girls not only in Chicago but in Illinois, and that will give us a springboard for looking at other communities around the United States," said Phillips.
Meanwhile, it's clear that the girls involved in the project are already benefiting. "Youth mapping is really about creating information that empowers young people to be more involved," said Renae Ogletree, co-researcher on the Girl's Best Friend study and executive director of the Chicago Youth Agency Partnership, a nonprofit group that's teaming up with the city of Chicago to undertake youth mapping with girls and boys throughout the city. "Do you know how many girls said to me, 'I didn't know this was in my community!' It exposes the neighborhood in a much broader way."
Ogletree recalled, "One of the girls came back to me and said, 'We're not going to this store anymore. He didn't talk nice to me. He didn't have time for me.' That becomes very powerful information in the hands of kids."
By participating in the project, said Phillips, the girl mappers get training and experience in public speaking, talking to the media and associated skills like thinking critically about how they want to present themselves.
One of the explicit goals of the research is to make girls aware that they are experts in their own lives, encourage them share this information with their communities and become advocates on their own behalf.
Eighth-grader Lorena Nelson said participation in the girl mapping project and other girl-only programs sponsored by a local community organization has given her self-confidence. "It's made me more able to talk about what I want to talk about and tell people my opinion without feeling like, 'Oh, I shouldn't tell them.'" Nelson said surveying her community made her realize that "a lot of people want to help out their community but a lot of people don't know how."
Now that this phase of the project is over, said Ogletree, the challenge for social service agencies is to figure out how to keep young people engaged in the community.