New Approaches
to Evaluating

Volume 1
Concepts, Methods, and Contexts

How do Urban Communities Affect Youth?
Using Social Science Research to Inform the Design and Evaluation of Comprehensive Community Initiatives
James P. Connell and J. Lawrence Aber with contributions by Gary Walker

The purpose of this paper is to explore one possible strategy for integrating social science research more fully into the design and evaluation of comprehensive community initiatives (CCIs) for children and families. It is our belief that social science researchers can play an important and useful part in these efforts. In this paper, we examine the social scientist's role in helping those who design, fund, implement, and evaluate CCIs to develop more specific and well-supported theories of what interventions are doing and how they might achieve their stated goals.

The paper presents a "framework" that we believe represents current social science thinking and research with regard to the major influences on key social outcomes that are of concern to policymakers and program designers in the youth field. We then suggest one set of urban intervention strategies that are consistent with the elements of this research-based framework. Finally, we draw out the implications of the framework for the evaluation of such initiatives. We recognize that, because it is restricted to urban youth (from early to late adolescence), the framework and its implications for program design are more limited in scope than the universe of initiatives represented by the Roundtable's participants. However, through the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) Working Group's ongoing collaboration with the Roundtable, we expect to broaden the work presented in this paper.


The immediate impetus for developing the framework presented in this paper was a project funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation (James Hyman, Associate Director) and conducted by Public/Private Ventures under the directorship of James Connell, with Larry Aber as co-principal investigator. The title of the project was "Community Ecology and Youth Resilience." Out of that project came a report submitted to the Casey Foundation by Public/Private Ventures that was co-written by the two project directors and Gary Walker, president of Public/Private Ventures, with input from a number of Public/Private Venture staff members (Public/Private Ventures 1994). The framework, particularly its implications for the design of community-level initiatives focused on youth, was strongly influenced by the advisory committee to the Community Ecology and Youth Resilience Project.

The intellectual content of the framework has a longer history. It stems in part from an increasing awareness among social scientists of the limits of their individual disciplines to address complex social problems and promote healthy development of youth in urban communities, and from the increasing commitment of some social scientists to collaborative research efforts that try to untangle some of the complex cross-disciplinary issues that inhabit the world of policy and intervention design and evaluation.

The past and present work of the Social Science Research Council Working Group on Communities and Neighborhoods, Family Processes and Individual Development is one context in which these historical developments have taken form. The framework, while primarily representing the views of this paper's authors, has been germinating over the past three years in the interactions and writings of this group, and strongly reflects these inputs.

The paper is organized in three sections. First, the framework developed for the Casey-sponsored project is presented. The framework is based on the work conducted as part of the project, which included a series of meetings and interviews with an advisory group as well as literature reviews organized around the themes of youth resilience and community ecology, the authors' own work, and the work of the SSRC Working Group (whose members were heavily represented on the Casey project's advisory committee). The next section presents a set of intervention strategies for urban communities targeted at improving the life chances of youth in transition from late childhood to early adolescence (approximately ages 9 to 15). The final section discusses the utility of frameworks such as this one for evaluating comprehensive community initiatives.

A Research-Based Framework for the Analysis and Design of Interventions for Youth

The conceptual model presented in Figure 1 (140k) portrays a set of hypotheses about how communities affect our society's desired outcomes for youth, and the factors and processes that mediate that relationship. There are, no doubt, other ways to express these relationships and to define the key elements of such a framework--the research evidence is uneven and not always dispositive on these issues. However, we believe our framework accurately captures the directions now shaping social science theory and research.

Research literature suggests that the community dimensions identified in Figure 1 (140k) can directly and indirectly affect all three of the desired outcomes for young adults--economic self-sufficiency, citizenship, and healthy family and social relationships. The social mediators (family, peers, and other adults) and developmental processes (learning to be productive, to connect, and to navigate) are the factors that connect the community dimensions to the desired outcomes.

The framework is purposefully unidirectional, since the focus is on explaining the outcomes. However, we do want to note that in reality the various components exert influence in both directions--for example, the extent to which youth achieve the three outcomes affects community dimensions and social mediators. The influences and relationships involved in this "reverse" direction define a separate and even less well-researched set of issues.

In the remainder of this section we focus on the key components and subcomponents of the framework and their relationships with one another. As discussed above, we draw heavily on the literature review conducted as part of Public/Private Venture's "Community Ecology and Youth Resilience" project, as well as from the insights of that project's advisory committee and the work of the SSRC Working Group.

Community Dimensions

Physical and Demographic Characteristics. The physical and human characteristics of neighborhoods include the economic, racial, educational, and social characteristics of the residents; the relative locations of the major subgroups of residents who differ in those respects; and the physical presentation, structure, safety, accessibility, and habitability of the neighborhood. A broad array of demographic characteristics--all of which are disproportionately prevalent in communities where high numbers of poor minority youth live--have been linked to youth outcomes. In interpreting these findings, researchers have discussed the concentration of poor, female-headed families and the probable lack of adult supervision and monitoring (Brooks-Gunn et al. 1993); the absence of middle-class or high-status professionals and the probable lack of positive role models and institutional resources (Crane 1991); and male joblessness and its probable undermining of rational planning for families and youth (Wilson 1991). Researchers working in the tradition of social organization theory (for example, Sampson 1992) have also suggested that high degrees of ethnic heterogeneity and residential instability are associated with less cohesive adult friendship networks and less consensus on values. Coulton and Pandy (1992) have argued that population density and age and gender segregation in poor neighborhoods create extreme child-care burdens for some communities.

Recent research by the SSRC Working Group on these issues has expanded the age range and types of outcomes covered by previous work and has compiled more compelling evidence that neighborhoods with higher concentrations of middle-class residents confer benefits on youth. These researchers point out that more precise estimates of these effects await more sophisticated analyses and better measures of the community characteristics that accompany the presence of more middle-class neighbors (Duncan, Connell, and Klebanov 1994).

Economic Opportunity Structure. The economic opportunity structure affects community youth directly, and indirectly through its effect on the young and older adults of the community.

Important aspects of the economic opportunity structure are its industrial composition, the location of jobs, and the overall demand for labor. The deterioration of employment for inner-city residents has been linked to each characteristic. For example, the decline in the manufacturing sector in general and its relocation out of cities to industrial parks are often mentioned as important determinants of inner-city unemployment.

Minority employment, and especially youth employment, is very sensitive to the overall demand for labor. For example, Freedman estimates that for every 1 percent increase in the general unemployment rate, the unemployment rate for young men increases 2 to 5 percent (Freedman 1982).

Ellwood (1982) and Corcoran (1982) show, contrary to simple observation, that teenage labor market experience itself has little effect on future employment rates but does help youth accumulate work experience that employers later reward through higher wages. Thus, a lack of the opportunity to work does disadvantage youth in communities with poor economic opportunity structures.

There are several reasons why better economic opportunities may reduce the likelihood that youth get involved in antisocial behavior. First, youth who hold jobs are presumed to spend more time under adult supervision and less time with potentially subversive peers. Second, when youth have jobs or have the possibility of getting jobs easily, crime becomes a less attractive source of income (Fleisher 1966).

Institutional Capacities. Poor communities--communities with high concentrations of poor, single-parent families and jobless males, and low concentrations of well-educated, professional, and managerial workers--do not usually command the economic or political resources necessary to develop and sustain high-quality institutions and organizations that support healthy youth development. For example, funding of schools is in most states based primarily on local tax revenues, while funding of child care is a family responsibility. Thus, the basic educational and child care organizations in poor communities have relatively few resources. In addition, perceptions of neighborhood conditions by teachers and other adults from outside these communities may limit the pool of adults who are willing to work with these communities' youth. Because single-parent families and jobless males are cash poor, they are hard-pressed to support local commercial enterprises (stores, services), churches, and recreational and service organizations.

Likewise, the institutions that provide "primary services" to youth--Boys and Girls Clubs, Little Leagues, YMCAs, and so on--are typically scarce in poorer neighborhoods. This dearth of institutional capacity, along with that of the schools, means that youth often are without attractive, organized, and positive activities for most of their weekdays, evenings, and weekends.

To exacerbate matters, the greater educational and human services needs of the residents of poor neighborhoods place great demands on the community institutions and organizations that are present. Of course there are exceptions--a few poor communities have been able to make creative use of public subsidies and other resources to develop an array of high-quality institutions and organizations. But in general, the institutional infrastructure and capacity of poor communities are inadequate to provide the services and activities necessary for healthy youth development. Policy efforts to redistribute resources, and to initiate community and economic development strategies, have not been able to offset the more basic financial forces that depress institutional capacity in distressed neighborhoods.

It is precisely this community institutional capacity that, according to several research studies (for example, Coulton and Pandy 1992), appears to have the potential to ameliorate the debilitating effects of the two community dimensions previously discussed.

Social Exchange and Symbolic Processes. Research by Sampson and others suggests that neighborhood factors like high concentrations of poor families, high levels of ethnic diversity, and high population turnover directly affect community processes such as:

These same community-level processes have been found to mediate the effects of neighborhood structure on such youth outcomes as delinquency rates (Sampson and Groves 1989) and educational attainment and economic mobility (Jarrett, 1994). These same processes are implicated in explaining differences between communities on other key outcomes in childhood and adolescence, including rates of infant mortality, child abuse, and adolescent substance abuse.

Other research suggests that the presence of such factors may buffer the negative effects of different community dimensions (poverty, poor labor markets, and weak institutional capacity) on youth's peer groups (Sullivan 1989), families (Furstenberg 1990), and schools (Rutter et al. 1979).

The four community dimensions described above are major forces common to all communities, and have important effects, direct and indirect, on youth development. Research and observation also indicate that these processes interact, though we are on less firm ground in delineating the precise nature of those interactions and their effect on youth.

Social Mediators

Social mediators--or what Bronfenbrenner (1986) calls microsystems--are the conceptual linchpins between community dimensions, youth development processes, and, ultimately, socially desired outcomes. How well these mediators--family, peers, and other adults--function directly shapes the developmental processes that, in turn, determine whether individual youth achieve desired outcomes or not. Research has made considerable progress in the last two decades in showing how those social mediators affect outcomes and developmental processes. What is less well documented is how the major community dimensions shape the functioning of these mediators--for example, how the institutional capacities of schools and other organizations in the community affect the ability of adults in these institutions to support the community's youth. Some research demonstrates that these mediators make a difference in communities with problematic profiles on the major community dimensions, although the exact extent to which they can overcome those conditions is still largely unexplored.

What is clear is that social mediators, along with the major community dimensions, are vital parts of the overall ecology that influences youth development.

Family. Although youth become increasingly autonomous in relation to their families, and increasingly engaged with peers over the second decade of life, our review of the resilience research indicates that families remain crucial contributors to youth development. The critical aspects of parents' and other caregivers' support appear to be a balance of nurturance and firm behavioral guidance and supervision. Our review of the literature suggests that this balanced style of parenting facilitates positive development in youth from diverse ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. Our review also reveals that a crucial factor in predicting positive youth outcomes in poor minority youth is the ability of caregivers to persist in their effective parenting in the face of worsening community conditions (Jarrett 1994).

But the research is sketchy and less directive about the exact relationships between community dimensions and specific aspects of caregivers' support for youth. Research does suggest that many caregivers' responsibilities are less consistently carried out in poor urban communities (Sampson 1992), but that denser social networks among adults who share values about youth can compensate for some individual deficiencies in caregiving competence (Furstenberg 1990).

Peers. The role of peers becomes increasingly important to development during adolescence. Peers include not only close friends, but classmates, neighborhood chums, and even members of the same age cohort who are not in direct contact with youth but with whom the youth competes for resources and the like. Our analysis of existing research suggests that peer culture in poor urban communities reflects in large part the community dimensions discussed earlier. More specifically, historical declines in those dimensions are associated with increasingly violent and virulent gang activity in urban areas, with youth remaining in gangs longer, and with increasingly negative effects on their life chances (Moore 1991).

Other research points to the ability of peers to provide positive support, and to communicate prosocial and mainstream values. Some research indicates that such a social system appears to support youth development when there are opportunities for positive activities for youth and higher levels of social organization among adult community members (Sullivan 1989). For instance, whether a group of male friends becomes involved in prosocial or antisocial behavior appears to depend on factors such as the density of adult friendships in the neighborhood, the quality of adult monitoring of youth behavior, and youth's perceptions of whether there is a positive, productive niche they can fill.

Other Adults. The final mediator that exerts strong influence on youth developmental processes and outcomes is the network of nonparental adults relating to the lives of youth. In addition to teachers/mentors (especially early in adolescence) and trainers/employers (later in adolescence), many other adults play critical roles. These include coaches, club directors, community leaders, service providers, and ministers. Unfortunately, the adult composition and institutional capacities of many very poor communities in America restricts access to these other adults.

In addition, there are adults who are indirectly important to youth development, such as peers' parents, and parents' friends and employers. There is some evidence that peers' parents affect youth development independent of other influences. Werner's research suggests that the roles, activities, and values of other adults may prove to be one of the most important factors in distinguishing community ecologies that promote youth resilience from those that do not.

Family, peers, and other adults--these are the key mediums through which youth learn to experience and understand the world. As such, they are mediums through which community-level interventions must logically have their effects on youth. We will now turn to the developmental processes that these social networks shape across the life span of youth.

Developmental Processes

Research on child and adolescent development points to several critical processes that help children and youth beat the odds. These processes are many and varied, and the literature that describes their effects on youth development is rather technical. To facilitate discussion, we describe these processes as learning to be productive, learning to connect, and learning to navigate. Our review of the empirical and theoretical literature, and research in progress on poor urban children and adolescents, provide support for the importance of these processes as markers of progress. Empirical evidence of links between these processes and the desired outcomes is strong in some cases, inchoate in others; and much of the research reveals poor outcomes for youth who do not make progress in these three areas, not positive outcomes for those who do.

Learning to Be Productive. School achievement and, at later ages, work performance are the primary indicators of productivity. As numerous studies we reviewed indicate, school achievement in particular and cognitive and intellectual development more generally are consistent predictors of later employment and earnings. In addition to these "performance" factors, youths' beliefs in their own abilities and in the likely outcomes of their behavior, their engagement in productive activities, and their experience of support from caregivers and other adults, also affect their efforts to be productive in school (Connell, Spencer, and Aber 1994).

Research on youth in work settings implicates several other factors in learning to be productive: character (a sense of industry, initiative, reliability, and responsibility), self-regulatory abilities (both behavioral and emotional), and ability to cooperate with others.

Learning to Connect. A number of discrete (but related) factors are associated with youth's capacity to connect to others. Differences in child-care practices can affect individual differences in youths' "security of attachment" to their parents, their capacity to trust, and their sensitivity to and empathy with others, including friends, romantic partners, and, eventually, their children. These differences affect not only youths' capacity for healthy social and family relationships, but also the processes by which they appraise, select and evaluate friends and partners.

The evidence we reviewed is strong that family cohesion and healthy caregiver–child relationships are associated with youth's ability to avoid later relationship problems. Evidence is also clear that peers strongly influence the likelihood of youth engaging in antisocial behavior.

In addition to learning to connect in friendships, romantic relationships, and parent–child relationships, youth also undergo processes that affect their identification with their own and other ethnic groups, communities, fellow human beings, and other less concrete, more abstract social groupings. The development of a sense of affiliation, belonging, community, and group identity are all part of the process of learning to connect.

Learning to Navigate. All youth must learn the rules and procedures that make up the socially accepted routines of daily life. These routines typically have no direct legal consequences if they are not adhered to. Rather, they influence others' perceptions of the individual's appropriateness and predictability in mainstream situations, and thus the options and opportunities that are made available. Going to the bank, eating out, attending public functions, using various forms of transportation, establishing credit and using it, dealing with a work supervisor or a customer--all these, and an increasing number of other rules and procedures that are generated by a complex and technically oriented modern world, are part of "learning to navigate."

Two other processes involved in learning to navigate are "coping" and "code switching." A growing literature in psychology demonstrates the benefits to children and youth under stress of coping strategies that include clear problem definition and subsequent fashioning of problem-oriented solutions. Unfortunately, most of this research has not been conducted with minority populations or with respect to the chronic stressors presented to poor urban youth. Studies of youth's reactions to violence are under way and may define more precisely successful coping strategies on the part of these youth.

"Code switching," another such process, is a term borrowed from psycholinguistics. In its broader use, it refers to the capacity to move among multiple worlds and switch codes accordingly--in terms of language, behavior, and expectations. The term has been applied to youth's capacity to make transitions between institutional settings (elementary to middle to high school); to adapt to minority status in majority-culture settings; to move effectively between the worlds of work or school and the streets; and, for youth from immigrant families, to navigate between their families' cultural norms and values and those of mainstream America. Research is just beginning on these issues, but qualitative evidence suggests that learning to code-switch is a key aspect of the navigation process for urban youth and may be associated with longer-term success and adjustment.

Learning to navigate is relatively easy for youth who grow up in advantaged neighborhoods, where they daily witness adults who practice these rules and procedures. But many poor youth do not grow up where adults practice these mainstream rules and procedures; instead, these youth learn different kinds of navigation skills, aimed at surviving on the streets. In some ways the skills they learn are similar to combat skills in their challenges and the seriousness of their consequences--and also in their low applicability and transferability to mainstream life. This inability to navigate in mainstream circumstances puts many poor youth at a serious disadvantage in joining mainstream life, even when they have the will and opportunity.

These three processes are central during the late-childhood to late-adolescent period. For youth of different ages and life experiences, these processes will occur in different circumstances, and also shift in their relative importance. Researchers and practitioners have pointed out that the lives of many youth in poor urban communities do not follow a predictable or desirable developmental sequence--for example, some 10-year-olds are forced to become adults in terms of their economic productivity and caretaking responsibilities. Thus, community conditions may influence these processes in ways that defy or severely challenge conventional social interventions. But research also indicates that youth's experience of these learning processes is highly dependent on the quality and nature of their interactions with social mediators.

Desired Outcomes

Youth development comes to an end in early adulthood, when young men and women face a number of new expectations. Different communities, families, and ethnic and social groups have a variety of such expectations, but our society--as indeed most societies--has a core set of outcomes that it requires, in varying degrees of achievement, if an individual is to flourish. These outcomes are not defined by research, but rather by analysis of what it takes to secure a sense of achievement, freedom, and participation in mainstream adult life.

Economic Self-Sufficiency. The ability to sustain one's self and one's dependents is a hallmark of responsible adulthood in most societies. While enhanced economic well-being is highly desirable, many would define adult responsibility by the lower but more severely judged criterion of self-sufficiency--not requiring public assistance.

A growing literature is available on the determinants of economic self-sufficiency. For most Americans, the technical and employability skills, navigation skills, motivation, ability to work with others, and accessibility of decent jobs are the primary avenues to and indicators of economic self-sufficiency. For many youth, especially those living in poor communities, acquiring these indicators is severely constrained by the community dimensions and social mediators previously described (Connell 1994).

Healthy Family and Social Relationships. Another major feature of successful adulthood in most societies is the creation and maintenance of healthy relationships, both within and outside the family. A variety of factors index healthy relationships: marriage and divorce rates, child support and child abuse rates, presence of friendships and absence of social isolation, positive mental health and lack of depression, addictions, and so on.

Once again, research indicates that in distressed communities the development of healthy relationships is constrained by the influence of community dimensions and social mediators.

Good Citizenship Practices. It is possible to meet minimum expectations of citizenship through economic self-sufficiency (by paying taxes) and by obeying the law. Both of those practices are less prevalent in distressed communities. In addition, there are features of citizenship--contribution to the community and social responsibility, for instance--that are beyond the minimum, but that are at some threshold level indispensable to any civil society.

The pathways to full citizenship behavior are much less well understood than the pathways to economic self-sufficiency and family and social health. Nonetheless, our society expects and needs youth development to result in adult citizens who pay their taxes, vote, and obey the law, and who, in varying degrees, seek to contribute to the "common good" with actions beyond the minimum expectations.

Life in America's most distressed neighborhoods places constraints on its youth's achievement of desired citizenship behavior, both indirectly--by their barriers to economic self-sufficiency, and family and social health--and directly--by eroding civil society, exposure to racism, violence, and injustice, and breeding helplessness and hopelessness.

A final note. There is no absolute level of achievement on these desired outcomes that defines "successful" youth, because success is defined differently depending on the level of adversity faced. For some urban youth, just surviving--economically, socially, and politically--indicates success; for other youth, expectations are that they should be doing more than just surviving in order to be described as successful: they should be actively coping or even thriving. "Successful" is thus a dynamic and relative concept that will shift in definition depending on the context in which it is employed. However, setting minimal thresholds and optimal levels on these outcomes for individuals and groups of individuals will remain important tasks in the application of this framework to the design and evaluation of interventions.


We think that the conceptual model outlined in Figure 1, and explained above, accurately portrays basic connections between community dimensions, social mediators, developmental processes, and desired outcomes for youth. The evidence for the links in the model is not equivalent--for example, much stronger evidence exists for the links between the functioning of youth's social networks and youth developmental processes than exists for links between the community dimensions and these social networks. And, some elements in the model have been and will probably continue to be more susceptible to social intervention and, for that matter, to evaluation research as well. But the model reflects our best effort to represent the findings of research and the logic of current theorizing about how community ecologies shape the lives of their youth and yield differential success for these youth in young adulthood.

Our hope is that these efforts will provide a lens through which existing and planned interventions targeting youth outcomes can be analyzed and located. For example, an intervention could attend to its place in the framework's sequence; and could account for the supports and opposing forces that will likely arise from other key elements in the framework.

Analyses such as these need not conclude that all interventions should seek to change all aspects of the framework; they do imply that irrespective of the interventions' point or points of entry in the sequence--community dimensions, social mediators, developmental processes--the subsequent and preceding elements in the framework will affect the intervention's eventual pay-off in terms of outcomes. Therefore, evaluations of initiatives that do not include those elements should still consider them as variables to be included in assessments of the payoffs.

The framework, in some respects, only codifies the judgments already formed by those experienced in the development, evaluation, and operation of social policy initiatives. But given the inconsistent, often politically derived nature of public policy--and relatively tight public budgets for new youth initiatives (or broader community-based initiatives)--we think codification such as that described in this paper, and the evidence behind these frameworks, will assist in deepening and widening the influence of those judgments.

In the next section of the paper we present one set of intervention strategies that we believe are consistent with the elements of the framework. By presenting these implications of the framework for the design of comprehensive community initiatives (in our case focusing on youth outcomes), we hope to provide the field with more concrete examples of how such a framework can be used.

Implications of the Framework for the Design of Community Interventions for Young Urban Adolescents

The purpose of this section is to draw on the framework to generate intervention strategies that we hypothesize would have positive and significant effects on the lives of young urban adolescents. At its most general level, the "theory of change" represented in this set of intervention strategies is that by strengthening particular community dimensions and social mediators, the three sets of developmental processes included in the framework will also improve and thereby increase youth's chances for achieving economic self-sufficiency, healthy family and social relationships, and good citizenship practices.

As stated earlier, the framework represents a set of hypotheses generated from existing research and theory. Up to this point, no specific tests of the efficacy of intervention strategies based on these hypotheses have been performed. So, while we do not intend to stray too far from the elements of the framework in suggesting intervention strategies and how to configure them, we recognize that other intervention strategies and configurations exist that would be consistent with the framework. We also recognize that we have moved beyond the framework and its research base in our presentation of these strategies and, certainly, in any suggestions for how they might be implemented.

Building Networks of Competent Adults to Meet the Needs of Young Adolescents

It is clear from existing research that the lives of younger and older youth in urban communities differ markedly in where, how, and with whom time is spent. It is also clear that both groups of youth in these communities are adversely affected by less than optimal levels of the community dimensions and social mediators included in the framework. We have chosen to generate intervention strategies for younger adolescents--in school and between the ages of 9 and 15--in recognition both of developmental differences and shared contextual conditions between these youth and older youth. This age span encompasses the key developmental transition from childhood to adolescence, a fact that will be recognized in the intervention strategies we now discuss.

From the description of the framework provided earlier, it is clear that youth's relationships with adults in and outside their families are important predictors of their developmental trajectories in later life. From early in life through the teenage years, the quality of parent–child interactions affects the developmental processes included in the framework. Relationships with teachers and mentors have more specific but still important effects on this age group's capacities to build positive relationships and to participate successfully in educational and other socially valued endeavors. Thus, we are inferring from the framework's hypotheses regarding the effects of social mediators on youth's developmental processes that:

Research on youth crime and other youth outcomes argues for the importance of competent caregivers being available to meet the needs of youth, and also for these adults to be more connected to each other and to the youth in the community. Therefore, we are focusing on intervention strategies that can build shared values and norms that will energize and hold together these adult networks and reinforce their authority and legitimacy with their youth.

In addition, the research on peer influences that informed the framework points out that the coercive power and omnipresence of youth gangs in the lives of urban youth has filled a vacuum left by the absence of close ties to familial and non-familial adults--ties that can only be built through histories of shared activities. Therefore, we will need to include strategies that build adults' individual and collective competence and determination to reclaim authority from the peer culture, while respecting and harnessing its power to shape youth behavior.

Finally, a recurrent policy theme that has motivated many recent comprehensive community initiatives also appears as a hypothesis in our framework. That is, that society's goals for youth are undermined when educational, social, and other public services are fragmented, unresponsive to the needs of urban youth and their families, and isolated from their clients' associational networks. These defects in institutional capacity directly affect the ability of nonfamilial adults to effectively work with youth. Interventions are needed to support these adults' ability to deliver primary and secondary services and educational practices in more competent and coherent ways.

Building on two of the framework's social mediators--family and nonfamilial adults--we identify three sets of adults who are primarily involved with this age group of youth:

Building a network of adult support for young adolescents in these communities will involve all three of these sets of adults, but with different expectations for their responsibilities and involvement.

By suggesting that building competent adult networks is amenable to intervention, we also presuppose that what it takes to be a competent adult within a particular role and community setting is knowable and definable, and that, for example, the key elements of good teaching, parenting, social work, and health care can be communicated to adults. We also assume that existing groups of adults in these communities are ready and willing to engage in the community-level processes that will strengthen existing networks of adults and youth, and bring together different and even competing interests in the community around these common goals.

Based on existing research with this population and other populations of youth, and with input from experts in these areas, we have compiled a list of supports that youth this age need from adults. These are presented in Table 1 (235k) along with the three sets of adults who are candidates for carrying out these responsibilities. Some of these responsibilities clearly fall within the purview of one set of adults. For example, primary responsibility for transferring formal educational skills resides with teachers and within the professional network of adults; and providing emotional support to youth in this age group is mostly the responsibility of caregivers and family members. However, communities will vary in how, when, and which adults and youth interact. Recognizing and planning for this variation will require flexibility in clustering and allocating these responsibilities to adults in the community, but we hypothesize that the greater the number of adults in a community who are competent to carry out these responsibilities, the more adaptive and effective the community will be in supporting their youth.

We suggest three points of intervention for these three sets of adults:

We expect that, with improvement along each of these dimensions, the effectiveness with which the adults carry out each responsibility should improve and, to the extent that these responsibilities are carried out more competently, youth should benefit. What constitutes sufficient improvement along these dimensions to improve youth outcomes remains an empirical question.

Building the Knowledge Base. Adults who either live or work with youth in these communities will need to recognize the developmental needs and capacities of this community's youth in order to provide effective supports for them. They will also have to use effective strategies for meeting those needs in the different contexts in which they interact with the youth. To build this collective knowledge base among adults who live or work with these youth, we offer the following suggestions.

What is not elaborated but will be critical to the success of these knowledge-building efforts is the sharing of specific strategies for carrying out these responsibilities with individual adults within particular roles--for parents, how to discipline a ten-year old; for teachers, ways of teaching fractions to underachievers; for coaches, strategies for building teamwork among adolescents through sports activities. To validate the links in the framework between adult competence and youth's developmental processes, the intervention strategies will have to deliver specific, concrete, and, to some extent, prescriptive information to adults about what, when, and how to carry out the responsibilities presented in Table 1 (235k).

Knowledge-building activities such as those suggested above for caregivers, service providers, and community residents are hypothesized to increase community adults' knowledge about youth and what to do with them. But, key to the successful application and adaptation of this knowledge base will be the other two elements of the overall strategy--deeper understanding and experience of individual youth, and increasing levels of support among adults. Implementing these two elements will require additional efforts of a different but complementary sort. Specifically, interventions will have to be developed to promote connectedness between adults and youth in the community and among the adults themselves.

Promoting Connectedness between Adults and Youth. Research and experience working with youth in urban communities suggest that for many youth, mobility is the norm--in where they live, whom they live with, who their teachers are, and where they receive services. Research and experience also suggest that mobility is detrimental to these youth's school performance and adjustment and, by inference, to their longer-term success. Likewise, the amount of sustained adult contact youth experience on a daily basis in these communities is arbitrarily constrained by school schedules demanding changes in classes every 45 minutes, and social service appointments of similar length. From year to year, the professional network of adults supporting youth changes without reference to effectiveness or to developmental principles such as the youth's need for stable adult relationships.

In attempting to extract the framework's implications for strengthening the social mediators involving adults, we suggest the following intervention strategies that involve all three sets of adults:

Connecting Adults in Youth's Support Networks. According to existing research on community social exchange processes, perhaps the most important result of efforts to build adult competencies and increase positive contact between adults and youth would be the creation of a common, consensually validated set of expectations and practices. For example The framework includes hypotheses about the importance of social exchange processes to the effectiveness both of family and nonfamilial adults' support for youth development. One such process is the building of adult networks, a process that we hypothesize will reinforce the adult competencies and involvement with youth targeted by the first two sets of intervention strategies. We also speculate that communities may go through stages as they build these networks and that activities could be planned and sequenced that encourage and support parents to form denser and more mutually supportive networks. For example, a progressive series of activities could be planned that encourage parents in the community to: It's possible that these stages and their associated activities can be adapted to building supportive networks for youth within and among sets of other adults as well--for example, caregivers and police, the community's teachers in elementary and middle schools, or primary and secondary service providers. The starting points and the degree and kinds of external support required to move this process ahead will vary between and within communities, depending on which set or sets of adults are trying to build their networks. In some cases, once the process is underway it could move through the later stages without any external support; or the process could stall at some point and require external support to move it across a difficult transition.

Relevant examples exist in current "youth development" initiatives, such as school reforms that bring parents into school governance, and interventions that locate social services in residential housing units to promote more responsive practices and better communication between parents and service providers.

Facilitating Community Conditions. By drawing out the conceptual framework's implications for intervention strategies for this age group of youth, we are highlighting certain elements of the framework and not others. This was intentional--as stated earlier, the framework is not intended to encourage comprehensiveness for its own sake. It was intended to lay out the major influences--direct and indirect--that community factors can have on positive youth outcomes in young adulthood. However, we will now discuss other elements of the framework that could facilitate or undermine the effectiveness of the intervention strategies suggested above.

These elements are:

We now discuss how each of these conditions could promote or undermine building networks of competent adults to support youth in urban communities.

Qualitative and quantitative studies of urban communities have revealed that safety is an overriding concern. It factors strongly into adults' decisions about the breadth and frequency of their own social interactions, about whether to permit youth to spend time in educational activities outside of school or during evening hours, and about their willingness to travel with their youth to cultural, educational, and recreational facilities within and outside their communities. Without safer conditions at home, in schools, and on the streets, adults who either live or work with youth will be stifled in their attempts to develop their social networks and plan activities with and for youth.

Increasing economic opportunities for adults in these urban communities should have beneficial effects on youth by encouraging them to have more positive and realistic expectations for their own employment futures and to participate in and learn about the regularities of work through observation of their working caregivers and other adults. Research undergirding the framework also documents that adults' ability to be involved in their children's lives in productive ways can be undermined by the effects of persistent economic distress. Given that one goal of this set of intervention strategies is to enhance the level and quality of adult caregivers' interactions with youth, increasing adult employment in meaningful jobs should help set the stage for intervention strategies focused on this goal.

Based on the framework, we have hypothesized that changes in the practices of youth-serving institutions that increase the competence, connectedness, and continuity of adults' interactions with youth will result in better developmental outcomes for youth. How will these institutions be encouraged to change and what forces will sustain these reforms? While those questions do not yet have any answers, we would hypothesize that when parents and other adults who work directly with youth have greater access to, and additional leverage on, the mainstream institutions affecting them and their youth, it will be easier to initiate and maintain reforms. Neighborhood schools, social services, and juvenile justice and health care systems are examples of such mainstream institutions. Without that leverage, the potential impact of this set of intervention strategies is compromised in several ways.

First, adult caregivers in the community will not be able to disturb the inertia of institutions that mitigate against the goals of competence, connectedness, and continuity of adult supports for these youth. Second, it will not be possible to reallocate existing resources controlled by these institutions--resources that will be necessary to initiate, implement, and institutionalize change in practices. Finally, the building of community-specific systems of collective accountability among adults who live or work with youth will be inhibited unless community residents and their advocates have some regulatory authority over activities involving their youth.

Neither existing evidence nor theory allows us to speculate which of these facilitating conditions is necessary or sufficient for urban communities to build strong adult networks to support their youth. However, the history of evaluation research and field experience suggest that current levels of safety, economic opportunity, and political capital in these communities will have profound dampening effects on their efforts to do so.


In order to demonstrate the utility of a research-based framework linking community and individual change as a basis for designing comprehensive community initiatives, we have offered a set of community-level intervention strategies that are consistent with the framework. This set of strategies focuses on strengthening the social mediators between community dimensions and developmental processes in the framework. The intervention strategies themselves are community-level efforts to increase the competence, connectedness, and continuity of these adults' interactions that involve school-aged youth ages 9 to 15. Other intervention strategies for this age group of youth would also be consistent with the framework--for example, focusing on peer groups directly versus strengthening adult networks in order to offset negative peer influences; or offering discrete activities for youth specifically geared toward enhancing their productivity, connectedness, and ability to navigate.

The implications of the framework for program design will also be different as the framework is applied to different age groups and/or different community settings. The Evaluation Steering Committee of the Roundtable intends to develop a similar research-based framework for younger children and their families.

We were somewhat reluctant to extrapolate from the framework as far as we did in presenting these strategies. First, research on naturally occurring variation in these processes does not easily or even appropriately translate into what to do to change them. Second, although we were relatively confident about the research base undergirding our theory about what will produce change in youth, we are sorely lacking in theory or research on what brings about change in communities and institutions.

For example, we feel confident that if these strategies "took"--if more adults began to interact with youth on a day-to-day basis in these communities, and if these adults were more competent in their specific roles and responsibilities, more connected and mutually supportive and more intensively involved with youth over longer periods of time--there would be pay-offs for these younger adolescents. They should be more productive, connected, and better able to navigate their way through the challenges they face as they make the transition to and from adolescence in these urban communities.

But, neither researchers nor practitioners have identified the appropriate incentives and supports that are necessary to instigate and maintain these changes in institutional practices, community norms, and adult behavioral patterns. And, even if we could achieve the interventions' short-term pay-offs for youth, those pay-offs would only lead to longer-term outcomes if (1) the intervention strategies "took" strongly and persistently enough so that individual change in the community's youth was widespread and deeply internalized, and (2) if there were future opportunities within and outside their communities for older youth to build on the developmental processes that were strengthened during their earlier years.

We recognize that CCIs will continue to be designed and implemented based on incomplete knowledge and with some skepticism about their ability to produce long-term outcomes. We also believe we can continue to build this knowledge base and bolster our confidence in the lasting impact of CCIs by:

Implications of the Framework for Evaluation of Comprehensive Community Initiatives

We believe research-based frameworks such as the one described in this paper can benefit evaluations both of existing and future comprehensive community initiatives. For existing CCIs, evaluators can use a research-based framework as a lens to critically examine the elements of an initiative's "theory of change." For example, the evaluator can ask whether the community dimensions targeted for intervention and their putative outcomes match up in any way to existing knowledge about links between these dimensions and the outcomes. If either no evidence or, worse yet, contrarian evidence exists for the predicted effect of a targeted element on a particular outcome, the evaluator could recommend that funders' resources be redirected toward tracking more plausible effects of the initiative. In addition to focusing evaluation resources on "best bets," the power to detect these effects could be increased by reallocating resources to more precise and multi-method measurement of the inputs and outcomes that comprise them. Some of these more precise measurement strategies could be available from researchers studying these issues. Finally, if evaluators decide it is desirable and feasible to use these research measures, existing studies could potentially provide information on their psychometric properties in populations similar to those involved in the CCI.

In addition to their potential utility in evaluations of existing CCIs, research-based frameworks could make an important contribution to the design of future CCIs. As the example we provided shows, the links in the framework can generate fairly specific sets of community-level intervention strategies that the framework suggest should affect interim and longer-term outcomes for the community's residents if the strategies change the community dimensions they target. The major benefit that evaluators derive from these framework-based designs is that it will be clearer what to evaluate and how to measure it: Which elements are the targets of the intervention? How is change in these elements expected to produce change in other elements? Which "downstream" outcomes can be expected to be affected earlier versus later in the life of the initiative? And where should we look for potential measures of the targeted elements and outcomes?


What frameworks such as these will not do for evaluators is resolve the thorny issues raised in the Introduction to this volume and detailed in the paper by Rob Hollister and Jennifer Hill--specifically, the problems of attributing impact to CCIs through the creation of compelling counterfactuals. These issues await serious conceptual and methodological work outside the purview of this paper's contribution.

The empirical bases for the links hypothesized in these frameworks are from studies of "naturally occurring" covariation among the framework's elements--not from experimental evidence of cause and effect or, with a few exceptions, from studies providing evidence that change in one of these elements is associated with change in another element. Given these limits of the research data and the absence of data for some of these links, use of the framework as the sole or even primary criterion for important program design or evaluation decisions is not warranted.

Finally, as discussed earlier in this paper, the primary sources of research underlying these frameworks do not draw the distinction between variables that are subject to intervention and those that are not. In our review of the literature and the discussions among our advisors, we attempted to introduce susceptibility to intervention as an inclusion criterion for the elements of the framework. However, we recognize that there will be divergent views on whether some of our framework's elements meet this test.

In conclusion, and on a more optimistic note, we predict that designers and evaluators of comprehensive community initiatives will find research-based frameworks to be useful. We hope this framework describing how communities affect urban youth, and our future efforts to develop similar frameworks for younger children and their families, will strengthen the ties between the designers and evaluators of CCIs and the basic research community. Increased use of research to inform the design and evaluation of CCIs could help catalyze the science research community to fill the gaps in these frameworks with more evidence, better measures, and clearer communications of their findings. Ultimately, these collaborative efforts can only serve to improve and enrich discussions of what should be done to support communities' efforts to improve the lives of their residents and how best to learn from these intervention efforts.


Aber, J. L., E. Seidman, L. Allen, C. Mitchell, and R. Garfinkle. 1993. "Poverty-related Risks and the Psychosocial Adaptation of Urban Youth: Testing Mediational Models." Working Paper.

Bronfenbrenner, U. 1986. "Ecology of the Family is a Context for Human Development: Research Perspectives." Developmental Psychology 22, no. 6: 723–42.

Brooks-Gunn, J., G. J. Duncan, P. Kato, and N. Sealand. 1993. "Do Neighborhoods Influence Child and Adolescent Behavior?" American Journal of Sociology 99, no. 2: 353–95.

Connell, J. P. 1994. "Applying a Youth Development Perspective to the Early Prediction of African-American Males' Labor Market Attachment." Working Paper. Philadelphia: Public/Private Ventures.

Connell, J. P., M. B. Spencer, and J. L. Aber. 1994. "Educational Risk and Resilience in African-American Youth: Context, Self, Action and Outcomes in School." Child Development 65.

Coulton, C.J., and S. Pandey. 1992. "Geographic Concentration of Poverty and Risk to Children in Urban Neighborhoods." American Behavioral Scientist 35, no. 3: 238–57.

Corcoran, M. 1982. "The Employment and Wage Consequences of Teenage Women's Nonemployment." In The Youth Labor Market Problem: Its Nature, Causes, and Consequences, ed. Richard Freeman and David Wise. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Crane, J. 1991. "The Epidemic Theory of Ghettos and Neighborhood Effects on Dropping Out and Teenage Childbearing." American Journal of Sociology 96, no. 5: 1926-1959.

Duncan, G. J., J. P. Connell, and P. K. Klebanov. 1994. "Are Neighborhood Effects Really Causal?" SSRC Working Paper. New York: Social Science Research Council.

Ellwood, D. 1982. "Teenage Unemployment: Permanent Scars or Temporary Blemishes?" In The Youth Labor Market Problem: It's Nature, Causes, and Consequences, ed. Richard Freeman and David Wise. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Fleisher, B. 1966. The Economics of Delinquency. Chicago: Quadrangle Books.

Freedman, R. 1982. "Economic Determinants of Geographic and Individual Variation in the Labor Market Position of Young Persons." In The Youth Labor Market Problem: Its nature, Causes, and Consequences, ed. Richard Freeman and David Wise. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Furstenburg, F. F. 1990. "How Families Manage Risk and Opportunity in Dangerous Neighborhoods." Paper presented at the 84th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association, Washington, DC, August 1990.

Gambone, M. A. 1993. Strengthening Programs for Youth: Promoting Adolescent Development in the JTPA System. Philadelphia: Public/Private Ventures.

Jarrett, R. L. 1994. "Community Context, Intrafamilial Processes, and Social Mobility Outcomes: Ethnographic Contributions to the Study of African-American Families and Children in Poverty." In Ethnicity and Diversity, ed. G. E. Brookings and M. B. Spencer. Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum.

Moore, Joan W. 1991. Going Down to the Barrio: Home Boys and Home Girls in Change. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Public/Private Ventures. 1994. Community Ecology and Youth Resilience: A Report to the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Philadelphia: Public/Private Ventures.

Rutter, Michael, Barbara Maughan, Peter Mortimer, and Janet Ouston, with Alan Smith. 1979. Fifteen Thousand Hours: Secondary Schools and Their Effects on Children. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Sampson, R. J. 1992. "Family Management and Child Development: Insights from Social Disorganization Theory." In Advances in Criminological Theory, ed. J. McCord. New Brunswick: Transaction Books.

Sampson, R. J., and W. B. Groves. 1989. "Community Structure and Crime: Testing Social Disorganization Theory." American Journal of Sociology 94, no. 4: 774–802.

Sullivan, M. 1989. Getting Paid: Youth and Work in the Inner City. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Wilson, W. J. 1991. "Studying Inner City Dislocations: The Challenges of Public Agenda Research. American Sociological Review 56: 1–14.

Back to New Approaches to Evaluating Community Initiatives index.

Copyright © 1999 by The Aspen Institute
Comments, questions or suggestions? E-mail
This page designed, hosted, and maintained by Change Communications.