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Authentic Community-Based

Youth Engagement

Lessons From Across the


Nation and Through the
LensofViolence Prevention
Even though recent statistics indicate that violent crime
among youth has decreased nationwide, the civil
unrest seen in Baltimore, Ferguson, Cleveland, and
other cities and towns across the nation in 2014
and 2015 suggests that communities are not valuing all residents as equal stakeholders. Thus, voices
of the unacknowledged are muffled by groups that
are accepted as having a more prominent stake in
society. In most communities, youth are the least
valued stakeholders. Without the resources needed
to thrive and with their voices going unheard, some
young people resort to violence to express discontent and to bring about change.

Without the resources needed to thrive and with


their voices going unheard, some young people
resort to violence to express discontent and to bring
about change.

Recent social movements such as #Blacklivesmatter


emphasize the alternative routes youth of color are
using in their attempts to be heard and recognized
as equal participants in their communities. Yet societys response has still largely involved disciplinary
action, which only serves to perpetuate the systemic
structures that further ostracize youth from their
communities.
We believe a paradigm shift must occur in how
society views youth; instead of the problem they
must become the solution. Youth must be provided
appropriate avenues to ignite positive change in
order for them to break out of the communities
of violence they have created as a result of being

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2 0 1 5 W i l e y P eriodicals, Inc.
P u b l i s h e d o n l i n e in W iley Online Library (w iley onlinelibra ry. com)
N a t i o n a l C i v i c Review DOI: 10.1002/ncr.21234 Fall 2015

B Y S H E L LY H E L G E S O N
and DYLAN SCHNEIDER

undervalued and consequently under-engaged.


Theresult will find empowered youth, ready to take
ownership in shaping the communities where they
live, go to school, and work.
In order to gain insights into youth engagement
for the building of stronger, safer communities, we
scoured the nation for community-based organizations leading the way in the fight against violence
through youth engagement. Through our research,
four organizations from varied parts of the country, stood out for their exemplary practices in this
field. These violence prevention organizations created meaningful and authentic opportunities for
youth to engage as valued stakeholders by embodying four core values that include: meaningful youth
leadership, accessibility, collaboration, and active
listening. Here are their stories.

Becoming a Man, Chicago, Illinois


Becoming a Manor B.A.M. as it is more commonly calledis a youth dropout and violence prevention program that is part of the well-established
nonprofit organization Youth Guidance based in
Chicago. B.A.M. offers unique in-school group
counseling to at-risk males in grades 712 enrolled
in Chicago Public Schools (CPS). Each program is
run by a thoroughly vetted and trained counselor
who, in consultation with teachers, conducts clinical assessment and group counseling to primarily young men of color, the citys most vulnerable
population.
B.A.M. was developed in response to founder, Tony
DiVittorios perception as a counselor within the
CPS system that his male students often lacked

A Publication of the National Civic League

physical and emotional access to their fathers or any


other positive male role model. Each group counseling session is based on a curriculum developed by
DiVittorio that challenges common perceptions of
manhood and develops skills around core values
that provide young men with behaviors nonconducive to violence. As the B.A.M. website says: Participants learn about and practice impulse control,
emotional self-regulation, reading social cues and
interpreting intentions of others, raising aspirations
for the future and developing a sense of personal
responsibility and integrity. Additionally, much of
the success of the program occurs during individual
counseling sessions that each participant may utilize
to address his own personal, emotional, and behavioral concerns. Outside of the circle, they are given
more intensive individualized care that the counselors are equipped to orchestrate, said Daniel Heiniger in a telephone interview in November of 2014.
Individual counseling facilitates a bond between the
counselor and the participant that enables youth
to discuss more sensitive topics that they are not
ready to share in the group circle settings. Finally,
many participants also attend B.A.M.-sponsored
after-school activities, which include nontraditional
sporting activities such as Olympic wrestling, boxing, and rugby. These individual sports reinforce
the prosocial, conflict resolution skills the young
men are learning during the in-school counseling
programs.

a coherent cradle-to-college-and-career strategy for


improving the life outcomes of all young people to
ensure that they can reach their full potential.

Since its inception in 2001, B.A.M.s reach will


extend to 50 schools within CPS and will provide
its services to 2500 young men by the start of the
20152016 school year. Much of this expansion is
a result of the attention several prominent political figures have brought to the program. After a
University of Chicago Crime Lab study detailed
the strong evidence-based impact B.A.M. has
on reducing crime and truancy rates in Chicago,
Mayor Rahm Emmanuel tripled the citys funding
to the program. Shortly thereafter, President Barack
Obama paid the program a visit by participating
with 15 young men in a group circle and sharing his
own experiences as a young black man. The methodology observed at B.A.M. has informed the modeling of President Obamas My Brothers Keeper, an
initiative he began in 2014 that serves as a call to
action for communities, and mayors in particular,
to, as the White House website puts it, implement

The Alive & Free Leadership Academy is the core


program of Omega Boys Club. It offers skill development in a format engaging all types of youth
in a safe learning environment in which academic
excellence is the norm. The Leadership Academy
assists over 200 young men and women annually
in developing the technical and personal skills necessary to achieve in higher education and professional environments. In an environment where the
most prominent voices tell youth that joining the
hood is their only option, the Leadership Academy stresses that academic achievement can be a
new peer norm for youth of color. Students may
or may not enter the academy with specific educational goals, but to quote from the organizations
website, as they go through the curriculum, the
idea of preparing for college evolves as intellectual
curiosity blossoms. As a result of this curiosity,
200 Omega Boys Club participants have graduated

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Alive & FreeOmega Boys Club, San Francisco,


California
Based on the idea that every young person has the
potential to succeed as long as they can be free of
violence, Alive & Free is an internationally recognized violence prevention program born from
the successes developed at Omega Boys Club in
San Francisco. Like B.A.M., Omega Boys Club
was cofounded by school-based faculty and staff
who saw little hope for the future of young people unless a systemic change was enacted to counter the v iolence-ridden environment in which they
were growing-up. Thus in 1987, then middle school
teacher Dr. Joe Marshall and counselor Jack J acqua,
created the program with the mission to provide
young people the opportunities needed to keep
them from falling victim to a life of violence and
crime so that they may build positive lives for themselves and in their communitiesin other words,
provide youth with the prescription to be alive and
free. Alive & Free is more than a stop the violence
organization. Alive & Free is about getting on the
right trackwhat the medical community calls prevention, wrote Marshall in the organizations 2014
annual report (Alive & Free, 2014).

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from collegea 95 percent program participant


graduation success rate. The more you know, the
more you owe, is an organizational mantra that
has instilled in its participants a strong conviction to give back to the community once they have
achieved their own personal successes.

Texas Network of Youth Services, Austin, Texas


Texas Network of Youth Services (TNOYS) is a
nonprofit community network based in Austin,
Texas, with the mission to provide an environment,
as the website says, where all young people are valued, their strengths are recognized, and they have
access to the resources, support, and opportunities they need to lead healthy and fulfilling lives.
TNOYS was started by a small group of youth service organizations that originally came together in
1979 to share resources and ideas of how to best
navigate the significant national policy changes taking place in the youth services field. These organizations viewed themselves as community-based
alternative youth services as they wanted to provide
communities with alternatives to the traditional
discipline-based approaches such as incarceration
or public agency intervention.
This small but visionary group was quick to recognize the immense value an organizational network
could offer, and in 1980, TNOYS was formalized. For the past 35 years, the organization has
worked tirelessly to provide alternatives to traditional methods of youth services, while simultaneously working to improve national policy. TNOYS
offers a variety of programs that are designed to
meet youth where they are. While some TNOYS
programs provide immediate services, others seek
to empower youth by creating viable opportunities
for them to initiate change on a local and national
level. By encouraging youth to develop an equal
voice in the community, a culture of true engagement is fostered that extends far beyond the programs of TNOYS.
TNOYS Juvenile Justice Advocate program invites
youth who have experienced traditional youth
service programs to spend a school year conducting policy research as part of the TNOYS Youth
Research and Advocacy Committee. Youth on the
committee present system reform recommendations

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based on research, personal experiences, and collaboration. The Juvenile Justice Advocate program,
like many other TNOYS initiatives, demonstrates
first hand that systemic change comes from dedicated, constructive, community engagement.

Students Against Violence Everywhere (SAVE),


Raleigh, North Carolina
In 1989, high school student Alex Orange was
killed trying to break up a fight at a party in Charlotte, North Carolina. Instead of letting Alexs name
become just another youth violence statistic, grieving classmates from West Charlotte Senior High
School began to organize. Their vision, inspired
by the loss of their friend, was that schools could
and should be safe and secure for all students and
foster an environment free of fear. Twenty-six years
later, Students Against Violence Everywhere (SAVE)
has grown from that first chapter started in the
cafeteria of West Charlotte Senior High School to
a national network of over 2,200 chapters. SAVE
is coordinated from the 501(c)(3) headquarters in
Raleigh, North Carolina, but remains true to the
original vision of an organization led by students,
for students.
At its core, SAVE is a curriculum that is used to
develop social cognitive skills such as conflict management that teach youth to navigate life without
the use of violence. National spotlight issues are
chosen by SAVE youth leaders and can range from
safe teen driving to weapon safety. Trainings, summits, conversations, and rallies are put on by SAVE
chapters to raise awareness and create tangible
alternatives to violence in their communities.
Among its many transformative initiatives, SAVE
encourages its members to participate in service
learning projects that address systemic problems
by implementing long-term solutions. Executive
Director of SAVE, Carleen Wray, gives the example of a group that wants to address the issue of
hunger. Instead of volunteering at a food bank or
shelter (which may be done as well), SAVE members are challenged to find solutions that address
the systemic problem of hunger and not just fulfill
the immediate need. Students might decide to build
a community garden to provide fresh and available
food, which not only contributes to the needs of the

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community but engages the youth in a meaningful


relationship with that community. By giving youth
the opportunity and power to implement long-term
change, they directly witness their ability to influence their own circumstances and those of others.

Recommendations
By analyzing these organizations, we found that
genuine youth engagement was at the core of
their organizational success. Within each program,
youth were treated as authentic stakeholders. We
believe that if youth engagement is at the center
of community-based organizational initiatives, it
is not limited to the field of violence prevention
but has the potential to operate as a lever for positive social change on a larger scale. The following
value-based recommendations are gleaned from
these violence prevention organizations but are
intended for a broader audience of communitybased organizations.

If youth engagement is at the center of communitybased organizational initiatives, it is not limited to


the field of violence prevention but has the potential
to operate as a lever for positive social change on
a larger scale.

We arrived at these recommendations by conducting research and personal interviews with leadership and program staff at the four organizations
analyzed. We then examined each organization
through a SWOT (strength, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis to identify shared best
practices of creating opportunities for meaningful
youth engagement. The well-developed public values framework presented by Mark Moore in his
book Recognizing Public Value (2013) further enabled us to hone in on the core values underlying
each recommendation. These core values include
meaningful youth leadership, accessibility, collaboration, and active listening. Thus, we propose the
following core value-based recommendations that
can easily be integrated into the existing programs
of other socially conscious organizations seeking to empower youth as authentic community
stakeholders.

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Recommendation 1Create Meaningful Youth


Leadership Opportunities (Core Value: Meaningful
YouthLeadership)

Promising practices of each organization involve


creating substantive, authentic leadership opportunities for youth program participants. By positioning youth in leadership roles such as mentorship
positions, board positions, team leaders, and spokespeople roles, youth are able to acquire deeper ownership of the programming and services offered by
their respective organizations. These meaningful
youth leadership opportunities also serve to create
legitimacy from the youth perspective. Youth feel an
increased sense of involvement when a welcoming,
inclusive programming environment is produced by
intentionally creating opportunities for their voices
to be heard.
Several organizations provide ongoing leadership
opportunities for youth when, after demonstrating
exemplary performance and commitment, they are
entrusted to serve as mentors to fellow youth participants. These mentorship models serve to further
nurture youths personal and professional development and strengthen their potential leadership
skills by training younger participants or serving in
coleadership roles alongside organization staff.
As part of the Collegian Success program of Omega
Boys Club, older boys mentor and coach incoming
program participants to instill values and success
habits to younger students through a peer-driven
perspective. B.A.M. also integrates mentorship
opportunities for its seasoned participants into
its in-school programming. Young men who have
demonstrated responsibility and modeled positive,
prosocial behaviors are asked to perform check-ins
with the younger participants to ensure they are
staying on track, in school and off the streets. These
mentorship relationships provide incentives for
both the mentor and the mentee. Older youth are
recognized and rewarded for their positive actions,
while younger youth benefit from the social support
and cool-factor of upperclassmen looking after
them in the often socially daunting school setting.
Shared strengths of both TNOYS and SAVE are
their ability to amplify youth leadership voices
in larger public spheres. TNOYS celebrates youth
perspective through its Juvenile Justice Advocates

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and Youth in Action Capitol Day, in which young


participants are viewed as change makers in the
arena of juvenile justice by researching and leading advocacy recommendations for policy reform.
TNOYS youth leaders also assume spokespeople
roles at criminal justice conferences and their youth
council meets once a month to reassess current initiatives and set goals. According to Executive Director Carleen Wray, SAVE believes in walking the
walk of authentic youth leadership at the chapter level up to the national level. SAVEs National
Youth Advisory Board is made up of chapter leaders from across the nation that apply to be on the
committee that advises and influences the national
focus of SAVE each year. These students are also the
designated spokespeople for addressing the media
on behalf of the organization and its various initiatives. By encouraging students to step into leadership roles that directly influence local and national
agendas, youth recognize the power they have to
create positive change on a large scale.
Youth display deep, transformative leadership in
serving their communities through these empowering opportunities. However, organizations need to
be careful not to fall victim to faux stakeholder
syndrome when involving youth in leadership.
We applied the term faux stakeholder syndrome
during our research when we discovered that on
occasion, organizations claimed to view youth as
stakeholders, when in reality, they just assigned
menial responsibilities or empty titles to their young
members. Organizations often appoint youth to leadership positions but patronize or dismiss their contributions, which can foster lasting mistrust between
youth and organizations. It is vital for youth organizations that strive for authentic participation from
their members to take youth seriously, value their
perspectives, and not engage them in ways that merely
fulfill a mandatory quota. Embracing and amplifying
an authentic youth voice is necessary for inspiring
youth to take on leadership roles and champion for
real and positive change in their communities.
Recommendation 2Meet Youth Where They Are
(CoreValue: Accessibility)

Our research found that the most successful youth


engagement programs are conscious of making
their programs and services easily accessible,
by ensuring they meet youth where they are with

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regard to both their physical and cultural context.


The first consideration in meeting youth where they
are is making sure that the physical location of programs and services is accessible and inviting to the
targeted audience. Wray observes that kids are
doing great things, and they want to be involved
the biggest hurdle they have to being involved is
how to getinvolved. Removing physical obstacles
is the first step in assuring accessibility to youth
programs and services. TNOYS is always careful
to ensure their meeting and training locations are
easily accessible by the subgroup of youth they are
most actively trying to engage in a particular program. For example, if they are seeking to engage
youth interested or already enrolled in community
college, meetings and trainings are held on community college campuses. However, for programs that
aim to attract a younger or underserved group, who
may find college campuses intimidating, familiar
locations like the Houston United Way Community
Center are used. Youth Program Coordinator, Elizabeth Flint from TNOYS, states that program participants, open up more when theyre in a setting
where theyre comfortable. By engaging youth in
a familiar and comfortable setting, trust is fostered
that can then extend into the greater community.
Meeting young people where they are with regard to
their community culture is equally as important as
being conscious of physical location. Organizations
have a responsibility to be conscious of the community culture they are entering. In a world increasingly reliant on technology, it also means extending
organizational practices to the realm of social media
where youth are already congregating. There may
have been a time when organizations were effective from their organizational towers, but todays
youth demand real-time interaction and access to
information. SAVE and TNOYS both spoke to the
importance of reaching youth by establishing open
communities on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and others. For SAVE,
social media offers a multifaceted platform for students and faculty to form and facilitate national
chapters, while also providing a practical method
for the national office to keep a pulse on chapter
activities and trending topics. It also invites participation from individuals who may not currently be
members of a chapter but are passionate about the
issue or looking to find a supportive community.

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Meeting youth where they are must be a constant


effort for organizations seeking to veritably engage
youth. With every event, campaign, or service, due
diligence must be done to guarantee that locations
are accessible and familiar to youth, whether they
exist physically within the community or online.
Recommendation 3Partner Dont Compete
(CoreValue: Collaboration)

Our recommendation that embodies the corevalue of collaboration for community-based youth
engagement is simple: partner dont compete. This
key organizational practice was found across all
organizations as the cornerstone for determining
success in youth engagement programs. Organizations that actively pursued partnerships within the
public, private, and nonprofit sectors were able
to run more effective programming when their
resources were put toward creating productive
partnerships instead of competing with like-minded
groups for similar programming targets.
Three of the organizations, B.A.M, Omega Boys
Club, and SAVE, chose to partner with local school
districts to offer violence prevention programming
within the public school systems. Although they are
not official employees of the state, program staff
work inside the schools and alongside school administrators and faculty to address truancy and behavioral issues in youth from several fronts. B.A.M
counselors work closely with teachers to understand
the problems their young men are presenting in the
classroom. The counselor then works on those issues
in group counseling circles, asking the youth why
they are performing the negative action and identifying methods to resolve it. Counselors then reconvene
with the teachers to ensure that the new behavior is
being modeled in the classroom. This cooperative
work structure requires many hours of relationship
building by the organizations program staff, as the
often overworked inner-city school employees will
not allocate time to work with optional service providers if a strong sense of trust is not established.
These strategic partnerships within the school systems increase the overall success of programs, while
simultaneously contributing to diminishing violent
behavior occurring in schools.
B.A.M. and TNOYS have modeled our recommendation of partner dont compete beyond just the

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school grounds and into the greater community


where their youth live. As a supervising B.A.M.
counselor, Daniel Heiniger took the initiative to
develop relationships with other community organizations that also provided developmental services to
youth. He worked relentlessly for over three years,
building community partnerships with nonprofits, city agencies, and faith-based organizations in
order to know where he could refer his own young
participants. Because B.A.M provides programming
primarily during the school day, Heiniger sought
to find available programs that would continue his
work of keeping youth engaged and off the violence-ridden streets in the crucial after-school hours.
Flint explained that in Houston, Texas, TNOYS
has established organic partnerships with at least
15 similarly minded nonprofits that can be counted
on to lend local contacts, facilities, and other supportive and/or joint resources. Whether its done
your way or my way, at the end of the day the goal
is the same, replies Flint when asked if competition plays a role in these collaborations. Similarly,
Heiniger has become a part of several communitybased groupsthat bring together allied community
organizations working toward common youth-centric goals. The Roots to Wellness, a community
mental health coalition and one of the examples
mentioned by Heiniger, consists of about 20 representatives from six to seven local agencies. They
come and ask the question what can we do? Its
nice to work with agencies who are not concerned
with who gets credit for what and who arent cutthroat about competing for grants. The community partnerships both TNOYS and B.A.M. have
established have not only been mutually beneficial
but have transcended each organizations goals to
impact their larger communities. The youth in the
area are supported in a holistic manner, with one
organization picking up where another has left off
in the fight to end violence.
Recommendation 4Implement Youth Involvement in
Program Evaluation (Core Value: Active Listening)

The youth-serving organizations we analyzed


for this article consistently demonstrate that they
actively value youth as stakeholders in programming and found creative ways to integrate them
as key contributors to the success of the organization. Yet, none of these organizations involve youth

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meaningfully in their program evaluation process.


For youth to be fully integrated as stakeholders,
their voices must be heard in the evaluation of
the very programs that are aimed to benefit them.
Salient youth-attractive programs tailored to their
authentic needs and desires will be the result.
An undeniable strength of B.A.M. is the rigorous
quantitative study that was conducted by the University of Chicago Crime Lab that determined their
programs immense impact. However, hard data
should not be the only tool for measuring success
and identifying areas needing further development.
Organizations need to embrace listening, the core
value of this recommendation, in the evaluation
process by giving youth participants a platform to
voice their experiences and reactions as clients of
the offered program. The opinions and perspectives
of the youth that actually participated in the programs (i.e., the primary stakeholders) should then
be used as key performance indicators alongside
quantitative data. In The True Impact of Evaluation, published in the American Journal of Evaluation, Janet Clinton observed, Using evaluation
information to implement program adaptation is
essential to achieving outcomes. Consequently, for
change to occur and hence a program to be successful, stakeholders need to engage in a process of
critical reflection, whereby information is sought,
reflected upon, used, and adaptation occurs. (Clinton, 2014, p. 125) Providing youth stakeholders
with the opportunity to have their voices heard
by organizational decision makers also gives rise
to youth listening to their own voices. Intentional
listening and reflection on these voices through the
lens of measuring programmatic success will provide valuable new insights contributing to not only
the future success of the program but also its youth
participants.
Studies examining the challenges of program evaluation found poor stakeholder understanding of evaluation, low evaluator credibility, and low user belief
and trust in the evaluation process as key barriers
to functional evaluation processes, according to an
article in the American Journal of Evaluation by
Sandy Taut and Marvin Alkin (2003). Based on the
findings of this research, we highly recommend that
organizations establish and maintain clear communication with youth throughout the program and

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its evaluation period. Open dialogue that encourages a stream of feedback, not just at the end of a
program but in real-time, is essential to youth taking ownership in organizational success. Knowing
their opinions are valued at the beginning will build
trust with the program staff acting as evaluators
and make youth more apt to play an active role in
formal evaluation systems at the end of a program
term. Evaluators must always be mindful to listen
to qualitative data from youth participants, just as
much as they adhere to the successes quantitative
data confirms. Doing so will ensure that authentic
youth perspectives are acknowledged throughout
the lifespan of the program and are given equal
ownership in the programs meant to serve them.

Youth today crave recognition as equal contributors


in shaping a just society.

Conclusion
It is clear from the current political and social landscape that youth today crave recognition as equal
contributors in shaping a just society. Yet, youth
cannot have an authentic role in creating safe and
healthy communities, until they are recognized as an
integral component of the solution. This shift must
occur from the bottom-up. From our analysis of the
four pioneering violence prevention organizations,
we learned that community-based organizations are
essential in facilitating a culture that deeply transforms youth and their communities. Our belief is
that if the core values that are at the foundation of
our recommendations are shared and adopted by
other communities, a new generation of leaders will
emerge to influence systemic structures for positive
change.

Acknowledgments
We acknowledge our fellow University of San
Francisco colleagues who contributed to the original research on the project from which this article
was born. They include Kaitlyn Azevedo, Fernando
Enciso-Marquez, and Kevin Mosca. We also thank
Richard Callahan, Chair of the Department of
Public and Nonprofit Administration at the University of San Francisco, for his invaluable advice

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and counsel. Finally, our efforts would not have


been possible without the input and cooperation
from the community-based organizations used as
case studies in this article. We are grateful for all of
the support we have received in seeing this project
to fruition.

Moore, M. H. 2013. Recognizing Public Value. Cambridge,


MA: Harvard University Press.

References

Shelly Helgeson is the assistant director of International


Student and Scholar Services at the University of San

Francisco.

Alive & Free. 2014: Our Road to Success. San Francisco, CA.
2015, p. 3. Retrieved from http://stayaliveandfree.org/wpcontent/uploads/2015/06/Alive-Free-Annual-Report-20151.pdf
Clinton, J. 2014. The True Impact of Evaluation. American
Journal of Evaluation, 35(1), 120127.

N a t i o n a l C i v i c R e view

Taut, S. M. and Alkin, M. C. 2003. Program Staff Perceptions of Barriers to Evaluation Implementation. American
Journal of Evaluation, 24(2), 213226.

Dylan Rose Schneider works in the field of Environmental


Justice and Education.

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