Training Young Women to Become Researchers — and Study Their Own Community's Challenges

Posted February 21, 2019, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

Alex Hammer of Girl Effect and Lisa Hamilton of the Casey Foundation

A new episode of CaseyCast takes listeners to Adams County, Colorado — one of the fastest growing counties in the state in both population and employment. It’s a community where families face many challenges, including higher rates of child poverty, single motherhood and teen births.

It’s also home to an innovative effort by three nonprofits — StriveTogether, Youth Initiative of Adams County and Girl Effect — that are enlisting young women to train and work as certified digital interviewers. As technology enabled girl ambassadors — or TEGAs — these young women build confidence and communication skills while interviewing peers and adults in Adams County. The information they collect sheds light on local challenges, shapes potential solutions and even assesses active interventions in real time.

Casey’s Lisa Hamilton recently spoke to Girl Effect's Alex Hammer, who oversees TEGA's efforts in the United States, and Isabel Rodriguez Favela, an inaugural TEGA team member in Adams County. Their conversation explores the unique ways that TEGA connects young women to career development opportunities, how youth are informing the work in Adams County, and what the local community has learned from the initiative thus far.

A huge thank you to Hammer and Favela for chatting with us — and for sharing their personal perspectives from TEGA's frontlines.

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In This Episode on Youth and Workforce Development, You’ll Learn

  • What skills young women develop during their time as TEGAs.
  • How TEGA helps prepare young women for multiple career paths.
  • How Girl Effect had to modify their TEGA model for programs in the United States.
  • What TEGAs have taught Adams County about its youth.
  • How TEGA’s approach to research is unique.
  • What an Adams County youth has to say about her experience as a TEGA.

Conversation Clips

In Alex Hammer’s own words…

“We train girls to be researchers in their communities, and we feel that we'll get much more authentic insights about young people if we actually allow young people to be the ones who interview each other.”

“TEGA is in this unique position — it's at the crux of rigorous research and data but also community engagement.”

“It's truly youth lead. Not only are we actually getting feedback from youth in the community, but we're employing youth, and that really makes it a sustainable youth enterprise.”

Resources and Links

About the Casey Foundation Podcast

CaseyCast is a podcast produced by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and hosted by its President and CEO Lisa Hamilton. Each episode features Hamilton talking with a new expert about how we can build a brighter future for kids, families and communities.

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View Transcript

Lisa Hamilton:
From the Annie E. Casey Foundation, I'm Lisa Hamilton and this is CaseyCast.

At the Casey Foundation, we aim to build a brighter future for children, families and communities, and one way that we do this is by helping young people — particularly those who have been disconnected from opportunity — prepare for work and workplace success.

This topic and today’s episode take us to Adams County, Colorado, which is one of the fastest growing counties in the state in both population and employment. In this community, families face many challenges, including higher rates of child poverty, single motherhood and teen births. Against this backdrop, three nonprofits — StriveTogether; its local affiliate, the Youth Initiative of Adams County; and Girl Effect — have joined forces to train young women to become qualified digital interviewers. Known as TEGAs, which stands for technology enabled girl ambassadors, these women interview youth and adults in their own community to learn about key issues and potential unmet needs.

And here to talk about this initiative today is Girl Effect's Alex Hammer, who oversees TEGA efforts in the United States. Welcome, Alex.

Alex Hammer:
Thanks for having me, Lisa.

Lisa Hamilton:
Great. And also joining us today from Adams County, is Isabel Rodriguez Favela, who is an inaugural TEGA team member, who'll talk about her experiences on the initiative's frontlines. Welcome, Isabel.

Isabel Favela:
Thank you, Lisa.

Lisa Hamilton:
Alex, let's get started with you. Girl Effect is a global nonprofit but it's fairly new to the United Stated. Why don't you tell us a bit about the work that you do.

Alex Hammer:
So, Girl Effect is an international NGO and, predominantly, we work in international development, really thinking about how we can engage and empower and inform adolescent girls. And the way that we do that is pretty unique to our sector. We use media and, increasingly, digital platforms, to do that. So, we have magazines, radio shows, social networks for girls giving them information that they need, whether it's around health, education, how to deal with their families.

And for us, we always make sure the girls are the center. So, for us, finding really authentic insights about the girl and really understanding her is at our core; and that's really where TEGA comes in. We really wanted to make sure that we understood girls better than anyone else, and, therefore, really wanted to think about how we can really engage with them authentically. So, TEGA is a peer-to-peer research methodology, so we train actual girls to be researchers in their communities, and we feel that we'll get much more authentic insights about young people, if we actually allow young people to be the ones who interview each other.

Lisa Hamilton:
So, where've you been doing this work? I know that you've worked internationally, what are some of the places you've been? You sort of piloted this work or started it?

Alex Hammer:
So, we're in seven countries today, but we started actually in Northern Nigeria. So TEGA was stated roughly three years ago when we were really trying to understand what the Northern Nigerian girl is like, and we were coming up against two main issues. One, was, we were really struggling to get those girls to open up. Traditional ways that you interview, it meant someone like me, a foreigner, would go into a community, maybe with a flip chart and try to ask somewhat intimidating questions about their lives, so tell me about your health, things like that.

Lisa Hamilton:
That could even be personal questions.

Alex Hammer:
Exactly. And, I think what we found is girls didn't want to open up about that to foreigners. So, that was our first trouble. So how do we overcome that girls aren't really going to open up to someone who might not be like them? And then the second challenge at the time is right when the Chibok girls were kidnapped, and there was a lot of safety concerns in Northern Nigeria, so we couldn't go there.

So, Laura Scanlon, who founded TEGA, had this crazy idea at the time, what if we actually got the girls to be the researchers and what if we gave them smartphones to conduct the research, because not only would that enable us to get the information quicker, so they could send it to us, but it also meant instead of it being a written type of research, we could actually take videos and we could have audio, and we could actually see what the girls are actually like and hear from them ourselves and that's how TEGA was born, really getting that authentic information, which was some of the most interesting information about Nigerian girls we'd ever seen.

Lisa Hamilton:
I think that's one of the most interesting things I found about the program, is that you're actually trying to ensure you've got accurate information about a young girl's experience. So often, programs are developed based on lots of assumptions, many of which may be incorrect. So, I really applaud you for being thoughtful about the way that you can really gather real authentic information and even multimedia information about a young girl, so that you make sure you're really basing your programing on their real experiences.

Alex Hammer:
For sure, and I think that first one week went in with this assumption that the Northern Nigerian girl is really shy, that she kind of really didn't really talk, but what we got back was a really joking and fun-loving girl who was really opening up to her peers. And we learned about new issues in the community. We learned that, actually, drug issues were massive in that community, but no one had really opened up about it, because they were somewhat taboo to talk about. And, so, for us, that was a huge kind of eye-opening experience.

Lisa Hamilton:
So, you're bringing TEGA to the United States. Talk a bit about why you thought this approach to research would be useful here in the U.S. and how you've been rolling it out.

Alex Hammer:
Well, I think, first to say, we didn't know if it would be useful, so I think when we first started in the U.S., this was 2017, we had already rolled out in Nigeria and were starting to roll out in other countries in Africa, but we wanted to test the hypothesis. Is an adolescent girl or actually, an adolescent, or a community member more likely to open up to someone from their community, and are we… Is there a problem we need to solve for, is this actually a problem in the U.S.? So, we initially did a small pilot in Saginaw, Michigan, which is north of Detroit, and we went to Saginaw, because we wanted to go somewhere where there was an untold story

We worked with a local partner to really adapt it and make sure that what we, the principles were the same of what we were doing in Nigeria, but obviously had to make huge adaptations to how we delivered it.

Lisa Hamilton:
What needed to be different? First all, I'll ask you to invite you to tell me about how it works to create TEGAs with the TEGA training processes, but sort of how you had to adapt it for the United States.

Alex Hammer:
First thing we do is we look for a partner, and so in Adams County we're working with the Youth Initiative of Adams County and they play a critical role for us because they act as kind of our on-the-ground team, if you will. They both manage the TEGAs, they help us to adapt, which I can talk about, and really do the day-to-day operation. The second thing we do is we find the TEGAs, so we recruit girls who are 18 to 24 and we train them up to be interviewers, and they go through a three-month training process where we teach them a few things.

One, we teach them about why they're doing this and the importance of the research. Second, we teach them about the TEGA technology, so how do they actually conduct interviews using the phone, the app on the phone, and kind of the tech behind that. And then the third piece is really around how do you interview, how do you make someone comfortable, exactly what you're doing to today. How do you actually make sure that they're gonna give you authentic responses probing, not asking leading questions. And then we also do a huge amount on safety, which I can talk about, but that's really critical to the process.

So, for us, when we came to the U.S., some minor changes we had to make. One, we usually do interviews in homes but actually in the U.S. that proved logistically difficult. A lot of driving and actually a lot of the community wasn't very comfortable having strangers in their homes.

Lisa Hamilton:
In their homes.

Alex Hammer:
And a lot of the girls didn't feel safe. We also kind of changed how we did interviews. A lot of the girls wanted, we typically do interviews only on weekends, but a lot of the girls actually wanted this to be more of a part time job after work. And I think what's really exciting about Adams County is we're actually bringing the TEGAs much more into the process. So, having them a much more integral part of everything TEGA, not just doing the interviews.

Lisa Hamilton:
Oh, that's great. Why only girls?

Alex Hammer:
I think you know, we train girls to be TEGAs, but I think as we've evolved our approach, we've realized that TEGAs actually can interview everyone, and they're just as good at interviewing girls as they are at interview boys or other community members. And I think the reason for that TEGAs have kind of a disarming quality to them, you know. People aren't used to opening up like that, and we found that men and boys actually do open up. On the flip side, we also know that girls don't necessarily open up to men, so for us, while our work has evolved over time to really include not just girls but whole communities, we really feel strongly that we want to have women at the heart of that.

Lisa Hamilton:
Oh good.

Alex Hammer:
I think there's also an element that you know, sometimes there's a male bias in research, whether it's being conducted by men or the boards that are reviewing the research, and I think we really pride ourselves in being a female-led research agency, which I think is a really unique proposition that we're able to provide.

Lisa Hamilton:
It is. So then tell me a bit about the sort of credentialing. So, these young women are taught a methodology that can be applied in other ways?

Alex Hammer:
Yeah, so when the girls start their journey as a TEGA, they get an accreditation from the Market Research Society in digital interviewing. So, it's an accreditation that one, would allow them to take on a job in research, but they also really build other skills within that. So, one of the big ones is communication skills; so being able to not just talk about TEGA, but also be able to communicate the findings, present the findings. And then there's also just a huge amount of confidence building. And then, excitingly, we're building another accreditation where they can really focus on the management side of TEGA, so helping to deliver the field work, set up interviews, that kind of thing. So, we really feel that there are multiple career paths that these girls can follow.

Lisa Hamilton:
That's great. So, as I understand it, the goal with your project in Adams County was to collect data to improve educational achievement in that community. So, what is it that you're trying to improve and how does the data help with this work? What are you finding out?

Alex Hammer:
So, as I said, we're working with the Youth Initiative of Adams County, which is a fantastic organization. What they do is they really focus on bringing the community together, whether that's philanthropic organizations, whether that's the mayor's office, whether that's education department, really to coalesce on certain educational outcomes. And, so, what we're doing is we're really supporting those groups in three key areas.

One is helping them to figure out what's the problem that's actually happening here, so what are trying to solve for. Two, once we figured out what we're trying to solve for, really testing what interventions they might try, and try and adapt what they should so. And then the third piece is — once they've actually done — the interventions, how do we evaluate whether they're working. And I think the great thing about TEGA is that, because of the technology, we can do that in a really nimble way. So, if they try an intervention, we can be in the field within a day or two just to test okay. Did that work right? What did we like? What didn't we like? And then they can shift the intervention and then we can go back and do the same thing right over again.

Lisa Hamilton:
Which is so different than how most social research happens. It takes months, sometimes years.

Alex Hammer:
Yes.

Lisa Hamilton:
In order to get feedback, so you've really created a real-time feedback loop for an initiative to understand how what they're doing is working.

Alex Hammer:
Exactly. It's the real-time feedback. I think combined with the format that's given in, so instead of this 100-page report, which I'm sure you've seen lots of.

Lisa Hamilton:
Many of them.

Alex Hammer:
That we really pride on ourselves on being lean researchers. So, it'll be a shorter report and it'll be much more heavily focused on that audio and that video content because for us, we really feel like that helps our partners, the propensity to act. If you see someone saying something and you hear them saying it, you're much more likely to act on the information than if you see just a quote in a research report.

Lisa Hamilton:
Right. So, you're really giving them qualitative information, not just the quantitative information.

Alex Hammer:
Exactly.

Lisa Hamilton:
That they are often exposed to. Well, that's great.

When I went to Adams County and had an opportunity to learn about this work, I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Isabel, so I could see how the process worked a little bit. So, Isabel, it is wonderful to talk to you again.

You heard us talk a bit about what's going on in Adams County, but we know you're the real expert. Can you tell us a bit about what life is like for young people and families there?

Isabel Favela:
I've lived in Adams County for the majority of my life and it's a very diverse area. And, I think a lot of the youth recognize that there are a lot of challenges here, but from the interviews that I've been doing with all the youth, they all want to see improvements within the community and they're actually trying to take action into changing the community and, ultimately, they want to change the world.

Lisa Hamilton:
That's great. So, tell me a bit about why you decided to participate in this initiative?

Isabel Favela:
I initially wanted to take part in this initiative because it interested me that I was able to do research at such a young age. Since that's what I want to do as my career later on. I felt that it would be a good opportunity for me to do research right now. And, it also interested me that I was able to work with a community and do research with them and do interviews with them and get to know their lives and be able to ask questions. And, also, because it's a different experience, and it's not like a regular job, I was very curious to see how it would all unfold.

Lisa Hamilton:
So, what did you learn about your community? Most of us don't have the opportunity to talk to our peers about the kinds of issues that you got to ask them about. What did you learn?

Isabel Favela:
Well, how I mentioned earlier that the youth are getting to be more interested in helping the community as a whole. I’ve learned that young people are actually interested in major topics and they're passionate about seeing lives improve for not only themselves as youth, but for everyone in the community, as well. And, I used to think that young people didn't really care about important problems, but once doing the interviews, I've realized that we all actually care.

Lisa Hamilton:
Did they lift up any particular barriers they were facing? I recall that part of what this initiative was trying to do was to understand how to help young people who were leaving high school transition to college. Did the young people mention particular barriers they were facing that they thought the county ought to take a look at?

Isabel Favela:
Yeah, so something that I noticed that a lot of youth said was that family problems was one of them, financial issues as well. So, either the family just didn't support them enough to get through high school and the parents didn't care enough that they even graduated, so most of them didn't see much of an issue with getting through high school, let alone going to college. And, also, they had financial barriers to postsecondary success, so they couldn't afford going to college or anything like that, and a lot of them had to not go to college to be able to work a full-time job or to either join the family business to help support them.

Lisa Hamilton:
Were you surprised at how open your peers were with you? Did it take them a while to warm up or did you think that you were sort of instantly able to develop that comfort with them because you were a young person too?

Isabel Favela:
Yeah, the fact that I am young and basically just the same age as them, it makes them feel a lot more comfortable being able to share things with me, because me being a youth, I can see where they would come from, or I can see how their discouragement in saying something sensitive would come to an adult, because either they might not want to get in trouble or they just don't feel comfortable expressing things like that to an adult, because they might just not understand. But since I can relate to them as much as possible. And I'm also nonjudgmental as a TEGA, they were able to express their thoughts clearly and easily as well.

Lisa Hamilton:
That's wonderful to hear. So, we've heard a little bit from Alex about the kinds of skills that TEGAs developed. I'd love to hear you talk about the kinds of skills that you think you gained as a part of this opportunity.

Isabel Favela:
Some of the TEGA sparks, which are characteristics we need to master, are tech smart, curious, nonjudgmental, respectful, reflective, good listener, patient, kind and understanding and courageous.

And one of the ones that have resonated the most with me is the patience characteristic because I'm generally not a patient person, but with doing the interviews and conducting them with the respondents, there are some challenging ones because the interviews can be long, and after listening to so many back to back it can get tiring, and I've learned to be able to sit through the interview and actually listen to them and think of good follow up questions so that they can continue to explain themselves and not just give plain answers.

Lisa Hamilton:
Any other skills that you think you've particularly improved in?

Isabel Favela:
My critical thinking skills, as well. I and the rest of the TEGAs work with a research team to develop the surveys and discuss the findings. So, we have weekly meetings and that's where we discuss the interviews that we've done within that past week, and we try to analyze the interview that went on and I really enjoy being able to dissect the interviews on the spot with the rest of my team.

Lisa Hamilton:
Those sound like really important characteristic. I know some adults who probably need some of those experiences. That's fantastic. Well, what has been your favorite part so far of being a TEGA?

Isabel Favela:
One of my favorite parts about being a TEGA is executing the interviews and debriefing with the rest of the team about what we've learned. So how I mentioned the weekly meetings, I really enjoy doing that because I'm interested in the data analysis that the research team does after we complete the interviews.

Lisa Hamilton:
Fabulous. So how do you think this experience is going to help you in the future?

Isabel Favela:
I've gained multiple skills in different areas of research, which will help me when I become a researcher in the future. I have improved my analytical skills along with how to present my findings, and I think these skills are also applicable in other areas of my life. Although I'm already a credentialed TEGA, I am maximizing my opportunities by continuing to advance my credentials.

Lisa Hamilton:
That's fabulous. Well, it is just wonderful to hear what this experience has been like for you as a TEGA on the ground. I'm going to shift back to Alex to learn a bit more about what Adams County has done with this information.

So, what have we learned from the research that these women have done so far?

Alex Hammer:
We're really excited about what we're learning already. So, we've done three rounds of research so far. One really focusing broad on life in Adams County. A second one specifically on postsecondary success, and really how youth transition from high school into postsecondary programs. And then the last one has been around the juvenile justice system and really thinking about how we can prevent youth from entering and also prevent those who have been part of it from going back into it.

We've learned lots in each of those areas. I think what's exciting, though, is there's some really cross cutting themes that are coming out that I hope will help the partners on the ground. I think the first one is really about access to services and support. I think youth are really, really hungry for support, and I think they recognize that there're a lot of services out there, but often times there's just not the connection to what those services are. So really thinking about how our partners can connect with the youth in need with what's actually out there is going to be a key priority for some of our partners.

A more specific example, we did some work looking at, as I said, kind of kids who were getting into trouble, and one of the interesting findings we got which, you know, we've heard before, but it was interesting to hear from youth themselves was all around suspensions in school. And kids were quite vocal, they said they don't work. Out-of-school suspension, often times I don't want to be in school, so really giving me an out-of-school suspension is just going to encourage me more, and, furthermore, if I get suspended, I get behind and that creates a cycle, and it creates a cycle where I'm not going to want to be in school more than that. And so, what was fascinating was to see these kids actually saying that to our face and also giving us recommendations. They said, "You know what? I don't like in-school suspension but it's better for me." So, hearing that, I think again going back to that point about hearing it directly from youth as opposed to reading it in a report, I think will be helpful for our partners going forward.

Lisa Hamilton:
And one of the most interesting things I heard Isabel say is that young people want to be involved in creating solutions in their community, and so I hope that's something that the partners hear as well, is that young people want to be problem solvers and leaders in their communities, which is as she said, sometimes a different perspective than people have on young people.

Alex Hammer:
For sure, and one of the more exciting things I participated in is, that we actually presented the findings to the mayor's counsel of youth. So, this is a group that the mayor of Westminster brings together and it's all youth leaders. And we presented the findings to them and they used those findings and kind of validated them within their own life to think about what the recommendations are they're going to make to the mayor. And you know, that's just a fully youth-led initiative, which was so fantastic to see.

Lisa Hamilton:
That is wonderful, that is wonderful. So, when young women like Isabel finish their work as TEGAs, what happens next for them?

Alex Hammer:
Well, I think the good news for us is, as I said, we try to recruit between ages 18 and 24 and, deliberately in Adams County, we recruited on the younger side, so they can be with us as long as possible.

But you know, there're a couple routes for them. One is they can go down that research route. Like Isabel has said, you know, we're helping her to build her confidence in research, helping her to start analyzing. Other routes can really be thinking about okay, how do I use my communication skills that I've built here, how do I be more of a presenter.

Our TEGAs in Nigeria who now have been with us for three years, they're basically running the show, so they've started building up skills in kind of the management side, they're organizing each other, they're working on the finances. So, I think for us, you know, we're really trying to build different career paths for every TEGA and really support them through their journey with us, as long as they're a TEGA or not.

Lisa Hamilton:
That's wonderful. And you know, hearing about this is a really interesting model. What makes it so successful as a model, both for youth development but also giving this community insight into its young people? It's a community engagement strategy. What makes it work on both of those dimensions?

Alex Hammer:
I think for me it's kind of three things.

I think the first piece is that TEGA is in this unique position, it's at the crux of rigorous research and data but also community engagement, and both of those things are fantastic in it of themselves, but being able to give a bit of rigor to community engagement, be able to kind of put some systems in place that you can actually capture and analyze the data and present it back, I think is fantastic.

And then on the kind of data side of things, that we're really giving a human face to data. So, I think that TEGA has this unique opportunity to kind of sit in the middle of those two things. I think the second piece is on the technology side. We talked about how TEGA really is this real-time feedback and I think being able to use the technology to do things quicker, but also to enable those voices in that video content to be produced and shared is really a unique proposition.

And then I think the third piece is that it's truly youth lead, so not only are we actually getting feedback from youth in the community, but we're employing youth. So, Isabel, as a TEGA, is employed by us, she's getting credentials but she's also getting an employment opportunity and that really makes it a sustainable youth enterprise, which I think is really unique and I hope that as this grows, it becomes more and more TEGA-led.

Lisa Hamilton:
Also, final question, both for you and for Isabel, what do you imagine TEGA doing for these young women in life, what do you think will be the prospects for TEGAs in the future?

Alex Hammer:
Well, I think, you know, we've talked a lot about skill sets, and I think that's fantastic and everyone needs skills, but for me when I look at the TEGAs, what's most exciting is some of the things you can't quantify. So, for example, we had a TEGA who when she came to our program, she was looking for a summer job and she thought, "Oh, I'll be a maid. I'll do housecleaning." And that's fantastic, but when she, after working with us for a little, she's like, "No, you know what, I'm going to go for an internship. I'm going to go for an internship." And the ability to kind of raise her confidence and, even, just believe that that's something that she can do, was wonderful.

On the flip side, we had another TEGA who was from the black community in Saginaw, where we had another project and she'd never spoken to an older white woman before. And as part of the interview, she was going to be interviewing one, and she went and realized how much they had in common and how similar their lives had been and she came back saying, "You know what? I can talk to people outside of my comfort zone." And so that's something you never can quantify, but it's a really lovely sort of confidence boost that we're really seeing in all of our TEGAs.

Lisa Hamilton:
That's wonderful. So, Isabel, I'm giving you the last word to answer the question, what do you imagine TEGA doing for young women in the future?

Isabel Favela:
I think how Alex said that it's something intangible. We've gained a lot of professional development throughout the entire process, since getting hired, and I know that a lot of the girls, specially me, have come out of our shells and it's opened up a lot of opportunities for us and it's helped us grow not only as TEGAs, but also as people.

Lisa Hamilton:
That's fantastic. Well, I can't tell you how much I have enjoyed talking to both of you. Alex, learning about the program in the future and Isabel connecting with you again. I wish you all the best in the future.

Isabel Favela:
Thank you, you too.

Alex Hammer:
Thank you.

Lisa Hamilton:
And, I want to thank our listeners for joining us as well.

If you've enjoyed today's conversation, please rate our show on Apple Podcast to help other find us.

You can ask questions and leave us feedback on Twitter by using the CaseyCast hashtag, and to learn more about Casey and the work of our guests you can find our show notes at aecf.org/podcast.

Until next time, I wish all of America's kids and all of you a bright future.

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