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Creative Research Center

On collaborating with young people in a technologically-driven age – by Tara L. Conley

Posted in: Guest Essay

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When I was in graduate school, I had the opportunity to work with young people to develop a mobile text line for court-involved youth in New York City. I’ve written about this project previously. I’ve also shared my experiences about this project through digital storytelling. That said, I haven’t had much time and space to reflect upon the lessons learned over the last several years, and how my experience working with young people currently informs my approach to the collaborative process in the digital age.

The 2013 pilot learning project, then called TXT CONNECT, was intended to be a free SMS (short message service) mobile platform to help young people access resources and information in their surrounding communities. [Note: I use the phrase court-involved youth here to describe young people tethered to institutions like foster care, juvenile justice, and criminal justice systems.] As a collaborative project, I wanted to involve young people as users and stakeholders in the process of designing a technology artifact and service.

This process, in research terminology, is called participatory design.

Engaging students in generating knowledge and awareness through participatory practices has always been integral to my pedagogical philosophy across fifteen years of teaching. Some may call this constructivist learning, or libratory or feminist pedagogy. As a mediamaker with close to two decades of production experience, I know that the best kinds of projects turn out to be the ones where I collaborate with others across a variety of expertise and industries.

I’m even more reliant currently upon the collaborative process because, quite frankly, it’s how I learn to be a better teacher and mediamaker.

Working with young people who experience dislocation and instability on a daily basis all in efforts to design a piece of technology through mobile design was one of the most challenging experiences in my life. I often asked myself: What makes designing a technology artifact outside of the classroom more difficult than, say, teaching young people about technology inside the classroom, or producing media content in the studio?

Part of the difficulty stems from the fact that learning through research, especially ethnographic research, is messy – this includes participatory design methods in the ethnography.

Another challenge concerns the way young people see themselves, rarely entering into a collaborative working space as self-acknowledged researchers and designers, especially if they’ve received “messages” from family members, media, peers, teachers, and institutions that devalue their ways of knowing. And so, I worked to create a culture wherein young people not only saw themselves as users but as integral makers and developers of technical systems in service of their own community.

Another notable challenge is participation. Young people who experience unstable home lives and dislocation have life, school, work, family, and other obligations that often supercede their engagement. (Related: I conducted an ethnographic study on the idea of youth disconnection for my dissertation that explored these problems).

I had to rethink the idea of participation and collaboration; I also faced challenges with defining my roles as researcher and designer.

Not only was I required to meticulously and systematically document the process of design and research, but I was also obligated to make design decisions while facilitating a space where all participants could contribute equally and thoughtfully in developing and building technical systems. I had to be fully aware of my orientation as an adult in the lives of young people. I often had to delegate responsibilities and adhere to design suggestions while also “being there” for young people.

It is like being a student-teacher, sister-friend, and researcher-designer all at the same time. You’re always occupying more than one role. You’re also always critically reflecting upon the roles of others in the process. You’re never satisfied with how institutions make it even more difficult to engage communities that are often underrepresented and lack resources.

You live in a constant state of uncertainty about whether you’re documenting the process effectively enough. You worry that even if the research goes smoothly, the end design won’t be what you hoped because of lack of funding or limited user participation.

You’re always wondering about the what ifs.

But even as I struggled through the convoluted mess of innumerable what ifs, I was, and continue to be, reassured knowing that as I collaborate with young people, my work will inevitably be informed by an ethos of it’s always possible.


— Tara L. Conley is an Assistant Professor in the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. She is an interdisciplinary Black feminist scholar and mediamaker. She teaches courses on race, feminism, media cultures, and storytelling. In 2013, Dr. Conley founded Hashtag Feminism ( to locate and archive feminist discourse by way of tracking Twitter hashtags on the web. In 2015, she produced the documentary Brackish about life in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina. Dr. Conley’s research and multimedia production engage scholarship and methods across multiple fields including communication and media studies, digital humanities, art and design, science and technology studies, and archival studies. She is currently working with MSU faculty and students to create a multimedia storytelling platform called The Hashtag Project. You can learn more about Dr. Conley’s work and upcoming projects by visiting