Split image of a demolition derby at a fair and youth holding sheet music.

Summer program participants tackle youth empowerment through the arts


Two faculty members are exploring the intersection of the social sciences and the arts as part of the Summer Fellowship for Qualitative Research hosted by the Public Policy Center. Allison Rowe, assistant professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning, and Mary Cohen, professor in the School of Music and Department of Teaching and Learning, are both busy developing their unique projects, and while the content of their research may differ, both studies orbit around a central theme: leveraging creative communities as a means of supporting and empowering youth.  

Public Art and Civic Engagement: Allison Rowe 

Rowe's research, “Supporting Youth Civic Participation Through Public Art-Making in Iowa,” seeks to understand how participating in a public art project impacts adolescents. Specifically, Rowe intends to examine the ways that engaging in public art shapes teen's willingness to have political conversations with those who hold opposing views to their own. 

Her study hinges on a five-day camp where participants will have the opportunity to design and decorate demolition derby cars based on social issues they’re passionate about, producing what Rowe describes as “socially engaged artwork.”  

"Socially engaged artwork involves a form of participation as part of the construction,” explained Rowe. “I’m really interested in if and how art making can be a tool for youth to connect across different belief systems, experiences, and ideas.”  

Rowe's motivation for the project stems from her own experiences within art education and spending time with students. “My collaborators and I were really concerned about some of the ways we were seeing conversations around social or political issues getting more fraught over time,” Rowe reflected. “It’s getting harder and harder for people to learn from and collaborate with others and have productive conversations across differences.”  

The wealth of data collected during the five-day camp—gathered through surveys, participation observation, and focus groups—will be analyzed to get a grasp on how the teens were able to explore multiple perspectives, listen to one another, and communicate their thoughts and feelings through their decoration of the derby cars and other visual projects.  

Once decorated, the cars will then compete in a “winner-takes-all" battle at next year's Muscatine County Fair—a symbolic reference to single-issue voting and the country’s current political landscape. 

“There’s a way that demolition derbies, for me, feel similar to the theater of politics,” said Rowe. “There are all these different issues going up against one another and, especially in the United States with its two-party system, it really creates a binary situation. One party wins in the end, one person wins the presidency.”  

The study is a large undertaking, one that Rowe has been considering and developing for around 15 years. However, the five weeks she’s spending within the fellowship are formative to her research. Rowe’s goal at the end of her time with the Public Policy Center is to complete a pilot study to test the effectiveness of her research design and identify areas for improvement before she launches her full-scale study in the summer of 2025.  

"The more people I work with and talk to about the work, the better,” Rowe expressed. “When I saw the call for the fellowship, I thought that it was an avenue for me to engage in some great questions about the research design, the way the data’s being collected, and think collectively with a lot of other social scientists.” 

Music-Making as a Tool for Diversion: Mary Cohen 

Cohen is also utilizing her time during the fellowship to expand her network and investigate the current terrain of her research topic: diversion through music-making.  

Diversion programs have become an emerging alternative to immediate incarceration, providing young people and their families with education and support to ultimately steer the youth away from anything related to detention. Cohen’s research, titled “Generative Justice through Music-Making with Youth in Conflict with the Law: Preparing a Participatory Study,” hones in on the idea of using music-making as an avenue for creating solidarity with young people who have had adverse experiences within the legal system.  

“The statistics show that if a youth goes into detention, it’s more than likely they could end up in an adult prison,” noted Cohen. “My larger goal presently is to look at the possibility of an arts-based diversion program that could occur in Iowa, and there’s several strands to that— what’s happening specifically with music-making and youth in conflict with the law, what’s happening with arts-based programs, and then what are the key characteristics of a program that will really empower youth.” 

To build this foundational understanding, Cohen is conducting a thorough review of existing literature with the goal of completing an annotated bibliography by the end of the five-week fellowship. In addition to her diligent investigation into the topic, Cohen’s research builds on years of experience organizing and leading music programs within prisons.  

In 2009, Cohen started the Oakdale Community Choir, where she and around 30 “outside singers”—non-incarcerated individuals—would come together with around 30 “inside singers”— incarcerated individuals at the Oakdale Prison—to make music, compose songs, and perform.  

Her current project has brought her face to face with a slightly younger demographic. Each week, Cohen visits the Linn County Juvenile Detention Center to learn from and interact with the adolescents there.  

“The other part of my research this summer that I’m really excited about is the method called YPAR—youth participatory action research,” said Cohen. “I’m looking now at what kind of research people are doing with youth directly. Everything is collaborative. All the content, the direction of the work, is informed directly by these youth’s experiences within the system.” 

As she continues to lay the groundwork for her project, Cohen cites the fellowship's group structure as being particularly helpful. “I really like the design of the fellowship, the weekly check-ins,” expressed Cohen. “The core staff does a fabulous job of inviting us to think closely about what it is that we’re going to do. I’ve also learned so much from the other members of the cohort.”  

Finding Common Ground in Youth Empowerment Through the Arts 

When reflecting upon the nature of their projects, both Cohen and Rowe point to a similar throughline regarding the arts and their benefit to young people: empowerment.  

“The role that creativity can play when we’re dealing with difficult topics and experiences, sometimes that are really hitting upon things in our broader society that aren’t working...it allows people to communicate in ways that go beyond language,” said Rowe. “It’s also, I think, about creating something. You’re building something, and that gives young people a sense of ownership and agency that isn’t always possible in the way the world exists today.”  

Cohen, in her own discussion of her studies, echoed, “If music is facilitated in a way where students are empowered to improvise, to write a song, create their own arrangement, to choose the type of song they’re listening to...every time a youth gets to make those choices, that sense of empowerment has the potential to really feed their growth in a positive way.”  

The Public Policy Center’s Summer Fellowship for Qualitative Research concludes July 19th. To stay updated on the cohort’s progress, new developments at the center, and more, subscribe to our monthly newsletter. For more information on the fellowship program, click here