Perri S. Leviss

Document Type



Opportunity youth are emerging adults 16-24 years old, neither in a career nor attending college. In 2018, there were 13,600 opportunity youth in Rhode Island, many are low-income, young people of color historically excluded from educational and career pathways. The study introduces an alternate lens grounded in the capability approach to human development and provides new terminology for thinking about the positive trajectory to adulthood for marginalized young people. The research offers an asset-based construct to view social agency [and the dimensions of hope, empowerment, voice, choice, and comm(unity)] as a foundational capability. The mixed methods study measures strength of social agency and level of social agency facilitators (intermediaries required to actualize social agency).

Conducted in 2017 and 2018 through a web-based survey, focus groups, and a community-engaged research group, the study compares opportunity youth members of Year Up Rhode Island (a national career preparedness and educational program) and students at Rhode Island College. Based on quantitative and qualitative data, the two groups share many similarities in social agency, but require different enabling conditions in order to activate their agency. Adjusting for sociodemographic characteristics, the multivariate regression illustrates that there are no significant differences in strength of social agency. Data from the survey and focus groups confirmed that both samples had similar levels of social agency facilitators; however, the college students had access to different activities, opportunities, and personal connections including community mentors and work experiences. When asked to identify the most important social agency facilitators, focus group participants most frequently cited social and emotional attributes. Higher levels of social agency facilitators were significantly correlated with stronger social agency (p<.001).

Race and ethnicity and mother's education did not significantly account for variation in social agency or social agency facilitators, although older emerging adults had stronger (but not significant) social agency and female emerging adults had significantly higher levels of social agency facilitators. Finally, the preliminary data support the need for improved understanding of marginalized young people's capabilities (including social agency), and targeted public policies that promote alternative pathways for all emerging adults to lead healthy lives.