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Everyday Courage

The Lives and Stories of Urban Teenagers

Niobe Way

Publication Year: 1998

What does it mean to be a teenager in an American city at the close of the twentieth century? How do urban surroundings affect the ways in which teens grow up, and what do their stories tell us about human development? In particular, how do the negative images of themselves on television and in the newspaper affect their perspectives about themselves? Psychologists typically have shown little interest in urban youth, preferring instead to generalize about adolescent development from studies of their middle-class, suburban counterparts. In Everyday Courage Niobe Way, a developmental psychologist, looks beyond the stereotypes to reveal how the personal worldviews of inner-city poor and working-class adolescents develop over time. In the process, she challenges much conventional wisdom about inner-city youth and about adolescents more generally.

She introduces us to Malcolm, a sensitive and proud young man full of contradictions. We follow him as he makes the honor roll, becomes a teenage father, and falls into depression as his younger sister is dying of cancer. We meet Eva, an intelligent and confident young women full of questions, who grows increasingly alienated from her mother and comes to rely on her best friends for support. We watch her blossom as a ball player and a poet. We share her triumph when she receives a scholarship to the college of her choice.

In these 24 adolescents, Way finds a cross-section of youngsters who want to make positive changes in their lives and communities while struggling with concerns about betrayal, trust, racism, violence, and death. Each adolescent wants most of all to "be somebody," to have her or his voice heard.

Published by: NYU Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. iii-v


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pp. vii


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pp. ix-x

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pp. 1-10

A feared and seemingly ineradicable stereotype, the urban teen— pregnant, drug-addicted, violent, fatherless, welfare dependent, poor, black, and uneducated—is alive and well in the public’s mind. The opposite side of this cliché is the somewhat rare though equally reductive urban teen who has risen up against the greatest of odds to become a highly successful entertainer, athlete, doctor, or lawyer. These contrasting images reside in our imagination, our daily newspapers, weekly magazines, popular...

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1. Interpreting Narratives

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pp. 11-28

AS I RODE the subway each week to the school during the first year of the study, my mind was filled with questions about the validity, motivation, and limits of my project. What am I doing studying urban youth? Who am I to study them? What are they telling me? How will I represent their stories? Will I get it “right,” and what is the truth? During the same time, I was a doctoral student in psychology, passionately immersed in the academic worlds of feminist, postmodernist, and...

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2. A Study of Urban Youth

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pp. 29-38

WHEN I FIRST decided to study urban adolescents’ perceptions of their worlds, I had already been working for two years at the high school that would be my research site. I was a mental health counselor in training with ten assigned cases a semester—pretty plush circumstances given that the school’s full-time guidance counselors each had more than three hundred cases. While there was a tremendous need for me to take on more cases, my school-based supervisor protected me from being overloaded...

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pp. 39-41

In this book, I present two case studies of adolescents who were interviewed over the three years of the project. Malcolm and Eva inspired and provoked me. As I listened to their stories, I was compelled to focus on them for my case studies. Malcolm, first interviewed by Mike in the spring of his freshman year, is presented in the first part of the book, and Eva, first interviewed by Helena in the spring of her sophomore year, is presented in the latter part of the book. ...

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3. Malcolm’s Story

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pp. 42-73

MALCOLM, a tall, lanky, light-skinned African American student walks into the room that has been set aside for interviews. This closetsized, hot and sleepy alcove is the only room in the school where one is guaranteed not to be interrupted by students or teachers wanting to use the space. Formerly a piano practice room, it has the added benefit of being one of the few soundproof rooms in the school—the interview can proceed undisturbed and confidentially. Sporting a flat-top haircut, baggy...

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pp. 75-77

I started the book with the story of an individual. I now turn to the patterns or themes that I detected after reading, sorting, categorizing, and rereading the interview data of twenty-four adolescents over three years. While in qualitative research it often seems as if the researcher simply read the interviews and immediately detected themes, this is typically not the case. The themes presented in this book are the outcome of two years of sifting through and analyzing over three thousand pages of...

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4. Voice and Silence

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pp. 78-111

SPEAKING ONE’S MIND, expressing one’s opinions, daring to disagree, and speaking the truth in relationships were values emphasized by the majority of girls in the study. This outspoken group, consisting of African American, Dominican, Puerto Rican, West Indian, and Irish American adolescent girls, either specifically stated that they were “outspoken” or underscored their ability to be candid about their anger and affection in their relationships. Their voices exemplified what Annie Rogers calls “ordinary...

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5. Desire and Betrayal in Friendships

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pp. 112-144

A “real friend” for Guillermo is someone with whom he could “go out,” talk about everything, and to whom he could entrust his “secrets.” Unable to find another such friend, Guillermo speaks about his loneliness and depression. Intimate and emotionally supportive male friendships— “chumships” according to Sullivan2—are what Guillermo appears to have “lost.” What will become increasingly clear as the adolescents’ stories unfold in this chapter is that Guillermo’s discussions of having no close or...

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6. “I Never Put Anyone in Front of My Mother"

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pp. 145-163

LIKE VICTOR, many of the adolescents in the study spoke with passion about the importance of their mothers.1 They spoke about them not only as women who were nurturing, supportive, and caring, but also as women who showed them that they could thrive in the world despite the difficult odds (“out of nothingness, you can make something out of yourself”). Their mothers made their lives “worth living.” The boys and girls discussed their mothers when they were directly asked about such...

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7. Maintaining a “Positive Attitude”/Fearing Death

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pp. 164-184

AS THE ADOLESCENTS spoke about their futures, about what they want to do and be in the years to come, I heard hope, excitement, anxiety, and pessimism. Some told us that the only thing they live for is the future. Others saw no future for them to anticipate. Among these voices I heard recurring motifs: themes of optimism and of death, of hope and of fear. The adolescents believed they could reach their ambitious goals through hard work and persistence. They maintained a “positive attitude.” At the...

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8. “Slacking Up” in School

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pp. 185-204

...In fact, most of the students in the study blamed themselves for their academic struggles. When speaking about their school performance, they rarely spoke about the quality of their education, their teachers, the school administrators, their families, or their peers. They spoke almost exclusively about themselves. While this focus on the self may not seem particularly remarkable, it attains significance when placed in the context of the actual school they attend. As described...

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9. Racism, Sexism, and Difference

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pp. 205-224

AFTER THE FIRST YEAR of interviews, I sat down to listen to the audiotapes of the interviews and to think about what was and what was not being asked. Immediately I was struck by the absence of questions concerning discrimination and oppression. Here we were interviewing black and Latino, poor and working-class boys and girls whom we considered oppressed and who were selected, in fact, because they were oppressed and consequently not being heard. In the second year of interviews, we...

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I began this book with Malcolm’s story, and will end it with Eva’s. Like Malcolm’s, Eva’s story reveals some new patterns as well as those that have been discussed in earlier chapters. Rather than merely repeating these patterns, however, her story contextualizes them. Eva’s interviews reveal, for example, how outspokenness relates to having best friends, and how optimism about her future intertwines with her perceptions of discrimination. Her story also demonstrates how each of these themes can be...

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10. Eva’s Story

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pp. 227-259

WITH HER HAIR pulled tight into a barrette behind her head, Eva, a strikingly beautiful black adolescent girl with clear, soft skin and an athletic body, walks into our interviewing room in the spring of her sophomore year. She is going to be interviewed for the first time by Helena. Unlike many of her peers, Eva does not appear awkward or nervous as she confidently collapses into the chair and waits for Helena to turn on the tape recorder.1 Born in Trinidad, Eva has...

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pp. 260-269

So what have we learned by listening to urban teenagers speak about their worlds over time? Their stories challenge not only our understanding of urban adolescents, but also of adolescence itself. Using qualitative research methods with a population that has been excluded from developmental research, we have learned that the popular story of urban poor or working-class youth—the story of hopelessness, pathology, and high-risk behavior or of superheroes and invincibility—is not accurate. The...

Appendix A: Research Interview Protocol

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pp. 271-276

Appendix B

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pp. 277-278


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pp. 279-292


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pp. 293-302


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pp. 303-310

E-ISBN-13: 9780814784891
E-ISBN-10: 0814784895
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814793206
Print-ISBN-10: 0814793207

Page Count: 306
Publication Year: 1998

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Adolescence -- United States.
  • Teenagers with social disabilities -- United States -- Longitudinal studies.
  • Urban youth -- United States -- Case studies.
  • Urban youth -- United States -- Longitudinal studies.
  • Teenagers with social disabilities -- United States -- Case studies.
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