As the national conversation homes in on race and immigration, Psychology Professor Amy Marks is working with colleagues across the country to help children and youths form the positive ethnic-racial identities that promote resiliency and well-being.

She is one of 11-researchers working through a National Science Foundation grant to devise a paradigm of ethnic-racial identity to guide research and positively impact community work with young people.

“Our society sorely needs a better understanding of how children and youth adjust to the social life of our times,” said Marks, chair of the Department of Psychology, whose most recent book is Transitions: The Development of Children of Immigrants.

A person’s overall concept of self is developed over his or her lifespan, and research shows that stress, anxiety, and discrimination can lead to physical and behavioral health problems and academic difficulty.

Negative repercussions

In today’s turbulent racial climate, “public messages and policies are filtering down and affecting communities,” said Marks. “There is evidence of more hate crimes and discrimination; overt racism is on the rise; and there is inequal treatment of people by police forces.”

All of these factors affect how a person sees himself in society, and children who develop a negative self-image, lacking self-esteem and resiliency, tend to develop additional problems. This lack of well-being can carry right through to adulthood.

Student involvement in research

Isis Almazan Garcia, Class of 2019, is one of the students conducting research with Marks at the Immigrant Worker Center Collaborative in its Chelsea location. She has observed that sometimes immigrant children are hopeful, but their parents are not.

“I’ve had a little taste of it personally, so I’m interested to see how it plays out in the community,” said Garcia, who has undocumented family members.

From a young age, Garcia has wanted to help people, and she has gone from someone who thought research might not interest her to one whose goal is to be a clinician and researcher.

She is set to begin a yearlong research internship with Massachusetts General Hospital’s Community Psychiatry Program for Research in Implementation and Dissemination of Evidence-based Treatments, or PRIDE, also in Chelsea. And she is a dissertation assistant to a Suffolk doctoral student in Psychology.

She sees the potential for the research she’s engaged in to guide community empowerment.

“I really appreciate all the opportunities I’ve had through Suffolk, and I wish other people could take advantage of these sorts of opportunities as well,” she said, noting that those who feel the weight of oppression may be unlikely to recognize their own potential.

Living in fear

Marks sees profound fear as she works with undocumented immigrant families through the Boston Public Schools and the Immigrant Worker Center Collaborative. Even speaking accented English in public is nerve-wracking for those who worry that someone will overhear and place a call to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

Her interest in this area of research stems from a longtime interest in social justice and her own bicultural origins.

“I’m always wanting to understand communities at risk and what can we do to build resiliency—to balance rising risk with supports for resiliency,” said Marks.

Collective effort

The path to the NSF-funded project began with a collaborative group discussion conducted by email and involving 11 academics from across the country who have an interest in the development of youth with minority or immigrant backgrounds.

“Everyone I know in this area of research is dying to use it as a way of opening people up to new perspectives on ethnicity and race,” said Marks.

She and her colleagues will conduct research and network online before meeting for an in-house conference in May 2018 at the University of Texas at Austin. There they will develop a new Lifespan Conceptual Model of Ethnic-Racial Identity. It will be published for an academic audience, but the research also will inform community efforts.

“It will allow us to speak authoritatively about how to support communities and improve the ways we talk about these things,” she said.

Serving the community

Marks’ ultimate goal is to support and serve the community as she engages in participatory research. Undergraduate through doctoral-level students collaborate with her in documenting and helping to address community issues.

“Students have voice in the research,” said Marks. “They’ve helped design research, and they present results. It’s invaluable for them to engage in active learning at community sites and then take that learning and put it to work.”

Marks makes an effort to match students to communities, putting to advantage their bilingual abilities or direct experience with undocumented relatives.

“A beautiful thing about Suffolk is its diversity, which makes it easy to match students’ own skills and interests with research projects,” she said.