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The Connection Between Adolescent Development and Anti-black Racism

An interview with adolescent psychologists, Drs. Jennifer Pfeifer, PhD and Joanna Lee Williams, PhD

In the field of adolescent health and well-being, racism isn’t usually the first thing you hear about.

At Hopelab, the advancement of mental health and well-being for BIPOC youth is central to our mission. We cannot approach this work without directly exploring racism and race-based inequities, their implications for how we understand adolescent development, and the action they demand. Such scientific inquiries aren’t always front and center in academic scholarship; whether by the hidden biases of research conventions or lost in the social determinants of health crowd, racism — and anti-Black racism in particular — is often quieted.

There is, however, a robust body of essential, generative research out there that centers racism and race-based inequities as key contextual and relational factors in adolescent development. In recent years, more scientists and scholars have been shining a light on this work.

Drs. Jennifer Pfeifer, PhD and Joanna Lee Williams, PhD are Co-Directors of the National Scientific Council on Adolescence (NSCA). This past August, the council published its inaugural report, The Intersection of Adolescent Development and Anti-Black Racism. In October, Joanna and Jenn sat down to talk with us about it.

In conversation with Hopelab

Jenn and Joanna talk about the mission of the NSCA, and dive into why anti-Black racism specifically needs to be highlighted in the understanding of adolescent development, the opportunities afforded by social tech, and how we translate knowledge to action.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Hopelab: Thank you both so much for taking the time to talk to us today. Can you start by telling me about the National Scientific Council on Adolescence in general? What’s your mission?

Jenn:  The National Scientific Council on Adolescence was formed in late 2019, but the Center for the Developing Adolescent was formed in 2015.

The council and the center work together to change the conversation about adolescence and improve outcomes for all adolescents. The council is a broad interdisciplinary group of U.S.-based researchers in adolescent developmental science, and one of our major goals is to provide actionable insights from the body of research about adolescent development that can then go to different audiences — policymakers, folks in youth-facing organizations or in other systems that have direct contact with youth.

We aim to be a trusted resource of integrated scientific information. So, if you want to know how something impacts adolescent development, we want to be the resource that people turn to from a scientific perspective.

Hopelab: Why was the council formed? What was the need that you were responding to?

Jenn: I think that when you look at the landscape of different stakeholders supporting youth development, there was a gap in terms of bringing the scientific knowledge to bear on these efforts — we don’t mean to say that we’re the only organization out there that cares about adolescents. There are so many groups in this space that have been doing amazing work.

The essential gap or opportunity that we saw was to help bring academic understandings to bear in a more applied sense.

You can have a lot of academics doing work that stays siloed in academia and does not get connected out. Part of our work is an attempt to build bridges with different organizations and different stakeholders where we say, “This is what we have to contribute, this is what the science says, and we want to make sure that information gets to you — and also, we want to partner with you and find out what you need to know.” Then we can bring that information back to the academic community and say, “Here are the needs, and we should be focusing on them in our research.”

So, we see this as a bidirectional relationship, and it’s just a whole host of bridges being made between different stakeholders in different arenas, where we’re all aligned with the same goal of supporting healthy youth development across this long period from ages 10 to 25.

Hopelab: You recently published the report, The Intersection of Adolescent Development and Anti-Black Racism. Can you talk about the scope of the report and why the focus is on Black adolescents in particular?

Joanna: I’ll start with why we focused on Black adolescents. One, the context of anti-Black racism and race-based inequities — which were part of the founding of this country and continue to persist — in some ways create a shared set of experiences among Black adolescents. We know that Black adolescents are a vastly rich and diverse group of young people. But if you are growing up in the United States, then you’re growing up in a society where racism exists, and anti-Black racism in particular.

We wanted to point to the idea that growing up in this context often necessitates developing ways to cope with racism and racial discrimination.

In our very first council meeting, which is a beautiful memory of being in-person at UCLA, back in February of 2020, literally weeks before everything shut down, we brainstormed a whole range of what some of our specialty topics could be. And then, that fall, we really honed in on: what do we want to prioritize in terms of our first report; where do we want to invest our energy?

Thinking about what happened in the spring and summer of 2020 with heightened national awareness — Black Lives Matter, and anti-Black racism, and police brutality — I think the pandemic allowed more space for people to pause and see and, you know, not be able to look away.

Bringing some of the science to bear on the topic of anti-Black racism and Black youth development was important.

In terms of the scope of the report, there’s a bit of clarification of terms, because we talk about interpersonal racism, institutional or systemic level racism; we talk about anti-Blackness or anti-Black racism as something that is particularly impactful for Black communities across the nation.

After setting that stage, we move into understanding: what do we know about basic adolescent developmental needs? Things like developing a sense of identity and belonging. Having opportunities for expressing and developing agency, and for exploration. We know these are basic developmental needs.

The driving question became how, then, do direct experiences or growing up in the context of racism intersect with those developmental needs and moments for Black youth?

Hopelab: So, to dig in a little bit more to the identity formation piece, how does identity and a sense of belonging intersect with race specifically? And maybe more importantly, how are these undermined by interpersonal and structural racism?

Joanna: Identity reflects a sense of who we are, what our values are. But we’re also developing answers to those “who am I,” “where do I fit in” questions. Part of that comes from our understanding of how other people see us.

A central part of identity is a sense of connection to groups. You know, the Black community is sort of the collective identity that many Black youth center as they are understanding who they are in the world.

So, in thinking about overall identity development, and racial identity development in particular, adolescence is a time when young people are developing the capacity to make sense of and understand the complexities of racism. They can understand direct experiences that they may have.

But they also — especially as we get into middle to later adolescence — can understand the sociohistorical contexts, the more complex levels of structural racism as things that may affect their entire community.

And all of those are touch points that can impact the meaning we can process. What does it mean for me, as a Black youth, to be developing in this context?


It’s reflected in media messages, it may be reflected in messages kids get when they’re in schools in terms of school climate around who is seen as being the most competent or the most valued. There’s lots of places where those messages can be received.

When you’re growing up in the context of racism, it’s unavoidable that we are aware of the existence of racism. But there’s been a lot of misrepresentation of the science as assuming it’s that awareness that causes low self-esteem or a negative sense of identity.

We know from the research that that’s actually not the case. In fact, for many Black youth, having a strong sense of connection to their racial identity and feeling a sense of pride in being Black can buffer against the negative impacts of discrimination, on one hand. So, it can be an important protective factor.

On the other hand, it also is related to heightened attunement to racial discrimination and race-related messages, whether positive or negative.

So, there’s a lot of value in developing a strong and positive sense of racial identity for Black youth, even as it creates a heightened awareness to the injustices that exist.

Hopelab: In your report, you examine social contexts that offer pathways for Black youth to lessen or overcome the negative effects of racism. What are some of the ways that we can support youth to increase their resilience in the face of stress, trauma, and adversity; and what do you see as the role of social tech in this?

Jenn: One of the things that we wanted to be careful to say in the report is that we had this “both/and” message — that as a wider society we do need to work to deconstruct and dismantle racism in America, and we can also say, what are things we can do on a more individual, local level in these contexts?

We know that there are these contexts in which having the right supports promotes healthy development for adolescents. And that’s having supportive family relationships and peer relationships. That’s having a good school environment and being able to learn and grow in that context. Having a healthy community.

But so much of what adolescents do takes place online, particularly during the pandemic.

We wanted to present a balanced viewpoint, because we know that there is great opportunity afforded by digital technology and social media where youth can connect with each other, they can find places to organize. Online interaction can be an opportunity to deepen relationships, or maybe connect with people you otherwise wouldn’t.

We also know that social media can lead to some negative experiences, particularly exposure to racism, both interpersonal and in structural contexts online.

One of the things we talk about both in the peer and family contexts is the importance of scaffolded experiences and socialization related to preparing youth to be able to deal with racism, that they will — Black youth — be experiencing this racism, including in online social contexts.

We present some work showing that having these online experiences related to race, even if it’s being exposed to more racism, can develop some of these coping skills that are important and helpful.


Joanna:  In the context of families, there’s a lot of research on racial socialization, messages that parents and other adults may send explicitly or indirectly to their adolescents.

And the two that seem to be most important for Black youth are cultural socialization, which is about messages of understanding your history and pride and cultural values and practices, and then the other one, as Jenn mentioned, is preparation for bias.

So if, for many Black youth, there may be this inevitability of running into direct experiences with racism, having some awareness, rather than being blindsided, can help with being able to process that.

Schools can be more proactive about promoting critical consciousness and giving youth the tool of being able to think critically about issues of injustice. What happens to you as an individual is really important and can impact things like mental health and well-being; but understanding that there’s a larger system, and that we can act to change the system, can also be empowering.

A couple of other action-oriented recommendations we make related to peers and social media are thinking about, as a question, how do we build and strengthen connections between researchers, media producers, and youth so that the images of Black youth that we are all exposed to constantly through the media are really centering authentic experiences, and they’re not grounded in stereotypes, as they have been for so long.

So it’s, here’s what we know from the science, getting it accurate; and here’s what youth are saying about their lived experiences. Having conversations with producers of media, I think, can help with narrative change, and can provide Black youth opportunities to see themselves represented in much richer, more diverse ways.

Because racial identity is a really important part of identity for Black youth, but it’s not necessarily the most central identity for all Black youth. We all have multidimensional, complex identities.

One young woman just said yesterday, her religious identity is much more salient to her. And from the inside-out, like, religion is what drives her values and decision-making. But she understands that the world interacts with her as a young Black woman on a regular basis.

Hopelab: Hearing you talk, I’m thinking about the co-creation framework that is at the heart of what Hopelab does, the idea that there has to be a strategic pairing of both structured formats of research and design with the multiplicity of lived experience.

Joanna: When we talk about identity development, you know, for many in the Black community, we don’t develop our identities as measured against anti-Blackness. They can be centered in Black joy and pride and things like that. We’re not defining ourselves in relation to racism only.

Bringing in voices means that you can get a more well-rounded, whole and complete picture of the joy that comes with being Black, in addition to the challenges that often unite us together.

Hopelab: Who are you hoping will read this report?

Joanna: Well, everyone. [Laughter]

Jenn: So, in the report, in different places we called out organizations or institutions that work with adolescents — schools, communities, even the family. But we also have an appendix to the report that talks about bias in the science itself — you know, acknowledging that there’s bias in the science of adolescence.

That’s a place where we wanted to speak directly to our own community of scientists and say, “We need to grapple with this and do better moving forward.”

When the media wants to know about adolescent development, who are they contacting in the scientific world? Who is being asked to field these questions and to share their knowledge? Turning repeatedly to a limited set of voices biases and creates gaps in our knowledge, and in the perspectives that get communicated to society.

We know that a lot of this work has been done by scholars of color themselves, and their work has not been getting the funding or attention it deserves.

And as someone who is on the editorial side — you know, I’m an action editor at a journal, and there’s been a lot of conversation recently about when research is submitted that falls under the umbrella of diversity science — you sometimes see a double standard for publishing where they either place additional demands, or say that it is too specialized, and so it doesn’t always get to the highest impact journals in our field.

Part of our message to academics is, we need to be more inclusive in terms of who’s at the table talking, who gets to be the voice for understanding adolescent development — both in the case of Black youth specifically, and about this stage of life in general. If we can change this, we can change the conversation about adolescence in a positive way.

That’s part of what we’re hoping that the National Scientific Council can do and can represent.


Dr. Jennifer Pfeifer, PhD, is a Professor of Psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Oregon. She studies how the major changes adolescents experience in their brains, bodies, and social worlds relate to their well-being. Her research program focuses on characterizing periods of significant multisystem changes within adolescents over time that are believed to impact future mental health and health-risking behavior. She has a particular interest in early adolescence, when transitions in peer and family relationships coincide with dramatic pubertal, neural, and identity development. Dr. Pfeifer serves as Co-Director of the National Scientific Council on Adolescence, and Science Director of the Center for Translational Neuroscience; she is also a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science. In these roles, she aims to translate research through partnerships with innovators in academic and non-profit sectors; and communicate the core science of adolescent development to help others realize adolescence is a period of opportunity, where well-timed investment and intervention can produce positive change for society.

Dr. Joanna Lee Williams, PhD, is an associate professor in the Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology at Rutgers University. Her scholarship focuses on understanding the role of race and ethnicity in individual and interpersonal contexts during adolescence. This includes research on racial-ethnic identity, racial-ethnic diversity in adolescent friendship networks, and social network equity in diverse middle school classrooms. Dr. Williams is also involved in efforts to translate the science of adolescent development into useful recommendations and practices for parents, educators, and policymakers. She is co-Director of the National Scientific Council on Adolescence and a member of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine’s Board on Children, Youth, and Families. She is also a faculty affiliate of Youth-Nex: The UVA Center to Promote Effective Youth Development, and the Center for Parent and Teen Communication at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

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