Psychology Ph.D. Dissertations


Empowerment Education to Promote Youth and Community Health

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)



First Advisor

Dara Musher-Eizenman (Advisor)

Second Advisor

Catherine Stein (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Abby Braden (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Daniel Fasko (Other)


Health resources are not equitably distributed among people in the United States. Harnessing the power of youth and increasing their social action may be a productive means of both cultivating a range of positive developmental outcomes and promoting social change regarding community health disparities. Of the many supported benefits of youth social action, food access disparities remain an outcome yet to be explored. Child overweight and obesity rates remain high, and behavioral health interventions often do not improve health outcomes and fail to acknowledge social determinants of health status beyond individual behavior. Thus, stealth interventions, or those that aim to improve health as a side-effect of intrinsically motivating activities (e.g., social action), are an empirically supported new method for improving health behaviors. One type of stealth intervention could be an empowerment education intervention, increasing youths’ intrinsic motivation to engage in health behaviors while simultaneously providing them with skills to address systemic barriers that impede their ability to do so.

The current study implemented an empowerment education intervention on the topic of food access disparities to increase youths’ health and social action awareness, competence, and intentions. Four elective science classes in an inner city public high school were assigned to receive either the empowerment education or a standard gardening curriculum. Participants completed questionnaires at pre- and post-test to assess constructs related to health and social action awareness, competence, and intentions. Both curricula included six sessions, with hands-on activities, worksheets, and discussion.

There were no significant differences between the intervention and control group following the intervention. Process data indicate that students in the intervention tended to be more confused throughout sessions compared to those in the control group, and they had difficulty producing responses reflective of social justice issues. Students reported minimal discussions with friends and family about what they learned in the intervention. Those who perceived themselves as more involved in the program reported higher levels of critical reflection at post-test. Changes to the structure and process of sessions were made throughout the program given difficulties getting students to participate in discussion, develop social justice-focused responses, and be concrete and realistic in their social action goal-setting.

This study is the first to utilize an empowerment education curriculum focused on issues of food access disparities in low income communities and is one of few that reviews specific challenges that arose. Findings suggest that conducting such a program with the disenfranchised youth it is intended for comes with a range of barriers that need to be addressed to improve the acceptability, feasibility and effectiveness of these programs and, ultimately, have the desired impact on youth and community health.