The “Impacto Juventud” [Youth Impact] project, born amidst the social, economic, and political crisis in Puerto Rico, has provided youth a platform to enhance their empowerment, sense of belonging and political efficacy.

Puerto Rico’s sociopolitical context

Puerto Rico, the oldest colony in the world, is experiencing one of the worst crises in its history. This island’s struggles include a soaring debt, high rates of poverty: 57% of children and youth below the poverty line, (Youth Development Institute, 2019), inequality (3rd highest rate of inequality in the World), and the aftermath of devastation in 2017 by two hurricanes: Irma and María.

Previously, another disaster was forced upon Puerto Ricans, a Federally appointed fiscal board, that has imposed austerity measures to pay bondholders. These measures are already having a severe impact on health and education services, such as school closings. If consistent with what happened in places like Greece and the United Kingdom, the island will see a future rise in physical and mental health problems and suicides (Mills, 2018; Hawton, et al., 2016; Branas, et al, 2015). These situations have also given way to a steep increase in migration, particularly among young people.

Although the situation is dire, citizens have demonstrated great resourcefulness, empowerment, and resilience. The struggle has given way to enhanced community organizing efforts and greater political activism, both from people living on the island and from those in the Diaspora. In the summer of 2019 people took to the streets to protest government corruption and then Governor Ricardo Rosello’s homophobia, misogyny, and institutional violence. This nonviolent movement resulted in the governor’s resignation. Following his resignation, popular assemblies have been organized around the island to provide a space for dialogue and further democratic actions.
Young people have been active in leading community organizing efforts. Research has found that youth with high levels of civic and political engagement report higher levels of self-efficacy, critical thinking, resiliency, self-esteem, and sense of community. Civic engagement also has great benefits for public policy as it helps develop more sustainable and informed programs and enhances the cultural and developmental appropriateness of interventions (The Canadian International Development Agency, Child Protection Unit, 2004).

Youth initiatives have included:

1. Art projects as a mode of expressing discontent and ideas for reform.
2. The use of social media to organize, publish memes that exemplify the social situation, or express their analysis of current events.
3. The development of youth groups to attend to diverse social problems, such as climate change. 
4. It is in this climate of civic and political activism that project “Impacto Juventud” was born.

The “Impacto Juventud” (Youth Impact) project

The “Impacto Juventud” project, housed at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez Campus, has the goal of promoting civic and political engagement for young people, 12 to 25 years old. The project was created after Hurricane María struck in 2017, within discussions in the Psychology of Adolescence course I teach. Students were in charge of producing a short video about a social issue that affected young people in Puerto Rico. The video needed to inform youth, provide empirical evidence about the effects of this problem, and identify possible evidence-based interventions and political actions to reduce its incidence. The topic chosen by students was a child and youth poverty. They identified poverty statistics, interviewed two experts, and produced a video that was presented at a movie theater to a sold-out audience. People were greatly interested in learning about the high rates of poverty on the island and what research had to say about the short and long-term effects of poverty. Many of the students were excited about the impact their project had and asked me to continue the initiative as a formal action research project. Some expressed that it was the first time they felt they had the opportunity to contribute to their community and be heard by adults.

Currently, the project has 45 bachelor’s degree students who are provided with multiple civic and political engagement experiences. The arts are used as a tool of expression and social engagement and adhere to the Declaration of the Rights of the Child (1959), which guarantees that children’s voices should be heard and must be provided with significant opportunities for participation in the environments where they interact. The project houses several initiatives:

1. Social media programs: Three to five-minute programs provide information about a social problem of interest to youth using evidence-based information. They present ways by which young people can affect change in their communities and nationally to reduce these problems. Sign language is used to provide access to the hard-of-hearing population. Programs are published twice a month on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram.

2. Podcasts: A monthly podcast, called Generación Cambio (Change Generation). is directed by youth, who interview experts on topics like addictions, suicide prevention, and climate change, to provide in-depth analysis and promote civic and political engagement. Podcasts are published on Spotify and Google Podcasts.

3. Facebook lives: Designed to briefly interview experts, providing audiences the opportunity to ask questions and engage with our invitees.

4. School interventions: We visit middle and high schools with the goal of discussing ways youth can increase community involvement and political participation. The technique “theater of the oppressed” created by Brazilian Augusto Boal, is used to educate youth about civic and political engagement.

5. Public policy involvement: Youth have been able to participate in policy initiatives related to child and youth poverty, mental health, gender violence prevention, and disaster preparedness.

6. University forums: A dozen thematic panels were organized at the university to discuss social issues that affect youth. We also provide talks to students to promote civic engagement.

7. Community activities: Includes book drives for children, and visits to children’s shelters and disadvantaged communities to read and sing with the children. Book readings are based on a child’s rights approach, particularly promoting the right to be heard and to participate.

8. Research: We are conducting two research projects to explore youth civic and political engagement.

9. Activism: “Impacto Juventud” has been an active participant in marches, protests, and other forms of activism to bring attention to pressing social issues such as gender violence.

This project, born amidst the social, economic, and political crisis in Puerto Rico, has provided youth a platform to enhance their empowerment, sense of belonging, and political efficacy. It also provides a safe space where they can talk about their concerns and receive multilevel and multifaceted mentorship.

In a space where colonial trauma impacts people’s daily experience and quality of life, projects such as “Impacto Juventud” spearhead the civic and political action needed to reduce oppression and enhance well-being.


Branas, C.C., Kastanaki, A.E., Michalodimitrakis, M., Tzougas, J., Kranioti, E.F., Theodorakis, P.N., Carr, B.G., Wiebe, D.J. (2015). The impact of economic austerity and prosperity events on suicide in Greece: a 30-year interrupted time-series analysis. BMJ Open 2015;5:e005619. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2014-005619.

Declaration of the Rights of the Child (1959). Proclaimed by the General Assembly, resolution 1386 (XIV), A/RES/14/1386, 20 November 1959.

Hawton, K., Bergen, H., Geulayov, G., Waters, K., Ness, J.M., Cooper, J.B., Kapur, N. (2016). Impact of the recent recession on self-harm: Longitudinal ecological and patient-level investigation from the Multicentre Study of Self-harm in England. Journal of affective disorders, DOI:10.1016/j.jad.2015.11.001
Mills, C. (2017). ‘Dead people don’t claim’: A psychopolitical autopsy of UK austerity suicides. Critical Social Policy, 38(2), 302-322. doi:10.1177/0261018317726263.

The Canadian International Development Agency, Child Protection Unit, (2004). Child as partners: Child participation promoting social change. International Institute for Child Rights and Development.


Eduardo A. Lugo-Hernández, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez Campus. He has a Ph.D. in clinical-community psychology from DePaul University in Chicago. He is the director of the Impacto Juventud Project, which has the goal of promoting child and youth civic and political participation Lugo has ample experience in Youth Participatory Research (yPAR) and is an advocate of child and youth rights. In the past, he was an assistant professor at Universidad del Este and associate director of Project VIAS, which had the goal of implementing violence prevention interventions through a community-based participatory research approach. For more than 10 years he has worked with mentoring programs for undergraduate students. He was the associate director of the NIH-funded career opportunities in research education and training program at the University of Puerto Rico-Río Piedras campus. He is a firm believer in the use of media for education and advocacy efforts and in the role of psychology in public policy.

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