Richard M. Lerner
Bergstrom Chair in Applied Developmental Science
Director, Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development
Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development
On August 23, 2021, the Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development (IARYD) will reopen its door for the renewal in real time and place of its mission: We seek to produce applied developmental science demonstrating that it is possible to promote positive youth development and to enhance the contributions of young people to civil society, social justice, and the institutions and traditions of democracy. However, we will do so as an institute that has been transformed by the events we have all experienced over the course of (at this writing) the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. We will welcome our students, colleagues, and staff as a hybrid entity, that is a flexible organization that will enact both real-time-and-place and virtual teaching and training, research, grant writing, manuscript preparation and publication, and outreach to communities in the nation and around the world.
Of course, how we balance real and virtual activities will depend in part on the progress made in vaccinations and in lowing infection rates, hospitalizations, and deaths associated with the pandemic. We are fortunate (indeed blessed) that Tufts University President, Anthony Monaco, will continue to lead the University in ways that best assure the safety and wellness of all members of the Tufts community. Tony’s leadership during the worst days of the pandemic saved lives and made Tufts a model institution for protecting both its people and its educational, research, and service missions.
As IARYD begins its hybrid period – an instantiation that, I believe, will be a long-lasting and possibly a permanent one – we will be an applied developmental science lab that that been irrevocably transformed. We will be qualitatively different because of the convergence of three historically non-normative events. The first of these converging events was obviously the pandemic; it has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in the United States and millions of people around the world. It has left countless millions more faced with sadness because of these losses.
The second converging event was the national and international racial reckoning that emerged on May 25, 2020, when George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis by a then police officer. This changes elicited by this murder resulted in the undeniable recognition that Americans, and particularly white Americans, were not doing enough to create and sustain a nation and world free of inequities and injustices. Many white Americans had to confront the realization that they were parts of the problems and not parts of the solutions. The uncognized dimensions of white privilege had and continues to have pernicious – indeed deadly – implications for people of color and for other marginalized individuals across the United States and world.
The third event was the undeniable and deeply disheartening recognition that our nation and world was witnessing an erosion of democracy and the rise of autocratic, and even fascist, movements in our nation and internationally. Although antidemocratic events certainly occurred across the years of the presidency of Donald Trump, these events became more pronounced and insidious during the time of the pandemic and racial reckoning. A sample of what we witnessed includes:
- Violence enacted by the federal government against citizens exercising their constitutional right to peacefully protest;
- An unprecedented assault on democracy and the evisceration of the national value and tradition of peaceful transitions of power created by the insurrection of January 6, 2021;
- The craven lust for power for power’s sake by many leaders of the Republican Party;
- Blatantly unethical and cynical – and often seemingly illegal – actions by elected officials that went ignored, lied about, or even justified;
- Unpatriotic actions condoned in Congress and in collaborating media to spread the Big Lie that the presidential election was stolen from Trump;
- The embracing by large numbers of elected officials and by groups across the nation of absurd, patently counterfactual, and often un-American conspiracy “theories,” that, at least to me, seemed to be thinly-veiled or, often, blatant, attempts to further white supremacy and fascist and authoritarian rule;
- The politicization at all levels of government of public health measures and the creation by politicians and media collaborators of disinformation about the health benefits, as well as the civic duty, of becoming vaccinated; and
- The attempt at all levels of government as well to deny to people of color the most fundamental right of citizens in a democracy – the right to vote.
Together, these events and actions seemed to coalesce in a zeitgeist suggesting that academic research that aimed to promote youth contributions to democracy was, at best, too little and too late.
The convergence of the global pandemic, the necessary racial reckoning that is occurring, and the rise of anti-democratic actions, fascism, and authoritarianism mean that the world, the nation, democratic institutions and traditions, higher education, Tufts University, IARYD, and the people in it are all at a perhaps historically unprecedented tipping point, a qualitative change in what it means to be a citizen of in the United States and a member of the world community. The world we lived in prior to the three convergences has largely been erased.
It is naïve to think that any person can simply go back to again live in that world. It is equally naïve to think that those of us who cherish the values of American democracy, as flawed and fragile as it is now clear they are, will simply acquiesce to a “new normal” marked by the pernicious facets of the convergences. How we live our lives – and how those individuals who aspire to enact scholarship that contributes to the well-being and health of all young people, families, and communities around the world, act in the years ahead – will have to be both unchanged but reimagined.
The hybrid instantiation of IARYD will remain constant in a continued commitment to using science to contribute to the positive lives of all young people in all contexts. As well, it is true that developmental scientists are in the business of studying and promoting change (in positive directions). All human life involves the integration of change and constancy. The three convergences require, then, our agile and innovative plasticity as well as unflagging constancy in regard to social justice, equity, liberty, and democracy. This dialectic synthesis shall be the vision forward for the hybrid era of IARYD.