Barriers to Wellness

THE CHALLENGE: The fastest growing segment of the U.S. child population is at increased risk for poor health outcomes. How can we better understand the obstacles faced by young people of color?


To better understand the obstacles to well-being experienced by young people of color, the Center for Promise at Boston University implemented a youth-led health and wellness assessment in five cities during the summer of 2016 — Boston, Chicago, Denver, Philadelphia, and St. Paul.

To conduct the pilot program, the university-based research team led by Professor Linda Sprague Martinez partnered with youth development organizations and grassroots organizers to engage young people in the design and implementation of youth-led health and wellness assessments in five US cities between May and September 2016.


The key findings were published in a special report, “Barriers to Wellness: Voices and Views from Young People in Five Cities,” by America’s Promise Alliance. This report provides new insights into the obstacles to wellness young people of color face in five cities and brings young people’s voices and views into the discussion about what affects their health and wellness. While the assessment methods varied from surveys and interviews to photovoice (using photography to observe, document, and discuss the features of a community), common themes emerged across the five cities.

Key findings:

  • Young people are under stress. In all five cities, respondents described employment concerns, race relations, violence, lack of community resources, and other environmental challenges as meaningful barriers to their well-being. In Boston, 78 percent of respondents said they are living under stress.
  • Young people feel unsafe. In Chicago, over 70 percent of respondents say they felt unsafe in their neighborhoods either “always” or “sometimes.” According to one respondent in the city, “Kids can’t freely walk or play in the community without being worried about getting beat up or shot and killed.”
  • Young people mistrust and fear the police. In all five cities, the police served as an additional stressor for young people of color – despite respondents’ concerns about community violence. Sixty percent of respondents in Chicago believe that police there antagonize youth. Respondents in Philadelphia shared similar anecdotes about experiences that damaged their trust in law enforcement.
  • Young people observe and suffer from a lack of access to community resources. Gentrification, local food options, and unemployment concerned respondents across the five cities. The vast majority of respondents in Chicago say they purchase their food at gas stations and corner stores. In Denver, respondents described gentrification pushing them out of once-familiar public spaces, forcing them indoors during after-school hours.
  • Young people engage in risky behaviors to cope with stress. In Philadelphia and Chicago, the majority of respondents believe young people are impacted by family members who use drugs. Respondents also identified a lack of information on safe sex practices and even the prevalence of social media as barriers to well-being.

Learn more about Barriers to Wellness.