“There Will Be a Time…”: Confronting the Colonial-Health-Climate Crisis through Participatory Action Research by and for Youth

In this contribution to Bulletin 30, the authors reflect on a participatory action research project they did with young people in Belize, working through the aftermaths of Empire and dreams of alternative futures.

Levi Gahman, Shelda-Jane Smith, Filiberto Penados, Kadia Andrewin, Zoye Herrera, and The Youth for Justice Collective

Feature image by Sayan Penados


A beach in the Creole Maroon community of Gales Point Manatee, a coastal village where youth conducted research. Credit: Youth for Justice

Amidst the myriad crises related to climate, health, and inequality that continue to debilitate the world, it is patently obvious that: 1) something’s gotta give, and 2) something urgent must be done.[1] Persistent global poverty, escalating environmental ruin, intensifying “not-so-natural” disasters, recurring food shortages, and deadly epidemics are being exacerbated by climate change, which is threatening both humanity and the life-sustaining capacity of the planet. Given the dire circumstances at hand, there is a pressing need—and golden opportunity—to imagine and craft more sustainable and socially just futures. Regarding what it will take to radically transform the status quo and “build better worlds”[2] in the face of global catastrophe, it is undeniable that youth can and will play a crucial role, specifically when it comes to climate action. Notably, an unfortunate point that must be reiterated until resolved, is that the enduring aftermaths of empire, enslavement, and dispossession continue to resonate and give rise to injustices and injurious impacts materially, environmentally, and psychologically.[3] This is unambiguously evident in the Caribbean.[4]

In particular, youth throughout the Caribbean face a wide range of complex challenges and disparities that are deeply rooted in the lasting legacies of colonialism and being exacerbated by the current climate crisis. The challenges are multifaceted, interconnected, and systemic, encompassing economic, educational, health, ecological, and political dimensions. Different forms of persistent inequality, structural oppression, and “organized abandonment”[5] continue to stifle the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of young people across the region. The richly biodiverse and multi-ethnic nation of Belize is a case in point given its high poverty rate of roughly 50% and the fact that it is one of the most at-risk nations regarding climate disaster. The World Bank Natural Disaster Hotspot, for example, ranks Belize as the 8th most vulnerable nation to climate change out of 167 countries.[6] With under-30s making up over half the populace,[7] Belize also has a substantial population of young people who are negatively affected by and highly susceptible to social inequality and climate catastrophe. 

Members of the Youth for Justice core collective participate in a lecture on global inequality and the climate crisis. Credit: Sayan Penados

Economically, the ongoing repercussions of imperialism and the plantation system have left numerous peripheral Caribbean nations like Belize, a former British colony whose head of state and monarch incidentally remains King Charles III, with an over-reliance on sectors related to tourism, industrial agriculture, large-scale ranching, and natural resource extraction—industries predisposed not only to the shocks of global capitalist markets but also the devastating effects of extreme weather events and major seasonal shifts. This economic vulnerability, which is also magnified by massive debt burdens owed to international financial institutions like the IMF,[8] manifests in elevated rates of youth under- and unemployment, leaving many with bleak prospects of a decent wage, fulfilling career, and dignified life. 

From our grassroots work with youth across the Caribbean, it is clear that the erratic fluctuations of major industries are resulting in financial precarity and psychological distress, which disproportionately affect young people. In turn, cycles of poverty, crushing feelings of despair, chronic states of anxiety, and lingering hopelessness about the future are spiralling out of control. Moreover, extractivist practices—where lands, beaches, forests, sacred sites, and local resources are privatised, commodified, and depleted primarily for foreign profits and upper-middle class consumption—continue to adversely impact and profoundly harm the region, especially Indigenous and Afrodescendant communities.[9] Throughout the Caribbean, inclusive of Belize, these groups are bearing the brunt of the durable forms of exploitation, extraction, and racial animus that defined the colonial encounter.


Historically, pre-contact economies, cultures, governance institutions, and social relations across the Caribbean were condemned, usurped, and (dis)ordered to serve the colonial enterprise and capitalist world system, rather than existing communities and region at large. This resulted in long-term “underdevelopment”, a term we use critically a la Walter Rodney,[10] and underinvestment in infrastructure, healthcare, education, and local non-capitalist economies. Fast-forward to the present moment, and you will see that youth from marginalised communities in the Caribbean, particularly those from Afrodescendant and Indigenous backgrounds in biodiverse and resource-rich rural areas, continue to acutely experience the deleterious consequences of economic exploitation, environmental degradation, and forced displacement. In short, their communities and cultures have been targeted for neoliberal “development” as a result of having ancestral roots and residing in extractivism’s “sacrifice zones”.[11]

Youth from the Maya villages of Laguna and Big Falls discuss the strengths, challenges, threats, and assets of their communities. Credit: Sayan Penados

What precisely is at stake in the region, then, are homes, heritage, collective health, and entire ecosystems, not to mention intergenerational memories, histories, and futures.[12] The challenges and threats faced by marginalised communities are further exacerbated by state-sponsored austerity, where governments systematically withdraw services from peripheral areas, typically remote cash-poor communities that have been negatively racialised.[13] This institutionalised neglect leads to declines in living standards and foreclosures of life chances, with young people from forsaken communities offered few educational opportunities, limited access to healthcare, racially prejudiced stereotypes, and little to no possibility of a decent wage. State withdrawal not only deepens existing material inequalities but also places additional emotional strife and stress on youth. 

With respect to physical-mental health, Caribbean youth are presently navigating widespread austerity, climate chaos, systemic marginalisation, corrupt governance, inadequate healthcare, insufficient investment, and a lack of access to meaningful work and even land, a direct consequence of colonial dispossession, industrial extraction, and the imposition of Westminster-modelled governance.[14] Currently, public institutions across the region are being further strained by harmful economic and health impacts related to climate change, crop failures, dependency on corporate food imports, unsustainable debt, and the upshots of the coronavirus pandemic.[15]

In speaking with youth across the region, environmental ruin is one of their most immediate and alarming concerns. Escalating hurricanes, intensifying floods and droughts, rising sea levels, and the destruction of coral reefs, tropical forests, and coastal mangroves, to name only a few, directly threaten flora and fauna, as well as countless families and cultures.[16] Such pressures are endangering local economies, reducing biodiversity, and eroding the country’s pluralist multi-ethnic heritage, in addition to jeopardising liveable and dignified futures for young people. Challenges of this magnitude not only affect the physical wellbeing of youth, but also their mental health and ability to co-create and contribute to the sustainable and socially just societies they would otherwise like to be experiencing and enjoying.

Members of the Youth for Justice core collective engage in dialogue and reflection about colonial legacies and the climate crisis in the Caribbean. Credit: Sayan Penados

Despite these challenges, Caribbean youth are demonstrating an impressive amount of resilience and agency, engaging in social activism and community organising. Young people across the region are raising their voices to advocate for bottom-up sustainable development, environmental protection, and economic justice. However, their efforts are regularly hampered by parochial authority figures and hierarchical governance systems that remain beholden to colonial-era edifices and respectability politics,[17] which frequently are undemocratic, disciplinary, and signal to youth they must only “be seen, not heard.” In Belize, youth-led collective action has consequently been limited, not due to a lack of either desire or motivation on the part of young people but because formal institutions and credentialed adult leaders in the country tend to be locked into top-down, path dependent solutions and are dismissive of the radical imaginations and direct action of young people. The participatory research featured here, which was co-designed and guided by youth in Belize, sought to address these challenges. 


Participatory Action Research (PAR) that is co-produced and led by the creative vision of youth represents a transformative shift in how research involving young people is conceptualised and conducted.[18] As researchers who are motivated by pluriversal politics,[19] the practice of accompaniment,[20] caring and transgressive pedagogies,[21] and Freirean notions of praxis[22]—as well as who pay heed to the political agency and place-making capacities of youth—we believe that research carried out on crises and challenges faced by marginalised communities must at once be guided by and relevant to those involved. Hence, our ambition is to move beyond mere listening[23] as a means to write about others, as well as break away from collecting, harvesting, and handling (if not pirating) participant stories and insights as atomised, proprietary “data”—as has been the expropriative Western research orthodoxy for decades.[24]

Members of Youth for Justice discuss plans related to participatory research they will conduct in their respective communities. Credit: Sayan Penados

Contrariwise, our goal is to see PAR include young people as research co-producers who are telling their own stories and collectively crafting and carrying out their own activities, analyses, outputs, and forms of resistance.[25] In this same vein, another aim of our work is to avoid designing one-off, short-term projects (i.e., the trap of NGO’ised “projectitis[26]) in which researchers parachute in, mine participants for information, depart after a brief stint, and write about participants after the fact. In short, it is high time for research to be designed and conducted by and for youth—as well as for researchers to commit for the long haul. Such an approach to PAR mitigates the degree to which research participants are exploited by academics because it places young people in the driver’s seat, where they take on roles as project leads, decision-makers, and co-authors. This shift is pivotal because it acknowledges and leverages the unique insights, experiences, and imaginations of youth, which are often paternalistically dismissed or undervalued in conventional research.[27]It similarly ensures that self-efficacy, confidence-building, and self-actualisation are fundamental aspects, impacts, and outcomes of youth-centred research. 

Another one of our primary objectives is to ensure that critical consciousness (i.e. political education) and collective action are cornerstones of research. Promoting political education in PAR can serve as a catalyst for youth empowerment and transformative praxis, particularly when critical history (e.g., discussing empire’s afterlives in the Caribbean) and pluriversal politics (e.g., envisioning diverse utopian futures) are principal elements. By integrating youth into PAR as co-producers, interrogating how colonial history affects the present, and encouraging young people’s political imaginations, youth are not only questioning the status quo and scrutinising social structures, but better positioned to actively respond to and overcome the oppressive institutions they are up against. Likewise, studying the historical-colonial roots and structural forces that are adversely impacting young people’s communities, environments, and futures can foster critical thought, creative expression, and collective action, in addition to a sense of responsibility to advance social and environmental justice. 

With the aforementioned in mind, our pilot project took inspiration from the Zapatista’s pluriversal call to build “a world where many worlds fit”[28] and explicitly centred a convivial and cyclical process of: 

1) Building Community and Solidarity

2) “Reading” the World Critically

3) Dreaming Alternative Worlds

4) Enacting New Worlds Collectively

Members of the Youth for Justice core collective engage in ludic pedagogy and outdoor educational games during a “Training the Trainers” session. Credit: Sayan Penados

In further reflecting upon the geopolitical context and revolutionary thought that has emerged from both the Caribbean and Central America, where the country of Belize is uniquely situated and exists as a dynamic liminal geography, we drew specific inspiration from Frantz Fanon’s assertion that “the political education of the masses is now recognized as an historical necessity”,[29] as well as the additional prefigurative politics of the Zapatistas, who poetically state: “In contrast to those traditional stories that begin with ‘Once upon a time…’, Zapatista stories begin with ‘There will be a time…’.”[30] Collectively, these quotes prompted our research to feature political education, pluriversal politics, prefigurative praxis, and collective action as a means of breathing life into the historically-informed yet desired alternative futures of youth.


The recently formed Youth for Justice Collective emerged from a collaborative PAR project that took place over the span of three months in Belize. With the support of researchers from the University of Liverpool (United Kingdom) and Galen University (Belize), 10 ethnically diverse young people representing Creole, Maroon, Maya, Garifuna, Mestizo, and mixed heritage backgrounds from the communities of Gales Point Manatee, Hopkins, Laguna, Big Falls, San Jose Succotz, Pomona, Caye Caulker, and Calla Creek were convened. This core collective participated in a three-day “Training of Trainers” session at an ecological learning centre in the rainforest where they received technical expertise in participatory research methods and critical education related to colonialism, capital accumulation, collective memory, social movements, and climate change. 

Youth from the village of Gales Point identify key themes and begin illustrating the sustainable and just futures they desire. Credit: Sayan Penados

The pilot was explicitly guided by the following questions: 

  • What are the unique histories, heritages, and assets of the communities youth are from?

  • How do youth perceive themselves and the challenges they and their communities face? 

  • What kind of sustainable and just futures do youth desire and are they dreaming of? 

  • How might adult advocates create spaces, support, and accompany youth who would like to engage in transformative action to address social inequalities and the climate crisis? 

To address these questions, we made use of artistic methods, place-based education, ludic pedagogy, arts-based envisioning, and photovoice activities to create spaces and facilitate dialogues where youth could share their concerns and explore issues that are affecting their lives and communities. In short, our goal was to build solidarity and further develop the young peoples’ capacities to “read” the world critically, imagine alternatives, and collectively envision and enact better “worlds.” 

More specifically, the programme began with a “Building Community and Solidarity” phase, where youth engaged in initial gatherings to create camaraderie through ludic/play-based activities, educational games, experiential learning, and group discussions. In the “Reading the World Critically” phase, participants were trained in PAR methods and photovoice to explore and critically assess their local communities. This step also included instructive presentations and conversations related to the Caribbean’s colonial legacies, realities of climate change, and the role of young people in political movements. After the technical training, the attendees conducted a trial photovoice project, shared their photos and narratives, engaged in collective reflection, and identified common themes and challenges across their respective communities. The subsequent “Dreaming Alternative Worlds” phase prompted youth to imagine and illustrate the types of sustainable and just futures they desired. Finally, in the “Enacting New Worlds Collectively” phase, participants took action by planning individual community-based projects they would lead and carry out in following weeks.

Youth conduct a trial photovoice project after PAR training to prepare for the community-based initiatives they would lead. Credit: Sayan Penados

Members of the core collective who completed the “Training of Trainers” session then dispersed and recruited 10 young people from four respective communities to participate in village-based PAR and arts-based envisioning projects. Outreach sessions, photovoice instruction, and dreaming activities were subsequently completed in four communities, which culminated in exhibitions that were open to the public. During the weeks in which village projects were being executed, select members of the core collective promoted the initiative across various media platforms, including a live appearance on a national news programme. Following completion of the respective village projects, the core collective was reconvened to reflect upon the entire process. During the session, they discussed and developed future action plans, formally named their group “Youth for Justice”, and selected the Zapatista expression noted earlier: “There will be a time…” as their official motto. In total, the core collective includes 10 members while the broader “Youth for Justice” network is roughly 50 youth and growing. In addition, for the first activity after formalising “Youth for Justice”, the core collective planned and organised a national gathering and public photovoice exhibition in Belmopan, Belize’s capital city, which featured the village-based projects and community photos from youth in the broader network, who were also invited and supported to attend. 

The newly designed and official logo for the recently formed Youth for Justice collective and network. Credit: Gliss Penados


Overall, our PAR project was oriented at maximising the degree to which research can be guided by and relevant to youth, whilst also providing them the platform to amplify their voices, dreams, and demands for a better world—on their terms. More broadly, the pilot and ongoing work of the Youth for Justice collective and network is meant to be an intervention into the colonial-health-climate crisis mentioned at the outset. We collectively happen to feel that creating spaces for youth to freely engage in group dialogue, creative expression, community engagement, and direct action is one of the best ways of tackling said crisis. Notably, our research and activities were and remain driven by a dedicated focus on justice—environmental, social, economic, and climate. By concentrating on various dimensions of justice and centring it in our efforts and even name, we are seeking to combat challenges related to inequality, discrimination, poverty, and environmental degradation, which are affecting all of the communities we are from and continue to work in. And while the work is rewarding and meaningful, it is also admittedly taxing and tiring at times.

When conducting research across the communities, we identified a range of challenges and problems that need to be addressed. Division caused by political interference, unequal access to resources and opportunities, land disputes, transportation limitations, job scarcity, ecosystem damage, and threats posed by foreign investors were and remain some of the major issues we encountered. These dilemmas not only erode the wellbeing of community members but also exacerbate existing inequalities and tensions. However, amidst the adversity, we recognised and celebrated the major strengths and assets of the communities. Our diverse cultural heritage, village traditions, the resilience of our people, and the beauty of the natural environment in each village surfaced as indispensable strengths for all the communities. These assets, which we are averse to putting a dollar sign on, serve as sources of pride and inspiration for our communities and provide a foundation for co-creating brighter futures.

Youth participants from the communities of San Jose Succotz and Calla Creek present findings related to their photovoice projects. Credit: Sayan Penados

For us, while conducting PAR offers a fruitful avenue for community engagement and transformative change, it is also important to remain aware of its complexities and challenges. Across any diverse group, conflicts, clashes, and frustrations can arise as a result of contrasting core values, diverging personal opinions, and even different personality types. Such instances need to be addressed in thoughtful, empathetic, and constructive ways. Moreover, young people are often juggling numerous responsibilities related to family obligations, schoolwork, social lives, peer networks, and even job duties, which can place a strain on their time, energy, and motivation. 

It would be dishonest to say that there were moments of fatigue and discouragement, particularly when confronted with the magnitude of the challenges we are addressing and the time and energy it takes to organise activities and events. In Belize, confronting the historical legacies and contemporary institutions that are perpetuating injustice can be met with disapproval, criticism, and opposition from certain authority figures and adults involved in politics as well as the public in general. Breaching decorum is also not always welcome and pushing the envelope comes with risk and sometimes discipline, especially if it is youth who are rocking the boat. All these factors highlight the complexities of PAR in our context and remind us that our work is both a rewarding and demanding endeavour.

Amidst it all, however, we feel the good far outweighs the bad. Experiencing and working through the complexities and challenges is helping everyone get united, grow as individuals, and become principled leaders. It is strengthening our resolve to persist and change things, as well as having prompted us to cherish our community histories and cultures more than we did before. Participating in the training and PAR projects not only broadened our understanding of social justice issues and the climate crisis, but also deepened our sense of obligation to address them. More practically, our active participation in the projects and now Youth for Justice group is significantly enhancing our abilities in a variety of ways. These include leadership, communication, interpersonal, teamwork, active listening, problem-solving, and project planning skills. 

Members of the Youth for Justice core collective lead a walking tour of Gales Point Manatee for their adult collaborators and guests. Credit: Sayan Penados

Being key contributors and driving forces of change is increasing our motivation to tackle complex challenges and problems that are affecting our and other villages. When we overcome obstacles and achieve milestones it feels good and boosts our confidence. The work we are doing in our communities makes us feel proud, brave, fierce, and meaningful. Our next idea is to create murals, collect oral histories, and make ethnographic maps in each of the communities, as well as get more youth and villages involved. Overall, engaging in these participatory activities has shifted our perceptions about ourselves and our capabilities, showing us that we have the power to make a difference in our community, country, and the world. We have accomplished a great deal in only a few months and are excited to see what comes next. Even though we have already done so much, this is just the beginning. 


[1] F. Yamin, “Why I broke the law for climate change”, Nature 573, no. 7774 (2019): 337-339.

[2] L. Gahman, S.J. Smith, F. Penados, N. Mohamed, J.R. Reyes, and A. Mohamed, A beginner’s guide to building better worlds: Ideas and inspiration from the Zapatistas (Bristol 2022: Bristol University Press).

[3] L. Sealey-Huggins, “‘1.5° C to stay alive’: Climate change, imperialism and justice for the Caribbean”, Third World Quarterly 38, no. 11 (2017): 2444-2463.

[4] L. Gahman and G. Thongs, “Development justice, a proposal: Reckoning with disaster, catastrophe, and climate change in the Caribbean”, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 45, no. 4 (2020): 763-778.

[5] R.W. Gilmore, “Forgotten places and the seeds of grassroots planning”, in: C.R. Hale (ed.), Engaging contradictions: Theory, politics, and methods of activist scholarship (Berkeley 2008: University of California Press): 31-61.

[6] World Bank Climate Change Knowledge Portal, retrieved from: https://climateknowledgeportal.worldbank.org/country/belize/vulnerability (accessed June 2024).

[7] Population Pyramids of the World from 1950 to 2100 (2024), retrieved from: https://www.populationpyramid.net/belize/2024/(accessed June 2024).

[8] S. Desai, Drowning in debt: understanding debt-for-climate swaps through a case study of the Belize blue bond. (unpublished honors thesis, University of Pennsylvania, 2023), retrieved from:  https://repository.upenn.edu/handle/20.500.14332/43502

[9] L. Gahman, A. Greenidge, and A. Mohamed, “Plunder via violation of FPIC: Land grabbing, state negligence, and pathways to peace in Central America and the Caribbean”, Journal of Peacebuilding & Development 15, no. 3 (2020): 372-376.

[10] W. Rodney, How Europe underdeveloped Africa (London 2018 [1972]: Verso Books).

[11] E.C. Miller, “Expandability and expendability: Reading the sacrifice zone”, Textual Practice 37, no. 10 (2023): 1624-1630.

[12] S.J. Smith, F. Penados, L. Gahman, “Desire over damage: Epistemological shifts and anticolonial praxis from an indigenous‐led community health project”, Sociology of Health & Illness 44 (2022): 124-141.

[13] F. Penados, L. Gahman, and S.J. Smith, “Land, race, and (slow) violence: Indigenous resistance to racial capitalism and the coloniality of development in the Caribbean”, Geoforum 145 (2023): 103602.

[14] N. Girvan, “Assessing Westminster in the Caribbean: Then and now”, Commonwealth & Comparative Politics 53, no. 1 (2015): 95-107.

[15] J. Byron, J.L. Martinez, A. Montoute, and K. Niles, “Impacts of COVID-19 in the Commonwealth Caribbean: Key lessons”, The Round Table 110, no. 1 (2021): 99–119, doi: 10.1080/00358533.2021.1875694.

[16] K. Rhiney and A. K. Baptiste, “Adapting to climate change in the Caribbean: Existential threat or development crossroads?”, Caribbean Studies 47, no. 2 (2019): 59–80, doi: 10.1353/crb.2019.0014.

[17] S.J. Smith, A. Greenidge, and L. Gahman, “Unsettling orthodoxy via epistemological jailbreak: Rethinking childhood, psychology, and wellbeing from the Caribbean”, Third World Thematics: A TWQ Journal 7, no. 1-3 (2022), 17-36.

[18] D.E. Wright, “Imagining a more just world: Critical arts pedagogy and youth participatory action research”, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 33, no. 1 (2020): 32-49.

[19] F. Demaria and A. Kothari, “The Post-development dictionary agenda: Paths to the pluriverse”, Third World Quarterly 38, no. 12 (2017): 2588–2599.

[20] M. Watkins, Mutual accompaniment and the creation of the commons (New Haven 2019: Yale University Press).

[21] b. hooks Teaching to transgress (Abingdon 1994: Routledge).

[22] P. Freire, Pedagogy of the oppressed (New York 2017 [1970]: Penguin Classics).

[23] We agree and are fully aware of the fact that careful, considerate, and attentive listening is indeed the obligatory, essential, and ethical thing to do apropos responsible and respectful research practice/engagement.

[24] A. Simpson, “Ethnographic refusal: Indigeneity, ‘voice’ and colonial citizenship”, Junctures: The Journal for Thematic Dialogue9, no. 11 (2007): 67–80.

[25] A.D. Domínguez and J. Cammarota, “The arc of transformation in youth participatory action research: Creative expression to creative resistance”, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 35, no. 8 (2022), 805-823.

[26] O.F. Giraldo and P.M. Rosset, “Emancipatory agroecologies: Social and political principles”, The Journal of Peasant Studies 50,no. 3 (2023): 820-850.

[27] T.T. Flores, “Breaking silence and amplifying voices: Youths writing and performing their worlds”, Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 61, no. 6 (2018): 653-661.

[28] EZLN, “Fourth declaration of the Lacandon Jungle” (1996), retrieved from: https://radiozapatista.org/?p=20287&lang=en(accessed June 2024).

[29] F. Fanon, The wretched of the earth (New York 1968 [1961]: Grove Press).

[30] EZLN, Critical thought in the face of the capitalist hydra: Contributions by the sixth commission of the EZLN (Durham 2016: PaperBoat Press).


Youth for Justice is a grassroots collective and network in Belize committed to the co-creation of sustainable and just futures. It is composed of diverse young people who conduct participatory action research with communities via convivial democratic process. The team has an explicit focus on resolving colonial legacies, social inequalities, and the climate crisis through collective action and the creative arts. The initiative was co-convened by Dr. Filiberto Penados (Research Director, Galen University) and Levi Gahman (Professor of Emancipatory Politics, University of Liverpool).