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Rooted in Relationships: Episode 1.3 Krista Mehari


Rooted in Relationships: Episode 1.3 Krista Mehari

Resource Audience

Adults Youth Program Leaders Teachers School / Youth Program Staff School / Youth Organization Leaders District Leaders

Resource Type


Read Time

31-60 Minutes

Dr. Krista Mehari - Engaging youth and leveraging community strengths for systemic change

In this episode, Dr. Krista Mehari talks about the importance of authentically engaging communities around the shared purpose of helping young people thrive. She provides powerful examples of what happens when young people define character within their own community. Dr. Mehari is a licensed psychologist and applied researcher with extensive experience creating research-informed approaches to identifying and leveraging community strengths for systemic change.

Welcome to the Rooted in Relationships podcast, where we talk with renowned researchers and experts on the scientific insights that can help you build meaningful relationships with young people. Host Benjamin Houltberg is the CEO and President of Search Institute, where research over the past 60 years has found relationships to be the roots all young people need to grow and thrive. In today’s episode, Ben speaks with guest Krista Mehari, a clinical psychologist and Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of South Alabama. She joins Ben today to share practical insights from her work with youth in communities and to explain a project in which she allows young people to define what character means for their community.

Krista’s research focuses on promoting positive youth development and understanding the contextual risk factors that have an impact on children and adolescent development. Her research approach takes into consideration both individual youths and their communities, aiming to make all interventions culturally appropriate, effective, and sustainable. Krista is committed to bringing clinical and academic interests together, using scientific rigor to bring positive social change.

Her established approach to research and clinical practice has its roots in her upbringing. For one thing, she can recall instances in high school that highlighted for her that her community was negatively impacted by some teachers that had confrontational relationships with students that undermined the students’ development and growth. Ultimately, Krista developed an awareness of injustice and a desire to bring change. This was shaped by a friend’s mom whose work in clinical social work bore a kind, non-judgmental tone, and also by a professor who fostered in Krista a desire to see change on a large scale.

Turning to practitioners, Krista affirms empathetically that it’s hard and overwhelming to work well with young people, taking into account both their behavior and context. Because of this fact, she finds it helpful to surround herself with others who have worked for a longer time than she has, as well as people who are younger than her; she values working alongside of others in a way that lets her see that there is a community working for the good of youth, both now and over time. When she contextualizes her own work in this way, she is able to focus on doing the best she can in a given moment and recognize that changing culture requires patience and time.

The factor of time is actually one area in which interventions can suffer. Funding operates on a time cycle that often does not align well with the amount of time required to see the results of interventions. While this is a danger, interventions that are carried out well and thoroughly need to have multiple levels, Krista says. They should take into account different influencing factors and should involve high quality implementation. Further, it’s advisable for those planning interventions to think of all children holding potential and needing support, and to put all the structures in place to provide whatever support they may need.

Krista explains that, as she goes about her work, her day-to-day interactions are in large part a matter of showing kindness and helping young people to feel seen and that they belong. While those working with youth won’t necessarily receive reinforcement right away, it’s necessary to establish with the young people they work with that they’re trustworthy. This principle also holds on a broader level, as people like Krista working for community change need to demonstrate trustworthiness to the whole community, too.

Krista is currently invested in a community participatory action research project, funded by a John Templeton Foundation grant. The project is based on the idea of using research as a tool to help communities work toward their goals and values, and it is operating in Mobile, AL. Krista shares about how the project works and explains its efforts toward defining virtues and strengths central to the community. One particular value that the community has zoned in on is hope, and Krista expands on the importance of adults seeing and fostering the spark within young people in order to build hope, as well as the significance of hope in community.

As the conversation wraps up, Krista talks about her next project dealing with gun injury prevention and offers final advice on assuming children are doing the best they can!


0:35 - Ben introduces himself and the podcast.

1:43 - Krista joins the episode and shares about her background.

8:12 - How can practitioners think better about behavior and context?

14:24 - The problem of timeline and how to structure an intervention project.

32:05 - Krista is working on community participatory action research.

42:21 - The conversation ends with talk of hope, what’s next, and final advice.

Follow Benjamin Houltberg.

Learn more about Search Institute.

Learn more about Krista Mehari.