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The Woodlawn Project

The Woodlawn Project explores risk and protective factors on the path to successful or troubled adulthood in a group of African Americans from the same disadvantaged inner city community in Chicago. In response to citizen leaders’ concerns about life course trajectories of children in the Woodlawn neighborhood, this program of research and intervention began in 1966 with essentially all first grade boys and girls (1,242) attending the Woodlawn public and parochial elementary schools and follows their progress through adolescence, young adulthood, and midlife. This continuing research centers on aspects of life particularly salient to African Americans such as family relationships, school, work, peer relationships, religion, community involvement, health, criminal behavior, and criminal justice interventions. Despite similarities in their early roots, individuals in this group experienced disparate pathways to adulthood. Results continue to stimulate discussions on the refinement in the design of early prevention programs and contribute to research and policy literature on health and well-being of African Americans.

The Woodlawn Project was initiated in partnership with the Chicago Board of Health, the University of Chicago, and the Chicago public and parochial schools and continues today. Theories of risk and resilience, social involvement and control, and the interaction between individuals and their world are applied to understanding the lives of participants over time, beginning at age 6.

Initially, mothers, teachers, and school records provided detailed descriptions of the lives of these 6-year-old children and their families. Over time, some combination of mothers, teachers, and the study participants themselves described family, school, work, economic circumstances, stressful events, community characteristics, psychological and physical well being, and risk behaviors including drug and alcohol use and criminal behavior in adolescence (age 16), early adulthood (age 32), and midlife (age 42). Rounding out the extensive body of knowledge about this unique, clearly-defined community sample are official criminal justice and death records. While the interview information extends to age 42, official criminal justice information extends to 2012 (age 52) and mortality information extends to 2009. By 2009, 132 cohort members were known to have died.

A considerable strength of this study is that it provides the ability to examine behaviors and outcomes as they relate to factors occurring earlier in development. Also, because essentially all Woodlawn first grade children and their families participated in the study (only 13 families declined), there is little selection bias in this community cohort. Further, the study provides extensive research data on an under-represented population of African American men and women.

First grade teachers assessed each child's classroom behavior; clinicians observed the children in standardized play situations; and mothers (or mother surrogates) were interviewed about their child and family.

Ten years after the initial assessments, 939 (75%) of mothers or mother surrogates were re-interviewed. From this sample, 705 of the cohort, now in their teens, were assessed on a psychological self-report instrument and a questionnaire that included items on family and school life, drug use, delinquency, and sexual activity.

In 1983, based on work from the Woodlawn Project, the Baltimore City Public Schools and the Prevention Research Center of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health created a partnership with parents, children, and teachers to develop the Baltimore Prevention Program to get children off to a good start in school.

In young adulthood, age 32, 952 cohort members were located and interviewed.

Mothers of cohort members were located and interviewed (N=680). This time, interviews focused primarily on the women's lives, with additional questions about family and the focal children who were then in their late 40s.

At age 42, 833 cohort members were interviewed, 102 of whom had not participated in the interviews since childhood or adolescence.

In partnership with the Illinois Criminal Justice Authority, official criminal histories were collected spanning ages 17 to 52.

Collection of National Death Index Records.

Age 60-62 interviews underway

Years Age Events Affecting Cohort
1950s - African American migration from the South to Chicago and Woodlawn
1960 0 Birth of cohort
1960s 0+ Civil rights movement
1966 6 First grade
1968 8 Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
1970s 10+ Woodlawn gang activity: Blackstone Rangers, El Rukins
1978 18 High school graduation (on time)
1978 18 Year of highest student drug use (Monitoring the Future)
1980s 20+ High Chicago murder rate
1982 22 High unemployment
1983 23 Election of Mayor Harold Washington
1986 26 HIV infection recognized
1990s 30+ Crack/cocaine use increases
1996 36 Welfare reform
2008 48 Barack Obama elected to be President
2012 52 Barack Obama elected to a second term as President
2013 53 Founding of Black Lives Matter Movement
2019 59 Chicago's First African American Female and First Openly LGBTQ+ Mayor