Diversity and Democracy

Identity and Social Action: The Role of Self-Examination in Systemic Change

How do your identities inform your understanding of the community issue at the center of your service experience? In response to this question, a student enrolled in a service-learning course I once taught wrote in her reflection journal:

I was taught that homeless people were lazy, drug addicts with no hope. That homelessness was a choice, or a series of bad choices that got you to that point. After ten weeks at [the soup kitchen], I understand that homelessness is a consequence of the problem of poverty. And poverty is way bigger than a choice. Who your parents are and what they do, where you grow up, what schools you go to and how good your teachers are, the availability of jobs in your community and how well those jobs pay, access to health care, the cost to rent an apartment … all of these things affect whether or not you’ll be poor…. While it is still true that I’m lucky not to be homeless, I’m also very aware that my housing, my middle class existence, is the result of a series of privileges that are not—but should be—available to everyone.

Asking students to consider and speak to how their identities inform their understandings of and experiences with complex social problems is a central aspect of my teaching. I believe that in order to prepare students to engage with and take action on critical concerns facing our communities, we must help them understand how identity informs experience. For this student, an exploration of identity in the context of homelessness not only made her cognizant of privileges that she had not previously considered important to her status as housed (versus unhoused), but also gave her the tools to change her perspective. Instead of seeing homelessness as an individual problem, she began to see poverty as a systemic issue.

The Individual and the Systemic

The shift from the individual to the systemic can help students consider the limitations of charitable responses to social problems. It can clarify the urgency of nonprofit organizations’ work responding to immediate needs (that is, applying bandages) while also helping students imagine and seek change-oriented solutions (or surgical approaches) to community concerns. Students in my service-learning course were able to see the value in their community-based service, but also to question public sector responses to issues of policing, affordable housing, and quality schools. By exploring identity in the context of community concerns, they began to recognize and question structural inequality.

Structural inequality is the bias entrenched in the organizations, structures, and systems that guide our society. Troutt reminds us that structural inequality is experienced, and that one can “see it in the quality of local schools and their test scores, smell it in the access to healthy food or not, feel it in a sense of safety or danger as we walk the streets” (2014). An acknowledgment of structural inequality is an acknowledgement that the resource imbalances faced by some communities are not the result of individual shortcomings but of a system of exclusion.

In 2008, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination found “stark racial disparities” in the United States and called for the Bush administration “to take effective actions to end racist practices against minorities in the areas of criminal justice, housing, healthcare and education” (Rizvi 2008). The administration responded that the differential impacts of “laws or practices that are race-neutral on their face but discriminatory in effect” could not be anticipated. But as Young has argued, “difference-blind treatment or policy is more likely to perpetuate rather than correct injustice” (2009, 278). In order for individuals to act in ways that might change systems and structures and result in equity and opportunity for marginalized peoples, an understanding of the place of identity in persistent structural inequality is necessary.

Intersecting but Distinct Dimensions

Identity is complex and multilayered. It comes into focus through a process of understanding who you are, how you are seen by others, and the consequences of being seen in this way. Identity is not simply something that we claim; it is something that is also shaped through our interactions and experiences. Because social identity exists on multiple planes (e.g., race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ability, religion, citizenship status, language), each of our experiences reflects a unique combination of affiliations with and memberships in different communities.

Often, and for good reason, educators ask students to suspend thinking about the complexity of their identities to focus on one key aspect. In a year where media conversations have been dominated by the hashtag #blacklivesmatter, initiating and maintaining conversations in the classroom about race and racism feels necessary, but it can also be challenging. In a conversation about race, some students will raise issues related to economics and class to displace the focus on race. A report on millennial attitudes toward race found that approximately 20 percent of respondents (across all racial groups) felt class was a more significant factor than race in explaining injustice in our society (Apollon 2011). Similarly, in conversations about gender and issues of sexism, students may invoke issues of race or sexual orientation.

Viewing ourselves along a single dimension is not easy, but it is important to understanding how issues of injustice affect different groups differently and why approaches to public problem solving yield different effects. Young uses the example of wheelchair access to explain the problem of difference-blind policies and treatment, arguing that “the opportunities of people with disabilities can be made equal only if others specifically notice their differences” (2009, 278). A focus on identity allows us to acknowledge the sources of our own knowledge, fears, and realms of ignorance. It provides space for us to understand how and why certain communities are disenfranchised, underresourced, and historically and structurally marginalized. It creates opportunities to name the roles of identity and power in policies and systems that have oppressed and continue to oppress specific groups. As Young explains, we must “notice the processes” of differential access before we can correct those processes (281).

An intentional focus on identity can result in deeply personal experiences that require acknowledgment of one’s connection to, investment in, and collusion with practices, policies, and communities that stigmatize, impoverish, and disadvantage. These experiences can be painful whether one is accepting one’s privilege as a beneficiary or one’s trauma as a target of structural injustice. A focus on identity may simultaneously result in depersonalizing experiences that allow students to push beyond defensiveness, shame, or guilt to recognize the structural realities of inequality and identify spaces where their identities can support them in pursuing action aimed toward change.

Informing Experience, Inspiring Commitment

Identity is structural, relational, and also deeply personal. I have been profoundly affected by the recent arrest and subsequent death of Sandra Bland. I did not know Sandra Bland, but aspects of her identity (black, woman, college educated) are traits we share. Her death and the traffic stop that preceded it weigh heavily on my consciousness. When questions are raised in the media or on Facebook about her attitude and demeanor toward the officer who arrested her, I feel personally attacked. When I am driving and a police car appears in my rearview mirror, my heart stops. To understand my reactions requires an awareness and understanding of my identity as a black woman. My experience of black womanhood and my witness to the ways in which other black women are treated in our society lead me to identify with Sandra Bland, and to fear being viewed by police as Sandra Bland was seen by Texas state trooper Brian Encinia.

Our identities often shape the issues that we feel are important or our comfort in taking action on certain issues or in particular communities. A service-learning student might return to class from her service site and claim that she was “really uncomfortable; no one there speaks English!” It is my responsibility to question that student about why she feels uncomfortable; to encourage her to consider the value in interrogating her discomfort; to challenge her to imagine the myriad places where monolingual Spanish speakers are the only, and how she might feel if this were something she experienced in multiple places, daily, for a lifetime rather than once a week for a semester. When one student expresses shame and disappointment at “seeing so many people who look like me” at his service site and another expresses guilt at the recognition “that [he] didn’t even realize these kinds of programs exist in our community,” it is incumbent on me as the instructor to acknowledge these different responses and the emotions bound in them, and to support students in unpacking their assumptions, reactions, and intentions.

Komives, Lucas, and McMahon (2013) prioritize both self-awareness and understanding others as important to leadership and to the ability to take an active role in one’s communities. It is essential to understand who you are and how your life experiences may differ from those of others, especially in order to move toward considering instances of injustice as structural and systemic rather than individual matters. This shift in understanding from individual concerns to structural injustice is key if students are to become capable of and committed to organizing for social change. Soltan establishes the aim of civic studies as work “to develop ideas and ways of thinking helpful to human beings in their capacity as co-creators of their worlds” (2014, 9). To co-create our worlds requires understanding that identity (both how we see ourselves and how we are seen) informs our experiences. It requires understanding that multiple, varied, and diverse approaches, policies, and treatments that both recognize and appreciate difference may be necessary in order for all people to feel able to actualize their full potential.

Helping Students Make Sense of Their Roles

In my research, I found that students were able to make sense of their roles in responding to issues of injustice when identity became a central category for reflection (Mitchell 2014). When they mentored young girls of color, the students whose experiences I studied had to face the discrepancy between their lives “as middle-class, college educated, White women” and those of their mentees (5). This incongruence helped the students understand that they needed to see beyond their own worldviews in order to conceptualize and work for a society that would be just, for them as well as their young mentees.

Centering identity in the classroom allows students to share stories that bring personal connections to lived experience. It highlights differences in societal impacts and, in doing so, encourages conversation, learning, and strategizing. It challenges individuals to examine their relationships and begin to bridge communities to build multiracial, intergenerational friendships and work groups whose members honor their collective investment as “co-creators of their worlds.” It supports relational work where collaborators consider appropriate place-based responses informed by the history and experiences of the people and organizations who have been most affected by the community concerns the work is designed to address. By centering identity, we move from assuming to understanding—or at least toward beginning to understand. As a result, in our approaches to solving complex problems in our communities, we are able to emphasize values of equity, inclusion, and social justice—while recognizing that access to, belief in, and work for those values have had (and still have) different consequences for different members of our society.

The author would like to acknowledge the American Association of University Women for generously supporting her writing with a 2015–16 American Fellowship.


Apollon, Dominique. 2011. Don’t Call Them “Post-Racial”: Millennials’ Attitudes on Race, Racism and Key Systems in Our Society. Oakland, CA: Applied Research Center.

Komives, Susan R., Nance Lucas, and Timothy R. McMahon. 2013. Exploring Leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Mitchell, Tania D. 2014. “How Service-Learning Enacts Social Justice Sensemaking.” Journal of Critical Thought and Praxis 2 (2): Article 6. http://lib.dr.iastate.edu/jctp/vol2/iss2/6.

Rizvi, Haider. 2008. “UN Panel Finds Two-Tier Society.” Inter Press Service News Agency, March 11. http://www.ipsnews.net/2008/03/rights-us-un-panel-finds-two-tier-society/.

Soltan, Karol Edward. 2014. “The Emerging Field of a New Civics.” In Civic Studies: Approaches to the Emerging Field, edited by Peter Levine and Karol Edward Soltan, 9–19. Washington, DC: Bringing Theory to Practice.

Troutt, David Dante. 2014. “The Other Inequality Is Structural.” The Great Debate, February 3. http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2014/02/03/the-other-inequality-is-structural/.

Young, Iris Marion. 2009. “Structural Injustice and the Politics of Difference.” In Intersectionality and Beyond: Law, Power and the Politics of Location, edited by Emily Grabham, Davina Cooper, Jane Krishnadas, and Didi Herman, 273–98. New York: Routledge-Cavendish. 

Tania D. Mitchell is assistant professor of higher education at the University of Minnesota.

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