Diversity and Democracy

What Now? Creating Cultures of Liberation in Higher Education

A coda for this important collection of essays should forgo summary and instead offer gratitude to the authors and to all others committed to exploring connections between intersectionality and the well-being of students, educators, institutions, and communities. Many of the authors in this issue were directly involved in a May 2017 Bringing Theory to Practice (BTtoP) conference, “The Whole Student: Intersectionality and Well-Being,” held in Chicago, which focused on exploring intersectionality as a framework for understanding how a campus culture could integrate learning and well-being objectives for all its participants.

As we reflect on the powerful voices and the insights offered both at the conference and in this issue, we at the BTtoP project and our allies confirm a call to prioritize on our campuses meaningful encounters with difference—encouraging authentic and empathetic understanding, acknowledging the realities of privilege and vulnerability, and insisting on spaces for discovering or constructing oneself. A campus committed to learning and to the well-being of its members champions the need to examine issues surrounding identity and the intersections of constructed identities in defining and honoring the whole person.

The Role and Responsibility of Higher Education

Higher education plays a unique role in expressing the values of diversity. In an increasingly polarized democratic society, colleges and universities must be even more intentional and publicly vocal in making a compelling case for valuing inclusion and honoring difference. Historically, the intersecting identities of many racial, gender, class, cultural, and other groups were suppressed, including by those colleges and universities that used the institutional power of norming to assign properties and characteristics to marginalized groups and to assert pedagogical “best practices” to which only the most privileged had access. As we recognize the great diversity on our campuses, we are reminded of that history and the opportunity to move beyond it.

Many in higher education are now calling for the emancipation of heretofore suppressed groups’ identities, advocating that those who hold these identities should voice and define them. Valuing diversity means recognizing and honoring the identity of the other—and in doing so, valuing difference. To include the other within what is considered privileged is a “plus-sum” gain in value. The phrase “power to the people” is democratic only when it suggests that power can and should convey inclusivity. And higher education meets its responsibility in an open, democratic society when it holds firm in championing the value of diversity and honoring difference—even when there are voices shouting, “Exclude.”

Working toward Empathetic Understanding

On our campuses and in the spheres of influence beyond them, we can work to understand one another empathetically—and even move beyond empathy to compassion and to action. We have access to evidence and reason, and we can learn from listening to others’ life stories, voices, and history. Empathetic understanding makes moral imagination possible; it allows us to respect the value of others and acknowledge a shared interest in a common good. Coming to know and empathetically understand another person is an act of liberation—one of the emancipation of the self in the recognition of the value of the other. It is the classical understanding of realizing the self only in the context of community—of the other—as Aristotle described it in Nichomachean Ethics.

Creating cultures of liberation, however, is not a simple task, and once achieved, these cultures are not easy to maintain. Factors working against cultural change may include patterns of efficiency, costs to faculty, intransigence, attitudinal indifference, and even latent classism and racism. But many campuses now see cultural change as a clear priority—they have launched efforts to cultivate supportive, liberating learning cultures, and they are committed to sustaining them.

Cultures of Liberation

How can we determine the conditions for creating cultures of liberation? We may look for clues in already-explored practices such as engagement, deep learning experiences, and interdisciplinary and cross-silo teaching and research. We have already established the conditions for getting involved in this work: eschewing passivity as a learning paradigm; asking students to participate actively in discovery (and even in the design of learning experiences); and expecting learners to risk failure, to jettison presumptions, to question, and to doubt.

For our students, a culture of liberation can be a culture that encourages engaging in another’s life stories—and in narrative dialogue. A culture of liberation helps us recognize that as we engage with others and encounter them with integrity, we are vulnerable to experiences such as being objectified by others and understanding what that means and how that feels. Engagement is not unidirectional. Engagement with the other is not tourism.

 Empathetic understanding penetrates the strata of class, race, gender, and culture, as demonstrated in the life story of C. P. Ellis—a former Klansman from a low-income background with limited education—who in the 1970s came to empathetically understand people different from himself and thereby liberate himself and others. Studs Terkel (2005, 211) recorded Ellis’s thoughts on this experience:

I tell people there’s a tremendous possibility in this country to stop wars, the battles, the struggles, the fights between people. People say: “That’s an impossible dream. You sound like Martin Luther King.” An ex-Klansman who sounds like Martin Luther King. [Laughs.] I don’t think it’s an impossible dream. It’s happened in my life. It’s happened in other people’s lives in America . . . They say the older you get, the harder it is for you to change. That’s not necessarily true. Since I changed, I’ve set down and listened to tapes of Martin Luther King. I listen to it and tears come to my eyes ‘cause I know what he’s sayin’ now. I know what’s happenin’.

In the context of empathetic understanding of difference, we discover and even create our own life stories. In doing so, we come to understand the power and the foibles of the shared narrative of our own group. As we engage, as we explore commonalities between our own and others’ life stories and actions (as Ellis reported doing), we begin to comprehend each other’s identities, while at the same time making ourselves vulnerable.

Scores of campuses and institutions of all types, many with modest resources, now, like Ellis, know what’s happening. They know the powerful influences that currently shape (and often distort) expectations of students from marginalized backgrounds and limit their aspirations and potential. They know that maintaining current practices and reinforcing existent privilege is not the way to establish what we espouse as the promise of higher education, and specifically of liberal education: to liberate, to free people to be whole. And they know that they must instead provide the context to liberate their students to construct multiple strands of identity and to link those strands to achieve wholeness.

Reports from BTtoP campus well-being research initiatives, and from many other institutions examining the use of dialogue and narratives to share life stories, come to the same observation—that to construct wholeness, people must engage with difference. Some campus efforts to increase empathetic understanding across difference may be scaled up to serve larger populations of students, while others may be replicated in different contexts. Valuing diversity and belonging; changing policies and practices to prioritize authentic encounters and empathetic understanding—these are among what is necessary for the emancipation of one’s own identity and for the flourishing of whole persons . . . and whole institutions.


Terkel, Studs. 2005. American Dreams: Lost and Found. New York: The New Press.

Donald W. Harward is Director, Bringing Theory to Practice.

Previous Issues