Although the concept has been around since the 1980s, the word “intersectionality” was only added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary in 2017. An inclusive term, it is defined as “the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.”
[Above: Latinx students at GVSU participate in a team-building activity during new student orientation as part of a year-round student success program called Laker Familia.]
By its nature, intersectionality requires not a single initiative within a broader diversity program, but rather a combination of efforts that recognize the reality that multiple identities can affect peoples’ lives positively and negatively, says Jerry Schearer, associate dean for inclusion and outreach at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania. “The need for a focus on intersectionality by colleges and universities has grown as student bodies have become more diverse,” he says.
“One of the tenets of intersectionality is building coalitions,” he adds. “This can be individually and informally — which I think many of our students are adept at — or more formally and [can be] geared toward institutional transformation.”
One of Kutztown’s formal approaches to intersectionality is its Diversity Council. Established by the Student Government Association four years ago, it is composed of representatives of all student groups focused on student engagement. Members represent affinity groups that are based on race, ethnicity, gender, religion, or academics, but Schearer says there is often overlap in their membership.
“The council meets every two weeks to discuss issues that affect their members and share ideas,” he says. Special events, such as Unity Day, also bring all groups as well as other students, faculty, and community members together to celebrate diversity.
Because the council is student-led, its focus can change depending on its leadership as well as current community concerns. “The first two years were very focused on advocacy and policy issues and how they affected each group, but the last two years have been a mix of policy and social activities,” explains Schearer. “Now that the silos are broken down, groups are inviting each other’s members to educational and social events, recognizing that they share [representatives] or that their own members share interests with those from other groups.”
Issues that are identified by the Diversity Council and taken to the Student Government Association or the university to address, however, are not always limited to diversity or intersectionality concerns, Schearer says. For example, the students noted areas of campus that needed better lighting to improve safety — an issue that affects all students but one that is top of mind for members of diverse groups who might feel more vulnerable. By working as a larger group, they were able to move the issue forward, he adds.
Mount Holyoke College
At Mount Holyoke College, Cultural Centers provide spaces for students to interact and network with peers from similar backgrounds — and who face many of the same challenges — as well as receive support that individually addresses the different aspects of their identities. But they are also designed to facilitate interconnectedness.
“The Cultural Centers at Mount Holyoke are sanctuaries and a ‘home away from home’ for students from historically marginalized groups,” explains Kijua Sanders-McMurtry, vice president for equity and inclusion and chief diversity officer at Mount Holyoke. “Students find support from peers with similar identities and experiences in addition to educational spaces where they can explore their own identities while also learning about [those] different from their own.”
The Cultural Centers — which include one for African Americans, Asians and Asian Americans, LGBTQ+ individuals, Latinos, and Native Americans — host programs such as movie nights and discussions, lectures, and social gatherings to increase cultural awareness and interconnectedness, says Sanders-McMurtry. “The existence of cultural centers at Mount Holyoke dates back to 1969,” she says, “and within these structures there has always been a deep understanding of the complex nature of intersecting identities.”
Grand Valley State University
Viewing diversity through an intersectional lens is part of the culture at Grand Valley State University (GVSU), says Jesse M. Bernal, PhD, vice president for inclusion and equity. “We acknowledge the reality that everyone carries multiple identities and that we need to create a welcome, safe environment that allows everyone to be their full, authentic selves,” he says.
In 2014, GVSU created an initiative called Intersections. An overarching framework, it encompasses a variety of social justice centers focused on identities that are specific — women of color, African American men, the LGBTQ+ community, and Latinos.— but connected. This design makes it easy for students who identify with more than one group to access certain resources such as community activities, mentoring, and academic support. Intersections maintains that “while [an] intentional focus on intersectionality is important, identity-specific efforts are necessary until full equality is realized,” according to the initiative’s website.
A group of 12 Intersections Ambassadors present intersectionality workshops and presentations for students, faculty, and staff to raise awareness of intersectionality issues. “While it may be apparent that a woman of color faces bias related to race and gender,” says Bernal, “these workshops also discuss the unseen biases.” For example, a black man who is LGBTQ+ may face prejudice from other black men, he explains.
Another important purpose of Intersections events is to examine and better understand “how privilege advantages certain groups of people while disadvantaging others,” according to the website. The initiative is supported by a range of campus units: Campus Interfaith Resources, Disability Support Resources, Gayle R. Davis Center for Women and Gender Equity, Milton E. Ford LGBT Resource Center, the Office of Multicultural Affairs, Social Justice Education, and Pathways to College.
One reason GVSU’s effort has been successful is its “practical” approach, says Bernal. “We combine data variables to better assess the impact of our programs and drive development of new initiatives to address gaps in programming,” he explains. He notes that data indicate an increase in the university’s ability to retain and graduate Latino students, but the retention and graduation rates of low-income men is declining, indicating an area of increased need.
A campus climate evaluation — conducted every four years — also provides the administration with a wealth of information about how well the university is serving and meeting the needs of students’ complex identities. Bernal says it is designed to evaluate their experience from all aspects of their identity, which is critical to addressing intersectionality throughout campus programs.
“The first round of this year’s assessment — a survey completed by students — shows that black men are less positive about their campus experience than black women,” he says.
The second round consists of a series of focus groups designed to dig deeper into students’ responses. “We’ll be able to identify specific reasons for perceptions and pinpoint interventions — culturally and academically — that improve experience, retention, and graduation,” says Bernal. The ability to gather data in more detail during these discussions will assist with the development of support programs that will help keep students of intersecting identities, such as low-income men, in school, he adds.
Without programs and services designed to support all facets of students’ identities, Sanders-McMurtry believes an institution’s work remains unfinished.
“Colleges and universities have to take bold stances in the areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion and in particularistic ways that recognize the inherent complexities of identity,” she says. “A failure to understand that simplistic notions of identity that only recognize one’s race, gender, citizenship status, or class without recognizing how each can have an impact on the other limit our ability to provide support to the whole person — in effect, rendering our efforts incomplete.”●
Sheryl S. Jackson is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. Mount Holyoke College is a 2018 INSIGHT Into Diversity Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) Award recipient. This article was published in our December 2018 issue.