Young People Assert and Forge Cultural Identities in the Course of Their Political Activism within Alternative Spaces

By Bhimji, Fazila | Educational Foundations, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Young People Assert and Forge Cultural Identities in the Course of Their Political Activism within Alternative Spaces


Bhimji, Fazila, Educational Foundations


The article examines African-American, Latina/o, and White high school students' assertions of cultural and ethnic identities as they struggle for their educational rights in Los Angeles and Philadelphia. In doing so, the study illustrates the ways in which alternative spaces outside the formal context of schools facilitate expressions, understandings, and negotiation of identities among young people. In some instances, the young people attempt to bridge their differences and work towards attaining a common goal whereas at other times they may assert their ethnic and cultural identities.

The school system tends to separate White middleclass students and urban poor students of color and the state does not recognize cultural identities of many young people of immigrant families. I illustrate the ways in which the young men and women from these cities make assertions of their ethnic and cultural identities while contesting structural inequities in alternative spaces where there is minimum adult intervention.

White and African-American students in Philadelphia in their struggles to campaign against privatization of schools not only work towards a common goal, but in the course of their activism attempt to bridge their cultural and social differences. They recognize and negotiate their differences and do not adopt a color-blind framework. However, this is achieved because White students and African-American students come together regularly in an office space located in City Centre Philadelphia.

On the West Coast, in East Los Angeles, young people of Mexican and Central American heritage assert their cultural identities and fight for Ethnic Studies to be made part of the school curriculum. Once again, the young people find the opportunity to express and explore their identities because they meet in a unique setting--the staff of which is composed of socially aware young Latina/o men and women who based upon their personal experiences, socialize young men and women into becoming proud of who they are as well as gaining a critical consciousness of the issues they have to confront. Additionally, the site where much of the organizing efforts occur is located in a Mexican and Central American neighborhood which further facilitates self awareness among the high school activists.

Theoretical Framework

This article stresses the ways in which these young people assert their multilayered identities such that they are civic, politicized, urban, and young while they simultaneously claim their rights to belong. In doing so, these students thus transform their positions and attempt to, as Fraser (1991) explains, "help expand a discursive space within dominant publics," i.e., one of rights to a collective, political, and cultural identity. She defines these spaces as "subaltern counterpublics where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counterdiscourses to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs" (p. 123). Fraser (1991) argues "that counterpublics in stratified and multicultural societies contest the exclusionary norms of the bourgeois public, elaborating alternative styles of political behaviour and alternative norms of public speech" (p. 160). Furthermore, she calls for the formulation of multiple publics, especially in socially stratified and multicultural societies, arguing that public spheres tend to serve as arenas for enactment of social identities where participation means being able to speak in one's own voice.

Away from the formal domains of schools these alternative spaces allow marginalized young people to be in a position to enact their identities in self-empowering ways as well making them aware of larger systemic inequities. Ginwright and Cammarota (2002) formulated the Social Justice Youth Development Model to explain how youth can move from awareness of, and social action against, their own oppression to awareness of, and social action against the oppression of others. …

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