Schools as Identity Workspaces

Schools as Identity Workspaces

By Dr. Lillian Diaz-Imbelli

This is particularly important for underrepresented groups, who may not be as familiar with independent school culture. Access to our schools is not where it should end; it is but a beginning.

Three years ago, I began formally exploring the process of identity development of Latina graduates of independent schools. While I knew students were receiving the best education available, I wondered what it was like for them to negotiate their new academic opportunities and whether or not they felt they belonged once enrolled. I was convinced that insight offered by Latina students who had graduated from independent schools would be of value to admission professionals. What I learned from the amazing women willing to share their experiences of adolescent identity development changed me profoundly.

While my research was qualitative by intention, statistics underscore its relevance. According to NAIS 2014-2015 Facts at a Glance1, of the 556,643 students in independent schools, only 4.4% of them are Hispanic. Nationally, 55 million people identify as Hispanic. These numbers are projected to represent 28.6% of the total U.S. population by 2060. In 2013, the poverty rate of this growing group was listed as 23.5%. Furthermore, 35.1% of these families are single-family households2, generally with mothers at the helm. Significantly, since 2000, according to Pew Hispanic Research, native births have now surpassed immigration for these growing numbers3. These numbers validate the need to educate and prepare one of the fastest growing populations so that they are contributing members of society. Independent schools are uniquely poised to right this disparity for lower income students, who are often relegated to poor and underfunded schools in their communities4. During my research, one student was so grateful for the opportunity to share her journey, she prefaced the inter- view by saying: “We all have a story to tell. It’s about time someone asks.”

Students with whom I spoke represented a cross-section of independent school graduates from day, boarding, single-sex, and coeducational schools—all of whom went off to college. Most were graduates of an independent high school, with the exception of one student who attended a single-sex independent school from kindergarten through twelfth grade. All received financial aid to attend. While they offered poignant and candid observations of challenges, no one regretted the experience. Students discussed the trials of having to dispel preconceptions, of justifying their place despite their poverty, of not being Latina enough for some and too Latina for others. Always, they negotiated this dichotomy and wondered where they actually fit in and to what community they fully belonged. One young women told me, “I am many different types of Latina!” In the end, the response I remember most profoundly was the one that was painfully challenging for one of the research participants. She labored and sighed and apologized for taking so long to respond. Struggling, I would guess, with the memory of the experience and whether or not she could be truly honest. Finally, she uttered with an unassuming sense of clarity, “I didn’t always feel I belonged, but I never doubted I deserved to be there.”5 In my post-dissertation research, I have come across the work of Gianpiero Petriglieri on Identity Workspaces (IW)6. As defined by Petriglieri, Identity Workspaces are communities that encourage deep introspection, complementing the acquisition of skills and institutional learning, so that members leave with a better understanding of who one is both within and beyond the context of the learning environment. I assert that independent schools should serve as Identity Workspaces to guide students through this process of knowing.

Identity is a complex, multifaceted, ever-evolving process informed by all of our experiences in which all members of a school community should be engaged. The underrepresented students with whom I spoke said that by being the only ones in the community to celebrate or explore their identity, their alterity, or sense of being the outsider, was reinforced. 

Leading the work of Identity Workspaces requires culturally competent and sensitive adults to guide process; to underscore this as a community commitment, the work should not be the exclusive domain of any one group. While it is important to have diversity in the leadership community, professional contributions must be reflected throughout community, not just in diversity work. Include students in the process of assessing, planning, and implementing identity work to address identified gaps. Identity work is not a once and done process; it needs to be reassessed frequently to address the needs of the current school population.

In A Rap on Race, written by James Baldwin and Margaret Meade (1971), Baldwin stated, “It goes without saying, I believe, the better we understand ourselves, the less we damage ourselves.”7 Students need to leave our schools with the skills and knowledge to navigate an increasingly complex world. Equally important is a strong sense of self.

Ideas for Creating Identity Workspaces

  • Conduct an audit at the point of enrollment. Ask students to share a family history in a short essay: Who makes up your family? What are you most proud of as a member of your family? What is your favorite family story/tradition? Are you bilingual? What excites you most about coming to _______ school? What’s your greatest concern?
  • Host whole-community storytelling events. These events can/should be expressions in any media a student chooses—written word, spoken word, art, music, etc.
  • Be sure curriculum is varied and integrated broadly across the educational offering, not an add-on or afterthought, to include the work of other cultures and histories.
  • Ensure that advisory programs are culturally sensitive (and linguistically relevant). For example, families of underrepresented students may be hesitant to reach out to the school directly, yet they want very much to feel connected to their child’s experience. This may require a different approach (a direct phone call to assuage concerns) by an adult familiar with the student, which will help to forge bonds, assess any concerns that need to be addressed, and build trust.
  • When discussing privilege, avoid labels, so that dialogue is proactive and inclusive rather than reactive and defensive. The goal is to honor difference and celebrate common bonds as all students develop individual identities, so that relationships are forged and divisions are not created.

Dr. Lillian Diaz-Imbelli worked in independent schools for more than 20 years. She currently works as an independent consultant and researcher advo- cating for students, promoting identity awareness and the concept of schools as Identity Workspaces, and linking self-expression to the arts. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

  1. Retrieved from: http://www.nais.org/statistics/pages/NAIS/independent-schools-facts-at-a-glance
  2. Retrieved from: http://www.infoplease.com/spot/hhmcensus1.html-Hispanic American: Census Facts
  3. Retrieved from: http://pewhispanic.org/201505/12/ statistical-portrait-of-hispanic-in-the-united-states-2013-key- charts
  4. Edwards, C. (2011). "Who stole public schools from the public?" Voices from Mount Vernon School District. New York, NY: University Press of America.
  5. Diaz- Imbelli, L. “Soy Mi Cuento: Latina Students Bridging Multiple Worlds in Independent Schools” (2013). Doctoral. Paper 178. http://fisherpub.sjfc.edu/education_etd/178
  6. Petriglieri, G. (2011). Faculty and research working paper: "Identity workspaces for leadership development." Fontainebleau, France, INSEAD: The Business School for the World.
  7. Mead, M. and Baldwin, J. (1971). A Rap on Race. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott.

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