Defining Identity: the Past & the Societal Lens

By Bronson Roseboro

Copy of 0706161334a_HDRAs summer programs begin, our Citywide Youth Councils (CYCs) have been focusing on defining identity. Youth have been learning more about who they are as individuals and together as councils. Mikva Challenge Board Member Mia Henry presented that “Identities exist to bestow, restrict, or deny power” in a meeting with the Juvenile Justice Council this past week. Two CYC members, Hollis (of the Teen Health Council) and Joshua (of the Chicago Housing Authority Council), provided further insights into this reality and shared their unique perspectives on identity and power.

IMG_9685-2“It depends on the perspective,” explains Hollis, “I think you have to learn to use your identity as a tool of empowerment … But through education, and knowledge, and just building community, I think you can use your identity as a way to empower yourself and the people around you.” In this sense, identity begins with the individual. Perception of self can be the primary driving force in identity, such as Joshua’s. “It empowers me,” he answers, regarding the question of identity-fueled empowerment, “My identity makes me feel like I’m me. I ain’t nobody else, I don’t have to follow nobody else.”

While current individual mindset influences identity, the past defines it as well. Students in the After School Matters Council spent time this past week creating personal timelines, a way of looking into their past to define who they are now. By sharing their past experiences and accomplishments, council-members could gain a better understanding of each individual’s background, increase camaraderie, and build a community-centric environment.

IMG_9692The amalgamation of many individuals whose identities are both self-determined and reflective of their pasts results in society. The Teen Health Council examined identity from this societal perspective. One by one, students walked around the room, perusing the walls adorned with titled butcher paper. At each sheet, they would stop and list common stereotypes, descriptors, and assumptions about the labeled ethnicity, religion, or social group. Afterwards, they evaluated the connotations of the compiled lists to compare what they hear and perceive with the realities of these identities. The results showed that society didn’t define individual identity, yet could not be discounted as influential in self-identification. Hollis explains her awareness of the individual and societal lenses in determining identity. “I would say that I define my own identity, but I think that society gives us…it makes us feel obligated to label our identity and to put it in a very specific box, and either make you feel like an insider or an outsider,” she said.

Identity is determined by a variety of factors, but through the definition of one’s identity, opportunity and power can become available. As Joshua reveals, “my identity can take away opportunities … But my identity can also help me get to places in the world I never thought I could be at and be successful.”