Youth Blog – Annual Symposium Reflection: Research and Intersectionality
Written by Ying Han, B.A, EDIT program intern
Hello! This is Ying. I’ve been working with the EDIT team at the Institute for Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing at Northwestern University (ISGMH)* as an intern for my first summer post-undergrad at Northwestern. I double majored in Bio and Gender and Sexuality Studies (GSS) and minored in Japanese and indecision.
Halfway through senior year, I began panicking after the realization hit me “four-years-of-pre-med-too-late” that I maybe didn’t want to do the med school thing, but rather grad school and research instead. However, I struggled with what that would look like to me and how doing research would help me find and fulfill a sense of purpose that I assumed becoming a physician would straightforwardly give me. That’s when I found myself talking to Dr. Gregory Phillips II, Director of the EDIT program, for a summer position. Since then, it’s been a kind of ~ the stars have aligned, my skin is clear, my crops are flourishing ~ experience. I’m beginning to find some clarity in this happy marriage of all things GSS and health, that gives birth (if you will) to so many concrete and important applications of all the theories I’m interested in – intersectionality, stigma, identity, intimacy, etc…I’ve been learning a lot from working with everyone in EDIT.
In a lot of ways, the speakers at the 3rd Annual ISGMH Symposium, which was held a couple of weeks ago on August 15th and titled “Illuminating the Intersections of Race and LGBTQ Health”, verbalized and illuminated these issues that I’ve slowly become aware of as I seek to enter the world of academia. (Also, it was just so cool to hear and actually see one of the authors I had been reading on for a paper I’m working on now with Dr. Lauren Beach at ISGMH. How surreal.)
Coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in the 1990s, but really a perspective that was already voiced all the way back in 1851 by Sojourner Truth in her speech, “Ain’t I a Woman,” intersectionality is at the core of feminist, gender, and legal studies, as a way of understanding the ways in which individual experiences “within” and “across” social identities act together according to social and cultural contexts.
Within these specific contexts, there is a certain “ebb and flow” in how “privilege and penalty” are located in bodies, according to the social power structures at play. In this sense, identities that define and intersect in each and every person are reflective of social structures, systems, and institutions that lie beyond the individual level, at the level of public policy, social norms, and cultural practices. And in each person’s meshwork of identities, some identities become more noticeable than others depending on which social power is dominating in any given situation.
When considering how this framework can be used to de-center the viewpoint from dominant social groups and focus on the experiences of under-served, marginalized populations, Dr. Lisa Bowleg spoke in her powerful keynote presentation about how intersectionality, as a social justice theory, can and should inform research in the social sciences and push back against the environment of academia at large, where intersectionality is not taken into account enough.
We saw some examples of how an awareness of social power structures can influence research questions in the panel on “Intersectionality, Sexual Intimacy, and Health” with James Wages and Drs. Gregory Phillips II and Héctor Carrillo. Although the individual as a primary unit of study should guide research in order to remain aware of the social realities that impact real people, Dr. Bowleg described a shift in focus onto those larger social processes.
However, in never forgetting the individual, we must also never forget or discount the strength and resilience that allows marginalized groups to persist and resist in the face of disempowerment. In our second panel on “Community Health” with Kristiana Rae Colón, Dr. Aymar Jean Christian, and Erik Elias Glenn, we heard about how organizing and building alliances works in the community. While it is ~ cool and fresh ~ that social sciences research is catching on with the idea of intersectionality, the scope of knowledge and real experiences outside of the academic bubble have always been involved in this work.
The call-to-action these panelists voiced emphasized the need for researchers to investigate questions that the community wants and needs to learn. Personally, as someone who’s just dipping their toes into research and academia, this was so important to hear, recognize, and hopefully drive any future work I do or am involved in.
As a happy coincidence to this symposium, ISGMH’s Evaluation and Community Collaboration Conference (EC²) was held last week in Chicago, creating more opportunities for community engagement and the exchange of ideas between community leaders and researchers. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make it, but I hope you all did and I can’t wait to hear about it!
*Note: The IMPACT program and the EDIT program are both part of ISGMH.
Read more about the symposium speakers here.
Check out EDIT’s “Community Spotlight” podcast – you can stream it here!
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