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Research Friday: The Role of Ethnic Identity in Positive Youth Development

Welcome to Research Friday! This week Nonprofit Leadership and Management student Rosela Martinez discusses her research on the role of Ethnic Identity in positive youth development.

Research Friday will return January 6th. Thank you to all our contributors and readers.

No matter what mission a nonprofit is dedicated to, be it health care, housing, conservation, etc., its mission will directly or indirectly impact youth. Likewise, youth undoubtedly have a role in the fulfillment of the mission of any organization. This is why I believe that supporting youth development is crucial for the entire nonprofit sector. In order to provide the best support to youth in diverse communities, I’d like to encourage nonprofit professionals to reflect on an important aspect of youth and human development: ethnic identity.

Adolescence is a critical time when youth develop their own personal identities (their own concepts of who they are and what makes them unique) and social identities (based on what groups they belong to and their interactions with others). Part of this process is developing an ethnic identity, which involves the exploration of one’s ethnic background (i.e., through oral tradition, cultural activities, and culture-specific behaviors), developing a sense of membership within an ethnic group, and (hopefully) developing positive feelings about the self and the group. When a person feels good about one’s self and one’s ethnic group (i.e., Guatemalan, African-American, Palestinian-American), he or she has a positive ethnic identity.

Writing from personal experience, I am certain that positive ethnic identity has been a key factor in my resilience. I am fortunate in that my family raised me to value my heritage as an indigenous person of Mexican descent. My parents realized that my cultural heritage would mostly be a footnote in history text books throughout my formal education, would be under-represented or poorly represented in the media, and would generally be misunderstood by many. So, they made a point of teaching me about history from an indigenous perspective, surrounding me with role models that reflected my cultural values and immersing me in traditional spiritual practices from the time I was born. For me, ethnic identity is a source of strength in the face of adversity, a source of comfort in the face of discrimination, a source of appreciation for other cultures, and a source of inspiration to be successful in my academic and professional career.

This year, the Journal of Counseling Psychology published Ethnic Identity and Personal Wellbeing of People of Color: A Meta-Analysis, which analyzed 184 studies on the relationship between ethnic identity and personal wellbeing of people of color in North America. The study found a strong, positive relationship between ethnic identity and overall personal wellbeing for people of color across race, gender, education level, and socio-economic status. The relationship was especially for strong for adolescents and young adults. There was a weak relationship between ethnic identity and mental health, and further research is needed to confirm and explain that. There was a significant relationship between ethnic identity and self-esteem, self-mastery, and general self-worth.

Linking ethnic identity to positive developmental indicators for members of various ethnic groups has been the focus of multiple research studies. Ethnic identity has also been linked to academic engagement for African-American, Chinese-American, Native American, and Latino students in high school and in college. Furthermore, ethnic identity has been shown to be a protective factor, reducing the level of stress caused by the experience of racial discrimination. Ethnic identity is generally considered to be more significant for people of color because their minority status makes their ethnicity more salient in the eyes of the larger society. Nevertheless, for European-Americans, ethnic identity (identifying with one’s specific European countries of ancestry, rather than simply identifying as “white”) has been shown to positively correlate with academic adjustment.

The nonprofit sector as a whole serves diverse communities. If we want to support the healthy development of youth and all people (and of course we do), the old adage of being “color-blind” in providing services is counter-productive. Ethnic identity is an indispensable asset for wellbeing, and all youth, particularly youth of color who experience discrimination and increased barriers due to their minority status, should be actively encouraged in their development of positive ethnic identity.

How can we make a difference? There has been little research published on the topic of factors that contribute to ethnic identity development. However, it has been shown that Latino youth who grow up in households with high parental involvement that are free of harsh parenting, and where their ethnicities are embraced are more likely to develop positive ethnic identities. Therefore, ethnic identity development should be included in the curricula of organizations that provide support for parents. It has also been shown that Latino youth who live in neighborhoods with a large presence of their own ethnic groups are more prone to develop positive ethnic identities. However, if their neighborhoods are considered “high risk,” they are less likely to develop positive ethnic identity. Youth development programs should provide these youth with safe, positive environments where they can interact with other members of their own ethnic groups, including peers and adult role models.

Another great way for nonprofits to convey that they value the diverse voices of the communities they serve is by promoting diversity in leadership, such as creating boards that are reflective of their communities. Most importantly, all nonprofit professionals should recognize that we each carry our own cultural biases and assumptions and that we must engage diverse community members in the creation of programs that reflect their needs and unique ethnic identities.

Ultimately, I hope that the nonprofit sector will promote on-going and productive discourse on the issues of culture and ethnicity, as these are not stagnant, but ever-evolving concepts in research and in our communities.

Rosela Martinez is a senior in the nonprofit leadership & management bachelor’s degree program and a member of American Humanics at Arizona State University. She plans to obtain a master’s degree in counseling and provide culturally relevant services to youth and families.

^ [1] Fuligni, A. J., Witkow, M, Garcia, C. (2005). Ethnic identity and the academic adjustment of adolescents from Mexican, Chinese, and European backgrounds. Developmental Psychology, 41, 799-811.
^ [2] Galliher, R.V., Jones,M.D., Dahl, A. (2011). Concurrent and longitudinal effects of ethnic identity and experiences of discrimination on psychosocial adjustment of Navajo adolescents. Developmental Psychology 47, 509-526.
^ [3] Hughes, D., Witherspoon, D., Rivas-Drake, D., West-Bey, N. (Apr 2009). Received ethnic–racial socialization messages and youths’ academic and behavioral outcomes: Examining the mediating role of ethnic identity and self-esteem. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 15, 112-124.
^ [4] Smith, T. B., Silva, L. (Jan 2011). Ethnic identity and personal wellbeing of people of color: a meta-analysis. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 58 1, 42-60.
^ [5] Supple, A.J., Ghazarian, S.R., Frabutt, J.M., Plunkett, S.W., & Sands, T. (2006). Contextual influences on Latino adolescent ethnic identity and academic outcomes. Child Development, 7, 1427-1433.


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