ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Current nonprofit sector research and recommendations for effective day-to-day practice from ASU faculty, staff, students, and the nonprofit and philanthropic community.

Thursday, December 15, 2011 - 3:40pm
posted by
Rosela Martinez,
Arizona State University

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.[5] 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.[4]

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.[1, 2, 3, 5] Furthermore, ethnic identity has been shown to be a protective factor, reducing the level of stress caused by the experience of racial discrimination.[2] 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.[4] 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. [1]

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.[5] 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.[5] 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.


I hadn't realized that a positive ethnic identity would be so relative to a person's well being. However, as a Eurocentric culture, we do tend to identify people by their outlying traits, such as calling Ellen Degeneres "That lesbian comedian" instead of "that white comedian." People of color will face being identified by one characteristic, and if that characteristic does not have a positive significance to them, how can they grow up proud and happy?

I like the suggestions, particularly of forming a board reflective of the diversity of the communities they serve and providing role models that minority youth can relate to. Thank you for sharing your personal story of your upbringing. That's great that your family made cultural/ethnic values a priority in your childhood! I'm interested in learning more about what factors contribute to at-risk kids being less likely to develop positive ethnic identities. What exactly changes the youth's perception of the value of his ethnicity in a high risk area? The answers to this question could be quite useful by nonprofits serving the at-risk youth populations in addressing these issues. Excellent article. It was a pleasure to read!

I really enjoyed this post. It opened my eyes to a lot of things I did not know. I never realized how someone’s ethnic identity impacted their lives and personal well being. I agree with you when you bring up the fact that it is important for nonprofit sectors to support the youth and especially with their ethnic identity. Nonprofits should be helping younger kids to develop their ethnic identities. People need to know their background, where they came from, and what makes them who they are. I thought it was very interesting with all the studies that have been done on ethnic identity. It was really interesting the relationship between a person’s ethnic identity and self-esteem and self worth. There a bunch of things that I just wouldn’t of ever thought about that were addressed in your post.

I think in todays society we judge someone no matter what because its what the popular people do. If people would just meet new people and put there guard down racism wouldn't be around. Everyone judges a book by its cover when deciding to read a book. Thats the same example people do. People just need to step back and embrace things and make a change.

I think that you should have a positive image of your ethnic group. I've seen a case where a teenager was not proud of his ethnicity and seemed like he was always defending himself in cases that were unnecessary. He didn't have a positive view of his own background so he didn't think anyone else did. Personal and social identities are so important for youth development. It's great to be proud of who you are inside and out.

My mother grew up in Panama City, Panama and my father grew up in small town New England. That is a lot of ethnic background from two totally different cultures. As a mix of both, over the years I’ve learned a lot about both cultures my families come from, and I believe I have a very good understanding of my ethnic identity, and my well being couldn’t be better. However, I thought that was just me, I didn't realize the studies going on about this and linking ethnic identity to non profit sectors who serve so many diverse communities makes a lot of sense.

I feel that having a strong sense of ethnic identity at a young age is something that helps people understand themselves. With so many obstacles that deter youth down paths the negative connotations of ones ethnic background can only inhibit their growth and make them not want to be proud. This research is great and creating organizations with programs that can aid the youths' development will help them in their successes as well. Although it is important to surround yourself in your culture to build positive ethnic identities it also important to diversify ones environment to help build those connections with each other for better communication skills. With America being so diverse, those skills are the ones that can help people empower people.

When you think about the role of a positive ethnic identity, you don't assume all that is involve with the term. With you post I learned that It has to do with everything in life. Some people are successful because they have a positive ethnic identity, they know who they are and what they are doing. A concept that was mention that really got my attention was that positive ethnic identity serves as a protective factor, reducing the stress about all the discrimination. We all have to learned hot to be better people and learned about our self first.

I believe that a positive ethnic identity can make a huge difference in someones life, especially if developed in early childhood. When you have pride in who you are and your history you can live a positive, strong life. I'm not saying that you can't live a positive life if you don't have that sense of pride but it is definitely a plus on your road of life.

I can completely understand the reasons that ethnic identity can create a positive well being because of where I grew up. I had many friends who I can look back on and see very much how it influenced there life and success. I agree that non-profits should totally look to institute organizations and programs meant to help youth with being more aware of ethnic identity and who they are so they can grow up with self-esteem and confidence. Personally I also believe we should be careful to not force it upon them or else it would be pointless, instead it should be available and kids should be able to identify themselves with a variety of groups they may fall into rather then just one ethnic group.

It was a great blog. I agree completely and I hope that non-profit groups seek to institute more organizations and programs that help the youth to find ethnic identity so they can grow up with self-esteem and confidence. Personally I feel that they should be careful to not force it upon the kids though or it will not be effective, instead it should be an option and we need to allow them choose a group to identify with considering that kids today can honestly relate to many groups or forms of people.

I really enjoyed this entry and I think this topic is so vital to more than just the nonprofit sector, but I'm glad that it is being discussed in forums such as this blog for more people to become aware of its importance. In Arizona right now and the political climate that this state is in, it is especially vital to point out the merits of ethnic identity backed up by research (as you did in this blog) to counteract the outlandish, unresearched, bias claims of some of Arizona's legislature who have been targeting and fighting to oppress ethnic identity in this state. I mention this because I come from Tucson, where the fight over ethnic studies, specifically the Mexican-American Studies program at Tucson High, has been singled out, shut down and deemed "illegal" due to local politicians falsely claiming that the program promotes the hatred of white people and encourages rebellion and the overthrowing of the government. In actuality, this program promotes positive ethnic identity by giving students an opportunity to learn about their history and culture, and from this "the dropout rate in this program is 2.5 percent, as opposed to 56 percent nationally. Students in the program significantly outperform their peers on the state's standardized AIMS tests." (

I wanted to point this out for all the reasons that you stated above in your entry - that positive ethnic identity leads to positivity and success in all other aspects of life, and if youth in this state are banned from obtaining that cultural education in schools, then they are going to have to seek it elsewhere. Nonprofits (specifically ones that house youth programs) can aid in filling that void by ensuring that ethnic identity is visible, valued and respected.(Though there really shouldn't be a void to fill at all!)

From my own personal experiences growing up Mexican-American and having a supportive family who have always had a strong sense of ethnic and cultural identity, to working in youth programs with predominately Mexican-American or Mexican-born participants, I have known and seen firsthand how that strong sense of ethnic identity is vital for so many young people and adults. I keep using the word vital, but it just seems like the only way I can describe the importance of this topic.

Like you stated, "Ethnic identity is an indispensable asset for well being", and it's an indispensable asset for nonprofits whose staff or clients have positive ethnic identities. Like you, I hope that nonprofits continue to be productive and progressive on this issue so that it doesn't even become an issue anymore.

Thank you for sharing your story and your thoughts!

P.S. Rosela, this is Robbie from AH! It was nice meeting you last week. I'm glad I met you and then saw that this was you who wrote it because I had read it before some time ago. Again, thanks for sharing!

I really enjoyed this post, it was a very insightful and inspiring post. It is sad to see how someone’s ethnic identity can impact their lives and personal well being, we can only hope to see that this situation improves. I thought it was very interesting with all the studies that have been done on ethnic identity. I completely agree that it is very important for non-profit groups to support the youth to find ethnic identity so they can grow up with self-esteem and confidence. I definitely think that personal and social identities are extremely important for youth development. Thank you for the very interesting and informing post!

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