Holding Space for Intersectionality

by Amanda A Andrews

Social justice movements of the 20th century, like Women’s Suffrage or the Black Power Movement, were each radical in their own way. Each gave voice to groups that had been largely overlooked politically and socially by uniting under a common goal and a single identity.

However, new justice movements in the 21st century are up against more complex systems of inequality that require a new type of unity and action to dismantle.

Cue, intersectionality.

Intersectionality recognizes the unique challenges present for different people based on the identities they hold. Citizenship status, race, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability, and religion all shape our experiences in unique ways.

So, as more young people begin to mobilize and address the roots of social problems, they each have to reflect on how to form a brighter future for themselves and oppressed identities across the board.

Growing up during this era of heightened social awareness and accountability can be empowering and confusing.

Building Bridges participant, Lindsay Soto, has grown up in the midst of all this progressive social advocacy. As a daughter of Mexican immigrants raised in Littleton, Colorado she is working to navigate what social justice means to her personally and in her life overall.

“Making change in my community and being able to be what they don’t want us to be is my goal,” Soto said. “Talking about things people don’t want to talk about because they’re uncomfortable or it brings up conflict is the only way we can reach compromise. We have to be the change we want to see in the world.”

Yellow and purple letters over a white background in a blue box say I can be something awesome. Behind the words is a Building Bridges participant sitting in a circle looking solemnly towards the camera.

As a young activist, Soto understands that each day presents new opportunities to make change, and what better place to start than where she spends most of her days: Heritage High School.

Heritage is located in the suburbs of Littleton. Out of approximately 1700 teens enrolled, the student population is 77% white, 14% hispanic, and 1% black. The lack of diversity in the school and surrounding community has made having conversations across cultures challenging at best and impossible at worst.

In the past few years, a series of suicides at Heritage High School and throughout Littleton Public Schools have left students in shock, and with little support. Soto says students do not receive the support they need from faculty following communal tragedies and that the silence surrounding suicide and depression is a problem.

“If there’s a death in the school they come over the intercom and say it’s going to be a hard day,” Soto says. “Five kids have died or committed suicide and they swept it under the rug, but it’s not okay. It’s mentally messed a lot of kids up.”

She explained that even for students who did reach out to supporting staff at the school  about having a larger conversation about how to support their peers who may be having suicidal thoughts and inclinations, the response was limited.

“I talked to my counselor and they said a talk about mental health would mess people up and make kids upset. We need to know how to handle or at least talk to people about our feelings,” Soto says.

She went on to explain that suicide isn’t the only issue that students and staff alike are remaining silent on.

In a school where only 23% identify as people of color it can be difficult for students to communicate additional stressors they are experiencing as a result of their racial, ethnic, or national identities. Whether it’s a lack of representation in Student Senate alienating students or middle schoolers of color who visit and feel unwelcome, the absence of diversity has real consequences.

Navigating the intersection of mental health and racial division between students is exactly what drew Soto to social justice in the first place.

The reality of high school cliques often mirrors shifts in American culture. Increased political divides means students are also experiencing splits: Democrat or Republican, Mexican or American, black or white, and there’s no gray area.

In blue square outline over a picture of a participant giving a presentation about catholicism a quote says, “We have good opinions and ideas, we’re not the stupid teens they want us to be.”

Pressure to behave a certain way based on ethnic backgrounds is not new or unique, but through the lense of mental health it is important to analyse how that additional expectation is affecting students’ mindsets. Soto says sometimes it can be lonely and there just isn’t any support.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m too Mexican and sometimes I feel like I’m too American, but I feel like I have to prove that I’m both,” Soto says. “Both communities I feel like I have to prove something to. I have to prove to both cultures that I can be something awesome.”

While some students handle this additional layer of performance as another challenge to overcome, others are crushed under the unexpected mental and social strain.

A real solution requires that students of color have places where they feel they are represented and well-respected. Mental health issues have a variety of origins, but providing students with a support system is a step towards resolving them.

Soto hopes that inviting students to start conversations across social groups about issues of race, nationality, and mental health can create lasting reform in her school and beyond. From her perspective, it comes down to young activists to show older generations what millenials are passionate about and start the uncomfortable conversations it takes to create compromise.

“We have good opinions and ideas, we’re not the stupid teens they want us to be.”

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