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Natalie Sabik




Teaching Intersectionality to Address Social Issues

Natalie Sabik, Associate Professor of Public Health,
University of Rhode Island

Recipient of the 2023 Innovative Teaching Award

When I had the chance to develop a new course for undergraduates in my program, I knew I wanted to teach about intersectionality. There is rich and nuanced thinking and writing and research happening in this space and a critical need to apply this to current issues related to diversity, representation, discrimination, and equity. The challenge was what to include and how to frame the work to make it accessible and applicable. Deciding which readings and resources to include, ensuring that students have a solid foundation of applicable scholarship and skills, and scaffolding a project so that students could independently apply this work and carry it beyond the classroom became the central to developing a class that is clearly adaptable to current events.

Intersectionality highlights constructions of historically oppressed social identities at marginalized intersections (e.g., race, ethnicity, gender, class). It is critical that the foundational work of Black Feminist/Womanist scholars are represented when teaching about this work, and that the original tenets of intersectionality are clearly communicated. In building this course, I started with foundational texts from the Combahee River Collective, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Lisa Bowleg, Elizabeth Cole, and others who have shaped this field. In class I work with students to read these foundational texts and to identify and develop a series of questions that can be applied to current issues to bring and intersectional lens. We call our list of questions the Intersectionality Toolbox and while the exact questions in the toolbox may vary from semester to semester, a few central questions include: What are the shared social, historical, and cultural characteristics of a group? What is the role of power, inequality, and oppression in understanding this issue? What are the multiple social inequalities (e.g., racism, heterosexism, sexism, classism, ableism, etc.) that intersect to create and maintain inequity?  

It is critical that students learn that intersectionality isn’t simply about adding identities or social groups into the mix; it’s about investigating how power and privilege function in our social structures, and how to make these patterns visible. It’s about considering what has been left out, particularly the social and historical context that have shaped current group dynamics and disparities. Watching students move through this process and transform from a limited understanding of intersectionality to an ability to perform complex and nuanced analysis of current issues in psychology and public health is gratifying, and more importantly, it’s evidence that the next generation is prepared to ask and answer questions that bring intersectionality into their work. At the end of the past semester, I asked students what they would take away from this experience, and their responses ranged from recognizing forms of discrimination they were previously unaware of to developing a better understanding of current social conflicts to recognizing unconscious bias to considering how individuals’ social locations and resources impact their treatment and opportunities. In light of current global and domestic political issues, developing skills grounded in intersectional thinking are critical for digging deeper to understand and address social issues.

More information about the Intersectionality Toolbox and additional questions can be found at:

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