One approach that has demonstrated promising results for fostering youths’ ethnic-racial identity development is the Identity Project intervention program.1 The Identity Project was developed specifically to provide adolescents with tools and strategies that would help them learn more about their ethnic-racial background via an eight-week program in which students meet once a week for about an hour. Because developing a clear sense of who one is, with respect to race and ethnicity, is an important part of development for all youth, the intervention was developed to be relevant to youth from any ethnic-racial background—not specific to any one group. This aspect of the program also makes it easier to use in a variety of settings. Although, at this point, the program has only been carried out in the school setting, it was developed in a way to make it easily adaptable to any group setting in which youth regularly meet with an adult facilitator at least once a week for eight consecutive weeks.
The primary objectives of the Identity Project are achieved via a series of eight lessons that include brief lectures, classroom activities, and large-group discussion of homework assignments. During each session, students are introduced to basic concepts, such as stereotypes and discrimination, and they actively participate in activities that help them learn about their own ethnic-racial heritage. For example, students create a family tree that describes the heritage of their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. They complete this activity partly in class and partly as a homework assignment. This is because students have to talk to their parents and other extended family to find out things, such as where their maternal and paternal grandparents were born and the ethnic identification of those family members.
Via this process, students not only learn about their family history, but also have an opportunity to engage their family members in discussions about their heritage. In a sense, this activity can ignite and facilitate teachable moments with family members regarding ethnic-racial identity. Back in the classroom setting, students use the information they gathered from their families to create a poster board that depicts their family’s heritage. Students then work in pairs, with their peers, to share their family history and discuss how their own ethnic-racial self-identification is similar to and different from the self-identification of other members of their family. By engaging in these activities, students are actively exploring their background while also thinking about how they self-identify and why.
In another homework assignment, students interview a person—a grandparent or neighbor, for instance—who shares their ethnic-racial heritage. During the interview, students gather information about the person’s background and traditions, and, in a subsequent classroom-based activity, connect the experiences of the person they interviewed to their own experiences and attitudes. Examining their own identity in relation to another person’s helps students think more deeply about why they identify the way that they do. Back in the classroom setting, students engage in a large-group discussion in which they reflect on their interviews with one another. A common theme of this discussion is the many different ways that individuals identify, and different reasons for how they choose to identify themselves in terms of their ethnic-racial background.
An initial test of the Identity Project intervention program was carried out in a large ethnically and racially diverse high school in the Southwest.2 To test the program, we randomly selected four classrooms in the school to receive the Identity Project curriculum (i.e., the intervention) and four classrooms to receive a different curriculum (the nonintervention control group) that had nothing to do with identity.3 Before the program began, students in all eight classrooms completed surveys in which they answered questions about how much they had previously explored aspects of their ethnic-racial background and whether they felt that they had a good sense of what this aspect of their identity meant to them.4
Exactly 12 weeks after the initial survey (and after experiencing the intervention or the control curriculum), students once again filled out surveys.5 We found that students in the Identity Project classrooms had increased their exploration of their ethnic-racial background—such as by reading books or searching the Internet to learn more about their heritage. By contrast, the exploration behaviors of students in the nonintervention classrooms had not changed at all.6
Six weeks after that, we surveyed students once again and found that those in the Identity Project classrooms now had a greater sense of clarity and understanding of their ethnic-racial background. Again, these changes did not happen for students in the nonintervention classrooms. It is also important to note that these findings were similar for adolescents who were members of ethnic-racial minority groups (such as Asian, Latino, black, and American Indian adolescents) and the ethnic-racial majority (i.e., white).7
As with many structured programs,8 the Identity Project provides students with an opportunity to spend time learning more about their background in a setting that is facilitated by a knowledgeable adult, and the lessons (which are delivered during the regular school day) provide youth with a dedicated time and space where they can discuss potentially sensitive topics. These elements of the program enable youth to engage in the important, though sometimes challenging, work of figuring out their identities and answering the important “Who am I?” question that is so central to the developmental period of adolescence.
This article is excerpted with permission from their book, Below the Surface: Talking with Teens about Race, Ethnicity, and Identity (Princeton University Press, 2019). All rights reserved. The Identity Project Intervention was developed by Adriana J. Umaña-Taylor and her students.
1. A. J. Umaña-Taylor and S. Douglass, “Developing an Ethnic-Racial Identity Intervention from a Developmental Perspective: Process, Content, and Implementation of the Identity Project,” in Handbook on Positive Development of Minority Children and Youth, ed. N. J. Cabrera and B. Leyendecker (Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2016).
2. A. J. Umaña-Taylor et al., “A Small-Scale Randomized Efficacy Trial of the Identity Project: Promoting Adolescents’ Ethnic-Racial Identity Exploration and Resolution,” Child Development 89, no. 3 (2018): 862–870.
3. Umaña-Taylor et al., “A Small-Scale Randomized Efficacy Trial.”
4. Also assessed in the study were students’ sense of self-esteem, whether they were experiencing any depressive symptoms, what their grades were, and other indicators of adjustment that are typically assessed in surveys with adolescents.
5. The first posttest took place the week after the program had finished.
6. Before the program began, there were no significant differences between students in the two groups on any of the ethnic-racial identity variables, nor on any of the indicators of adjustment; this meant that we could conclude that any differences that emerged between the groups after the intervention were a result of the different programs that the students received—the Identity Project or the control.
7. A little over a year later (67 weeks after the initial survey), we conducted our final posttest and found that the increases that we found in ethnic-racial identity exploration and sense of clarity at the 12- and 18-week posttests led to statistically significant decreases in depressive symptoms and statistically significant increases in self-esteem, grades, and adolescents’ sense of understanding their overall identity. These findings are consistent with the positive effects that others have found for instruction regarding the history of different ethnic-racial groups on academic outcomes, such as reductions in school dropout rates and increases in grades.
8. For an example of a structured course in college designed to promote ethnic-racial identity development among students of color and multiracial students, see K. A. Ford and V. K. Maloney, “ ‘I Now Harbor More Pride in My Race’: The Educational Benefits of Inter- and Intraracial Dialogues on the Experiences of Students of Color and Multiracial Students,” Equity and Excellence in Education 45, no. 1 (2012): 14–35.