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GLSEN Respect Award--Rich Espey HC'87

Kaye's picture

Haverford's home page features an interview with Rich Espey, who teaches middle school science at the Park School in Baltimore, and recently received the GLSEN Educator of the Year award.  (Rich, who is a gay man and an accomplished playwright, did his senior thesis research in my lab.)  Rich was honored for his work in developing the program, "Putting Gay in a Positive Context," with other teachers at his K-12 school.  They created a superb website of gay resources for teachers, which are organized by age of students, subject, advocacy, and support for teachers. I hope you will check it out!

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AmyMay's picture

Psychology Weighs In

This article reminds me a lot of a psych talk I went to a few weeks ago, from one of the candidates for the new tenure track position in the Haverford Psychology Department.  The speaker, Jonathan Cook from Colombia, has been doing research on gaps based on socially important demographics (i.e. the achievement gap between White and minority students, health disparities between heterosexual and sexual minority students).  His research has shown that identity threat, the challenge to the self caused by negative associations with some aspect of their identity, was a very important predictive factor in positive outcomes.  Identity threat goes beyond stereotyping.  A person’s group memberships are fundamentally incorporated into their sense of self, so threats to the group also fundamentally threaten the self.  Cook found that identity threat independent predicted some of the variance in health and achievement outcomes, even when stereotyping and SES were controlled.  What I found most interesting about his research is that when the research team designed and implemented an intervention to guard against stereotype threat, it predicted a significant increase in minority student achievement, up to two years later.  The amazing thing is, the intervention merely asked students to identify and explain why their most important personal trait was important to them (for example, “Having a supportive family is important to me because it reminds me that I am valuable.”)  Merely getting students to think about themselves and their identity in a positive light was enough to improve their academic performance for 2 years.  Cook proposed that this self-validation counteracted identity threat, and was robust because it altered the way students looked at situations.  For example, after receiving criticism from a teacher, a student under stereotype threat might be more suspicious, thinking “She’s racist, she only criticizes Black students,” disregarding the comments.  A student whose identity has been bolstered would be more likely to accept such criticism and improve, without the threat of a negative identity darkly coloring their worldview.  Though he will need to do more research to support this hypothesis, Cooke proposed that the reason the manipulation was so powerful is that it fundamentally viewed the way students interpreted the world around them.


So why am I bringing this up?  It seems to me that the reason that the mere presence of a GSA on campus is so beneficial to sexual minority students, is it’s protection against identity threat.  In an atmosphere of homophobia, it would be validating and beneficial just to know that there are positive allies around you who look upon your identity favorably.  Of course there’s no way to know this without doing research, but since the study mentioned in the Huffington post article found the improved outcomes even for students who were not involved in the GSA, this is my hypothesis.  Maybe the power of allies goes above and beyond even what Judith Butler said… perhaps allies not just an important part of the fight for social justice, but are an important part of the solution themselves.  This article seems very important to our discussion of activism, so I thank you for posting it.  The horrible acts by fellow students and administrators mentioned in the article speak to the importance of research on this topic; it shows the bigoted that their hatred has significant, measureable negative consequences.  As much as we like to criticize science’s “voice from nowhere,” I feel like this discursive strategy can be harnessed for good as well as evil.  Research and testimony by psychologists and other “mental health experts” can be very powerful, particularly when it comes to litigation.  If I remember correctly, psychologists’ testimony was important to proving that separate education poses a threat to healthy development in the Brown v. Board case. In the context of our discussions on activism, as hypocritical as it may seem, the “voice from nowhere” power of scientific research is a powerful weapon to have our arsenal.'s picture

yay GSAs!

As I think I've already mentioned multiple times (apologies!), my experience as the co-president of my high school's Gay-Straight Alliance was really formative for me, and was probably one of the defining experiences that made me a Gender and Sexuality Studies concentrator. In my small town w/ few supportive teachers or parents, GLSEN's online resources were mostly all we were going off of back then when we were planning events and discussions - I learned a lot from them and it's cool to have a Haverford alum's recognition looping me back into the issue of GSAs in schools. I found what he said about the "It Gets Better" project kind of letting schools off the hook particularly interesting -- while it's important to stress the "hang in there" message, we should really be focusing on creating learning environments that are supportive and welcoming to everyone, where students can have "liveable lives" (thanks Butler) and can indeed truly live as opposed to just survive (a theme in Little Bee).

I recently had someone (from high-school days) send me this Huffington Post article on the topic. It might be of interest to some of you.

Just for fun, I went back to my Haverford application essay, which I wrote about my GSA experience and haven't really looked at in the last 4 years...I found this chunk of it in particular really took me back to the frustration I was feeling back then:

"In my conservative hometown we should be grateful the school board allowed us to exist at all. But we are not grateful at the moment; we are shocked that our superintendent would actually ban a public service announcement from our morning announcements with the text: “You have the power to make a difference by treating others with dignity and respect. Choose to be an ally and a friend.”

In the Bi-Co bubble (not that we're perfect, as our rape and sexual assault policy discussions are reminding us) it's sometimes all-too-easy to forget how many other communities (be they far away, a la Little Bee, or very close to home, even in rural PA and VA) do not offer everyone even really basic levels of dignity and respect. Thanks for posting about Rich Espey's efforts on this issue, Kaye!