Working for justice: the life history reflections of privileged college student social justice allies
This phenomenological life history study examined the dynamics that led privileged college students to engage in social justice work. I explored how privileged college students were led to understand how individuals get opportunities in life and ultimately achieve success. Also, I explored what moments or elements caused participants to question what they had learned and what barriers they faced to engaging in work for justice. All findings contributed to understanding what led privileged college students to engage in work for a more just environment. Using the social construction of dominant group privilege and ally development theory as the theoretical frameworks to guide this study, I analyzed how participants came to see injustice within the context of their privileged identity and why, unlike many of their peers, they chose to work on changing a social system from which they benefitted.
In all, nine students holding privileged identities participated in three qualitative life history interviews each through which data for the study were collected. Profiles of each participant were developed from the data. The data were then transcribed, coded, analyzed, and organized into emerging themes. The findings revealed that a search for authenticity, environmental influences, a critical event, or experience as other first made privileged students aware of injustice. Barriers to participant engagement reported most often included not understanding their role, a general lack of awareness about injustice, others influential in their lives lacking awareness, and the absence of skills interacting with people who held diverse identities and in doing effective work on justice issues. Finally, educational institutions had significant influence on participant awareness of injustice issues, the need to advocate for change, and ultimately their decisions to take action. Specifically, college curriculum, peer interactions with those holding diverse identities, and co-curricular engagement opportunities were cited as having an impact on participant decisions to engage in justice work.
Finally, I discussed ways these findings contributed to the existing literature and shared recommendations for future practice. I concluded with suggestions for future research to further expand our understanding of college student ally behavior development.