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The Arts in Alternative Education

Part 1 - What Is Identity?

by Alice Lovelace
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

This article was delivered as a keynote speech at the 1998 Fall Conference: Expressive Arts in Alternative Education at the Oklahoma Center for Continuing Education on the University of Oklahoma's Norman Campus Thurman White Forum Building, November 6, 1998. © Alice Lovelace, 1998. All footnotes and references are available in a separate browser window - click on footnote numbers throughout text.


In order to illustrate my comments, I will use poetry written by students. Included are several poems written in various workshops I have conducted with youth from across the nation. Their poems are incorporated within the text of my speech. My desire is to put a face on the alternative student; and to attempt to present their world, through their eyes, and in their words.

Before I begin, I want to extend my thanks to the Oklahoma Arts Council, especially Georgia Williams and Paulette Black, for inviting me to be with you today. This is an important subject: The Expressive Arts in Alternative Education; important for education and for the arts, for teachers and artists. I want to share with you some of my experiences working with youth in alternative settings, from public education to private schools, to juvenile justice centers. I will draw from the words of those who inspire me.

One of the people who inspires me is Ralph Ellison (1914-1994), the noted American novelist and teacher who was born in Oklahoma City on March 1, 1914. Ellison graduated from Douglas High School in 1932 and even though he was an exceptional music student, was rejected as being unworthy of attending a white college or university in Oklahoma, and was offered instead a scholarship to Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, if he could get there. Ellison worked and earned the money to travel to Tuskegee and once there went on to mature and develop as a youth in step with, and some say ahead of his times. (1)

Today, Ralph Ellison is revered as the author of The Invisible Man, the story of a nameless Black man who learns to assert his humanity. Ellison was struggling to:

Break the literary constraints of the sociological tradition in American literature by rejecting the prescribed formulas for depicting the Black American ... . In breaking away from the traditional literary path of Black writers, Ellison became a liberator, freeing Black literature from American literary colonialism and bringing it to national and international independence. (2)

Ellison's influence on style and content lives on through the style and success of numerous writers that followed him. Their ranks include Toni Cade Bambara, Ernest J. Gaines, Gloria Naylor, Ismael Reed, and Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison. (3) Ellison the student, left behind words I believe he would like for us to contemplate and to consider:

If you can show me how I can cling to that which is real to me, while teaching me a way into the larger society; then and only then will I drop my defenses and my hostility, and I will sing your praises and help you to make the desert bear fruit. (Ralph Ellison)

I call forth the words of Ellison the student because I believe he is issuing us a challenge. He calls upon us to do for the rejected students in our school systems what Ellison the author did for America's rejected citizens. Just as Ellison struggled to make "Blacks visible in a society where they had seemed invisible"(4) so we are called upon to make the student labeled and rejected from our regular classrooms, visible and whole so that they may know that we know they are important and contributing members of our learning community.

I would like to share with you a poem from a student (Kelmikis Mitchell) titled:


I am a living computer
With hidden files of wisdom.
A dangerous crocodile when disturbed.
A mighty eagle elevating to the summit of a mountain.
I am a sophisticated worm with a love for words,
Mysterious, hysterical, sad.
I am a fly trapped in the fly paper.
An angel with wings spread
On a mission to another universe.
A baby when tickled.
An old toy replaced by a new.
I am an arrow searching for new directions.
A lost juvenile explorer
A first daughter
A thirsty camel
A sly slithering snake
A future merry-go-round
I am me (5)

These are the students we are called upon to serve. Complex; with multiple identities, overflowing with emotions, challenging, and desiring to be challenged. If you read the daily, weekly, monthly press; or listen to talk radio, you may agree that this country seems engaged in an undeclared war on the youth. Across the nation, our youth of every color and every grouping, live under difficult conditions.

Private and public education are failing large numbers of them. The severity of violence and the means of violence are on the increase among them. They account for the dramatic rise in prison and jail populations. Increasingly they are joining the ranks of single teen parents. Many adults believe their choices in dance, music, dress, and language glorify the negative images of their race and their gender. In response, the adults around them; we find reason to blame these trends on the young people, telling them that they are their own worst enemy.

Ronald J. Fisher, Professor of Psychology (and Coordinator of the Applied Social Psychology Graduate Program at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada) believes it is the group that gives meaning to the life of the individual. This is very apparent in the lives of American youths. In social-psychological research the assumption is that "individuals and social groups have undeniable needs and rights for... identity, participation and adequate control over their own destiny." (6)

What is Identity?

Among young people identity is a very serious issue. Identity is an issue wide enough to allow me to identify myself simply as a human being (one of billions), and so narrow it allows me to identify as the tenth child born to the marriage of Claudia Mae Webb Stanford Lovelace and William James Lovelace, Senior (one of one). Erik H. Erikson, clinical psychologist and pioneer of identity research tells us that the process of forging a group identity.

[It] has its normative crisis in adolescence, and is in many ways determined by what went before and determines much that follows. We [are reminded not to] separate personal growth [from] communal change. (7) In other words, we belong to each other and to the histories we share.

Identity, sociologists insists, is affirmed or asserted on what, and who, others believe us to be and it exists, even while we struggle to create ourselves. We know identity is influenced by environment; and tends to be generational in the various forms of crisis that attack us and the issues that affect us. Many also believe that the identity of the youth is greatly affected by attitudes and trends in national history. In the midst of this turmoil, young people struggle to express their individual identity, to declare themselves part of a group, while struggling to come to consciousness about your personal code of self-expectations. (8)

Victoria Rader, Professor of Sociology at George Mason University, writes on Human Needs Theory and poverty. For Rader, it is social recognition that ultimately makes life worth living. No one wants to be treated as inconsequential or invisible. Rader believes, "there is an exasperating impotence forced upon the poor in modern societies where not only are physical needs frustrated, but identity withdrawn and autonomy undermined." (9) Children suffer the affects of poverty in greater ways and numbers than any other group of Americans.

Fisher agrees with Rader that the pursuit of human needs often relate to issues of intergroup conflict, identity and self-esteem. Yet, both agree, identity can be expressed as a positive force in how people deal with each other, young people know they are free to chose positive or negative ways to satisfy their need for identity and their need to belong to a group. (10)

Fisher and Rader know that young people, especially teenagers will go to great lengths to protect, increase, or intensify the pleasure of their identity as part of a group. Membership in the group increases their self-esteem and helps them to maintain a positive sense of self and a protected social identity. Contemporary social identity theorists agree:

Human beings are willing to suffer immeasurable [sic] and to sacrifice-and in some cases take-their own lives in the struggle for and the protection of their identity. Such dramatic occurrences underline the more general point that identity is a fundamental need that influences a great deal of social interaction. (11)

John Burton is considered the pioneer thinker around basic human needs theory as it relates to the field of conflict resolution. Burton's theory of a cluster of identity needs examines how individual and group identity is formed and how environment (natural and social) influences human development. Richard E. Rubenstein, Professor of Conflict Resolution and Public Affairs at George Mason University, places Burton's work in the previous work of clinical psychologists like Maslow and his hierarchy of needs.

Burton offers a cluster of Nine Basic Human Needs all people should be able to expect:

  1. Consistency in response (learning and behavior)
  2. Stimulation (awakens in us the desire to learn)
  3. Security (if we do not feel we will withdraw and will not learn or contribute)
  4. Recognition (we need confirmation, approval, and encouragement for our identity)
  5. Distributive Justice (appropriate response or reward)
  6. Development and Appearance of Rationality (act consistent and expect consistency from others)
  7. Meaningful Responses (sincerity from others)
  8. Sense of Control (self-defense)
  9. Defense of One's Role (role preservation) (12)

Rubenstein says that a "concept of an identity need reinforces the idea that it is the group that represents the greatest satisfier of identity." (13) We all know that peer pressure is a reality and recent research is shedding new light upon just how important a group identity is to young people. Some are asserting that it is no longer just an issue of nature or nurture; for some young people the group commands the greatest influence, exceeding that of parents or environment. As a nation, we are called upon to activate more of our youth to offer opportunities for them to formulate a conscious identity.

We are called upon to equip young people with the technological skills needed to assume their rightful place in the future. Please do not read technology to mean only computers -- a computer is useless to the illiterate and the non-thinker. The technology must take many forms, from the simple to the complex. Here I speak of technology as a tool of cultural anthropology, I use it accordingly to mean: The body of knowledge available to a civilization that is of use in fashioning implements, practicing manual arts and skills, and extracting or collecting materials.(14) A technology that looks at the making of art and the creation of cultural artifacts as a body of knowledge. This is how we fashion the world around, extracting from our environment those things that make life worth living.

This definition includes the mental and practical skills to manipulate that technology to enrich one's existence; both material and spiritual. Education is a priceless gift, a gift we give ourselves, precious because it is unique. It opens us to our reality like the course of time opens the rarest of blossoms. It can happen only when and if all elements, all ingredients, are present, at hand, giving their fair share.

Many of our youth are not being taught and will miss the generational train of technology and history which is their legacy. It has been suggested that in order to overcome the conflicts within the youths, the older generation must provide opportunities for young people to find access to the dominant skills and technologies of their society, otherwise they will act and feel estranged and will be "unable to apply aggression constructively."(15) I have seen the faces of these young people -- these alternative students -- here is the voice of one such student (M. Proctor):

Angry at a world that poisons love
Kill me with your sweet-hateful words
Sex is boring
Love is soothing
Friends are necessary
Movies lie to society, or at least [to] me
Though I don't consider myself a part of [society]
Where is my caring mentor, teacher, friend
I guess you have to trust to be cared for and
I don't trust
My girlfriend cares but I need a stranger
An acquaintance that takes an interest in me
Living with my thoughts and emotions is hard
Suppressing everything until it all surfaces
I know it's wrong, but it's how I cope.
Do you know me?
I'd like to know me.
Please tell me about myself.
I don't know myself but I know how [it feels].
Alcoholics would tell me to question my motives,
But I can only go with my intuition.
Old men make me learn the most.
Look through me like a window
Or let me be open.

This is the voice of our children.

Forward to:

The 1998 Fall Conference: Expressive Arts in Alternative Education at the Oklahoma Center for Continuing Education on the University of Oklahoma's Norman Campus Thurman White Forum Building, November 6, 1998 was sponsored by: the University of Oklahoma College of Continuing Education, Oklahoma Arts Council, the Art therapy Association of Oklahoma, The Oklahoma Technical Assistance Center in cooperation with the Oklahoma State Department of Education.

Published in In Motion Magazine November 17, 1998.