Creativity as a Tool for Identity Formation

It’s often said that being creative is connecting with our inner child.

All college students need to be given the space and opportunity to explore their identity and express it creatively. Beyond figuring out what their academic and professional interests are, it is vital that students are able to learn who they are outside the classroom.

And for marginalized, minoritized, and people of color (POC) communities, expressing our creativity goes far deeper than simply being fun: It allows us to better shape and understand who we are.

Traditions like theater, storytelling, and dance are intricately linked to methods of resistance and truth-telling. In this context, it’s key that student affairs professionals provide students with creative outlets to facilitate the exploration, affirmation, and construction of their identities.

As you begin this work, remember that allowing marginalized students to speak and express themselves is critical. While this might seem obvious, it is not when considering that it is a common practice for those in authority and/or members of a dominant group to attempt to be the voices of disempowered members.

One way this speaking-over effect happens is when we establish programming or spaces intended to benefit a particular group of students without seeking their input. This results in a disconnect between the administration and students that only hurts everyone involved.

Marginalized students must be given the spaces and opportunities to be unapologetically, authentically themselves.

The most simple and straightforward way to assure this occurs is to engage them on how they might desire to show their identity to the campus community. But student affairs professionals should take care to ensure that their efforts do not come across as an empty gesture. If there is not an established relationship with these students, then efforts to show off their culture could come across as pandering or inauthentic.

Creativity is essential for allowing students to express their innermost thoughts, feelings, and conflict they feel in their identities. What qualifies as creativity is anything that is original and has been “created” by the student.

Here are a few programming ideas that would establish creative spaces for students to flourish:

1. Poetry slam

This is a classic event and is one of the best ways for allowing students to break out of their shell. Poetry is an extremely effective means of truth-telling and sharing lived experiences. It creates a supportive, audacious environment where uncomfortable but necessary realities are expressed. Student affairs professionals should take care to listen to participants on how they would like to see such an event run. It could be as simple as providing a microphone and stage or much more elaborate. Also pay attention to whether students feel comfortable with administrators or faculty attending the event. The participants might not feel they can be as honest if they fear there being repercussions to their truth-telling.

2. Shadowcasting

At my undergraduate institution, The Rocky Horror Picture Show was hugely popular. At our showings, students would shadowcast during the film. Shadowcasting refers to live-acting out a film while it’s on display. Providing students with the freedom to use iconic creative works as a launching point for their own creative expressions can be a source of catharsis, so seek out other films you could use for this. 

3. Potluck

Ask students to cook their favorite cultural dishes to share with the campus community. Demonstrating identity through food is one of the most inclusive and engaging forms of creative expression. Make sure to ask students if they’re willing share the significance of the food they’re preparing, thus allowing for diners to learn about the students’ cultural histories even as they’re enjoying the food.

4. Art gallery

This could involve collaborating with faculty in the arts and humanities. For students who prefer to express themselves with paint, ceramics, or installations, an art gallery can showcase their talent. Sometimes identity just cannot be expressed through be words and is best shown through visual mediums. It can also help artistic students build up their portfolios, setting them up for success after graduation. 

5. Dance performance

Dance is a universal language of bodily expression. Many of the dance traditions of people of color are tied to resisting colonial oppression, injustice, and fighting for human rights. A great example is Capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art that also functions as a dance. Creating spaces for students to show their histories through dance can be informative, engaging, and even opportunities for healing.

6. Cultural workshop

This can take many different forms but the objective is the same — to allow minority students the opportunity to share and inform others about aspects of their culture. It could be regarding arts, food, dance, or even holiday traditions. You could structure these as rotating workshops in conference style, a series of events throughout the month, TED-talk style, or another form. 

7. Fashion show

Clothing, like dance, is another universal way of creative, bodily expression. Allowing marginalized and minoritized students the opportunity to reclaim the clothes of their culture and showcase them can be another form of healing, especially for clothing and styles that have been appropriated and exploited.

Establishing creative spaces for students to express their identity needs to be an ongoing conversation that gives the students agency to speak their truths. How do you work to facilitate students’ creativity on campus?

Marquise Griffin

About the author: Marquise is a graduate of the University of Missouri's Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis Master's program. He is passionate about educational access, comics, and empowering others through storytelling. Learn how we can help get your students involved.

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