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Bonilla Develops New Class With Equity and Diversity Grant

April 29, 2021
Tabitha Bonilla
Tabitha Bonilla studies how communication influences support for public policies.

Northwestern University School of Education and Social Policy professor Tabitha Bonilla has developed a new undergraduate class that explores how viewing identities as "intersectional" can shift our understanding of policy.

The seminar-style course, called “Intersectionality, Policy, and Measurement” was made possible by Bonilla’s 2020 Daniel I. Linzer Grant for Innovation in Diversity and Equity, an award given to help fund innovative faculty projects related to improving diversity and inclusivity at Northwestern.

The course was framed around Kimberlé Crenshaw's term “intersectionality” which describes how marginalization can occur when multiple distinct identities overlap. Crenshaw, a pioneer in critical race theory, discussed the double bind faced by victims of simultaneous racial and gender prejudice in a TED Talk that students watched on the first day of class.

Black women, for example, experience both racism and sexism that is expressed differently than either the racism experienced by Black men or the sexism experienced by White women.

“What do you call being impacted by multiple forces and then abandoned to fend for yourself? Crenshaw asked in the TED Talk. “Intersectionality.”

Three decades after Crenshaw named this term, researchers still are grappling with its meaning and application in the public sphere, and the impact on everything from environmental and reproductive policy to COVID-19, said Bonilla, assistant professor of human development and social policy.

“Mounting research underscores how important it is to think about identity more comprehensively and completely,” she added.

In addition to readings and other media, students discussed how overlapping identities can collide with policy. The grant allowed Bonilla to support original research projects that incorporated intersectionality into a basic framework of research and analysis, and to bring in guest speakers, including: 

  • Danielle Lemi Tower Center Fellow at the John G. Tower Center for Political Studies at Southern Methodist University;
  • Fernando Tormos-Aponte, assistant professor of public policy at University of Maryland, Baltimore County;
  • Martha Balaguera, assistant professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga
  • Amber Spry, assistant professor at Brandeis University;
  • Desi Rodriguez-Lonebear, assistant professor of sociology and American Indian Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles;
  • and Jenn Jackson, assistant professor of political science at Syracuse University.

Bonilla, a fellow at Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research, studies how communication influences support for public policies on subjects ranging from human trafficking to immigration and Black Lives Matter. She investigates how identity shifts understanding of political messages, and her forthcoming book examines the ways broken campaign promises affect human behavior.