Newsletter: Volume V, Issue 4

Spirituality and Social Justice: Exploring Identity Intersections An Interview with Dafina Lazarus Stewart

By Dafina Lazarus Stewart

In this interview, Dr. Dafina Lazarus Stewart describes how identity intersections should inform and influence our work within higher education – specifically focusing on how spirituality and religious diversity connects to social justice. As a former Student Affairs practitioner and current faculty member, Stewart highlights the need to become advocates and allies on our campuses, creating spaces for students to explore how multiple layers of their identities interface with their sense of spirituality and/or religion.

Please share your personal and professional experiences within higher education and their connection to issues of meaning, purpose, faith, and spirituality. What significant experiences led you to become involved in this work and bring you to where you are today?

A constant theme throughout my undergraduate experience was turning inward to consider how my faith drove me to finish my degree and continue learning. There always seemed to be a thread of higher education being a “spiritual experience” – not just an academic or professional one. I was convinced, and remain certain, that without my spirituality as a source of support and inspiration for resistance, I would not have been successful at college and may not have persisted.

I came into the field straight out of my Bachelor’s work at Kalamazoo College where I started working at Kenyon College in their Office of Multicultural Affairs. The spiritual thread I noticed during my undergraduate years continued in this position; I began to reflect on the intersection between the dogma of my faith and what I felt in my own heart, mind, and spirit regarding issues of diversity and social justice. As I surveyed the needs of different student populations on campus, I became very troubled by the messages that didn’t fit in as I struggled to answer the much deeper question of “What’s my role as a professional and as an individual?”

I realized that I couldn’t put my faith or religious dogma in a drawer when I stepped into the office, nor did I want to, because it all is part of who I am and how I understand the world and myself. Yet, I realized that I had a professional and ethical accountability to support all the students with whom I was responsible for working, which included the LGBT community. Having been raised in socially conservative Christian denominations, the need to reconcile that dogma with the responsibility to support the learning, growth, and development of students who did not identify as heterosexual loomed large. I needed to reconcile my religious dogma with my own spiritual convictions of justice and love and with the demands of my students to be heard, supported, and cared for.

This experience working in this position made me want to understand identity intersections on a deeper level, and I decided to begin my graduate studies in Higher Education and Student Affairs at the Ohio State University. After I completed my master’s degree, I continued on to pursue a doctoral degree at the Ohio State in Educational Administration and Higher Education in order to study different components of student identity development in more depth. Specifically, I wanted to understand the how African American students made sense of the multiple facets of their identities and what role spirituality might play in that process.

And it all started coming together for me within my dissertation research when I more closely examined the intersections of multiple identities in African American students. I wanted to understand how this student population defined their multiple identities as being coherent and related, and how spirituality was a factor in helping them integrate their identities to live a connected life. As I began to analyze the data in my dissertation research, I found that my participants who were all undergraduate students at a private, liberal arts college recognized a fractured-ness across their identity facets and deeply desired to bring the multiple pieces of their identities together into some meaningful whole. Moreover, students who seemed to have a more stable sense of spirituality were somewhat better able to work through these challenges (Stewart, 2002, 2008).

I am currently in my third faculty position as an Assistant Professor at Bowling Green State University (BGSU). With the support of a grant from the American College Personnel Association’s (ACPA) Emerging Scholars program in 2004, I have continued to explore issues of identity intersectionality and the role of spirituality, as well as race and the impact of institutional environments among African American students attending three different universities (Stewart, 2009).

Overall, the connection between spirituality and social justice is very significant for me because I have been very much engaged in ministerial roles in church, as well as my role as a faculty member working with new professionals who are struggling with ways to integrate their faith with their own pull toward social justice. I feel very strongly that I need to role model the congruence of spirituality, and even religion, with identifying as an ally to groups who are marginalized and silenced on any basis. In addition, I feel a responsibility to those who have been marginalized by religious communities to be an example of someone who has found a way to see meaning and connection between my own identities as an African American, gay woman, who is also strong in my faith and spirituality.

How and why is spirituality important in the work of student identity development, especially as it relates to diversity and social justice?

I really agree with the way Tisdell (2003) talks about spirituality in her research because I also believe we see the world in terms of our spiritual orientation and/or religious faith which informs and is shaped by our identity. Spirituality characterizes how we understand who we are at our very core. In many ways, it is one of the most basic elements of how we understand ourselves and recognize the need to engage and to educate the whole student.

Such a holistic model of student learning and development has defined how we understood our role as educators within colleges and universities from the onset of higher education. Although this was done from a position of religious privilege that was exclusionary and oftentimes marginalizing of the diversity of student beliefs and values, we cannot overlook the reality that there is a need to attend to the inner life – issues of purpose, meaning, connection, and transcendence – of our students today.

For too long, we have allowed this cognitive rationality from the Enlightenment Age to cause us to prioritize and overemphasize the intellect over every other aspect of self – particularly in our college and universities with how we work with students both inside and outside of the classroom. Yet you can only suppress something that is an innate part of your being for so long.

As developing young adults, our students are finally saying, “Wait a minute. I need to attend to this aspect [spiritual identity] of myself.” And these deeper issues impact other aspects of us, particularly as they relate to cognitive development in young adults; they are part of our overall make up. I believe you see this connection in the work of Sharon Daloz Parks (2000) in her articulation of a faith development journey that includes “forms of knowing” and depicts a developmental progression from more dualistic to more complex cognitive structures (p. 53-70). Professionals who work in areas of wellness are also recognizing the impacts of spirituality on many areas of an individual’s life and how it is essential to pay attention to the nurturing our inner self and resources.

Lately, I have been introduced to Eboo Patel and his work on interfaith dialogue and religious pluralism. I find his perspective to be very influential and provocative. Among the ideas that I have drawn from his work is that although we cannot ignore the legitimate and substantive differences among the world’s religions, those differences cannot be used to inhibit dialogue across religious, spiritual, and atheistic traditions. One of the things Patel asserts is that when we look at the basic tenants of all of the world’s major religious and faith traditions, what lies at the core is the belief of justice and attention to inclusiveness – an advocacy for the voiceless and those made voiceless – in order to bring people in the fold, while emphasizing love and support and recognition of a diversity of talents, gifts, and contributions among individuals as we live together in community.

These connections are not only compatible, but are also motivational for those who are involved and engaged in diversity and social justice work. Now, unfortunately, our different beliefs and faith traditions are often not used in tandem in this way. There is a resounding need to publicize that being a person of deep faith does not contradict being a person who is deeply invested in social justice. When we look at the Social Gospel Movement within Christianity along with Black Liberation Theology and Gay Liberation Theology, the awareness that spirituality and social justice are interconnected is apparent – they are part of the same package, not two separate entities that are exclusive of the other. This same intertwining of faith with justice is also a strong theme within Judaism, as well as Islam and other faith traditions.

Issues related to spirituality and religion have been gaining ground as part of the social justice movement within higher education today. Where is this work already occurring within our institutions and what are additional opportunities and entry points to expand this work on our campuses?

In the last decade, I have seen a confluence of a number of different triggers that brought issues of spirituality to the forefront in American higher education. As a nation and world, our spiritual consciousness was raised with the tragic events of September 11 when our society was suddenly faced with religious differences being used as a motivator for horrific action. Although similar tragedies have been done in the name of religion throughout history and are currently happening around the globe, I believe this was the first time we really had the deal with what grappling with religious identities meant here in the United States today – it no longer was removed to another continent, a distant war, or an international headline. It created a solid recognition that in the U.S. we are not immune to these issues and need to be working on connecting across differences, instead of being alienated by them.

I see this work also happening in various pockets within our institutions – whether we recognize it or not – yet it hasn’t become a cohesive movement across our campuses yet. When I look at the work of Eboo Patel (2007a) and with the Interfaith Youth Core, he is very much trying to be the spark for these important conversations and open up new connections and opportunities across the country. But I also see beginnings of this movement on a smaller scale when I look here at Bowling Green.

At BGSU, there is a new advocacy group called FOCUS that is for LGBT students to come together to engage each other in discussions about spirituality, faith, and religion from a queer perspective. It is in these pockets of often marginalized populations where I see these identity intersections coming together. Additionally, black gospel choir groups offer communities of faith that tie in cultural traditions and themes of justice within the musical genres of Negro Spirituals and gospel. There is also a new multifaith group at BGSU that has formed that brings faculty, staff, students, and community members together across lines of different faith traditions to do service in the local community. I think these kinds of activities represent a groundswell of movement around these issues. I only think we’ll see more of these groups and programs happening on campuses around the country.

Additionally, creating space for authentic dialogue and discussion of spiritual issues and concerns is essential to supporting students’ spiritual development. Faculty often do not consider the many entry points that exist within our course content to integrate issues of spirituality and social justice into our students’ lives. Since I’ve been at BGSU, I have taught a course that focuses on multicultural competence in student affairs and how it connects to identity development. Within this course, spirituality usually ends up coming into the classroom conversations as students begin to explore their multiple identities and how they connect to issues of social justice.

We discuss religious and faith diversity as one of the many areas of identity development that we need to understand and dialogue about in order to become multiculturally competent. Through these classroom dialogues, students begin reflecting on the intersections of their own faith, religious dogma, and practices with other areas of identity as they are advocating for social justice within these other issues of diversity. Although this doesn’t always happen by design, I have found that many students are open to engaging in this identity exploration and dialogue with their classmates in this safe space.

These class discussions raise awareness of the wide scope of religious and faith perspectives on issues of diversity and social justice that oftentimes our students are not aware of or haven’t considered before. They also open doors to other areas of identity, such as politics and sexual orientation, and how they interface with issues of faith and spirituality – breaking down popular media stereotypes as the real stories of students are shared. I have learned a lot from these discussions, both personally as my schemas are stretched and as I watch students struggle and grow through this course.

To be very honest, I do not see many faculty and staff members as involved and engaged in these conversations, particularly at public institutions. Of course we shouldn’t be proselytizing students, but we are really missing the point if we are not open to dialoging with our students about these deeper spiritual issues within a broader range of disciplines because students are having them in our absence.

Marcia Baxter Magolda (2001) says, we need to be “good company” for our students and we have a responsibility to create mentoring communities as Sharon Daloz Parks (2000) encourages in order to be in fellowship with each other. Being willing to listen and appear as the non-expert but one who has a stake in the conversation is often more important and impactful that being seen as having all the answers. As educators, we need to make ourselves available to students even if we don’t consider ourselves experts on the topic – we just need to be a willing partner in the journey.

Where can we look for additional resources on the intersection between spirituality and social justice to advance this work?

As we continue to explore the connection between our inner lives and our identity development, there are many resources that may be helpful. Engaging in a broader community of discourse within a professional association in your field may provide a venue to continue this dialogue. My interests and investment in this area of study brought me to serve as the Interim Chair for the American College Personnel Association ( ACPA) Task Force for Spirituality, Faith, and Religion (TFSFR) that seeks to “ provide ACPA members an arena within which to conduct research and assessment, strengthen their professional competencies, and enrich their self-knowledge and professional knowledge about issues related to meaning-making, specifically spirituality, faith, religion, belief, and existentialism within the context of higher education” (extracted from TFSFR, Mission Statement adopted October 2009).

Working with an outstanding directorate team of fifteen other individuals, we represent a broad spectrum of perspectives on these issues and how they interface within the academy. This professional experience has given me, and I think ACPA broadly, a venue in which to have conversations that put spirituality in the discussion of diversity and social justice issues as a potential ally, instead of as a hindrance. We believe that “ [p]luralism and social justice cannot be based on what groups, people, or issues make us comfortable or are familiar to us, but require serious engagement with differences that will challenge us, make us uncomfortable, and provoke us to reexamine our own strongly held beliefs” (TFSFR, “About,” 2009).

Additionally, many recent publications also have drawn a connection among spirituality, religious diversity, and social justice. Author and speaker, Eboo Patel (2007b), shares that religious difference and our inability to effectively handle the conflicts that this diversity produces is one of the biggest issues we have to deal with now as a global society. How do we seek to understand each other when our beliefs and faith traditions are so basic to how we view ourselves? We must be able to competently talk to each other, engage with each other, and work with each other across this line of difference.

There is also a whole host of work that are referenced so widely they have become almost “classics” although some of them have only been out for a very short time. Among those pieces are Robert Nash’s (2001, 2002) work on religious pluralism in the academy among others, Elizabeth Tisdell (2003), Sharon Daloz Parks (2000), as well as Chickering, Dalton, and Stamm’s (2006) book. These and others, reflecting a growing list of resources, are available on TFSFR’s website (see reference list) under the “Suggested Readings” tab.

Powerful work is also being done within dissertation research to explore aspects of spirituality and identity development and issues of diversity, including Jenny Small (University of Michigan), Nicole Hoefle (Bowling Green State University), and Shaunna Payne Gold (George Washington University), among others. We need to create more venues for doctoral candidates to get their work out and disseminate their findings to a broader community. One of the goals of our ACPA Task Force is to highlight this emerging research and what is happening on our campuses. We need to think creatively about how to share knowledge in order to promote good work and practices around these issues when there are campuses across the country participating in innovative work.

Moreover, we need to find ways to continue to enhance and expand the conversation by creating complementary structures to move this work forward through dissemination of scholarship, as well as professional development opportunities such as webinars, drive in conferences, and other creative options. In so doing, we must also consider the barriers that currently exist that prevent us from sharing the important work that is happening on our campuses with each other in order to tear them down and build stronger connections among colleagues and institutions within higher education.

Our work with promoting diversity should ultimately give spirituality a legitimate and vital place in the social justice movement. The moment and season for these conversations has come and we must be ready and willing to grab hold, go with it, and run where it takes us.

Dafina Lazarus Stewart, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Higher Education and Student Affairs at Bowling Green State University. Dr. Stewart received her bachelor’s degree from Kalamazoo College in sociology and her master’s in higher education and student affairs and doctorate in educational administration and higher education from The Ohio State University. Her research interests are focused on the development and experiences of students of color in colleges and universities. Dr. Stewart has been actively engaged with professional associations such as ACPA, NASPA, and OCPA both nationally and at the state-level and has a strong national reputation as a teacher and scholar. Transforming colleges and universities into inclusive and welcoming communities where all students learn, develop, and grow is one of her key motivations for her research, teaching, and practice.


ACPA Task Force for Spirituality, Faith, and Religion:

Baxter Magolda, M. B. (2001). Making their own way: Narratives for transforming higher education to promote self-development. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Chickering, A. W., Dalton, J. C., & Stamm, L. (2006). Encouraging authenticity and spirituality in higher education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Interfaith Youth Core:

Nash, R. (2002). Spirituality, ethics, religion, and teaching. New York, NY: Lang.

Nash, R. (2001). Religious pluralism in the academy: Opening the dialogue. New York, NY: Lang.

Parks, S. D. (2000). Big questions, w orthy dreams: Mentoring young adults in their search for meaning, purpose, and faith. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Patel, E. (2007a). Acts of faith: The story of an American Muslim, the struggle for the soul of a generation . New York, NY: Beacon Press.

Patel, E. (2007b). Religious diversity and cooperation on campus. Journal of College and Character, 9(2), 1-8.

Stewart, D. L. (2009). Perceptions of multiple identities among Black college students. Journal of College Student Development, 50(3), 253-270.

Stewart, D. L. (2008). Being all of me: Black students’ struggles with negotiating identity. The Journal of Higher Education, 79(2), 183-207.

Stewart, D. L. (2002). The role of faith in the development of an integrated identity: A qualitative study of Black students at a White college. Journal of College Student Development, 43(4), 579-596.

Tisdell, E. J. (2003). Exploring spirituality and culture in adult and higher education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.