Intersectionality Can Assist Certified Family Life Educators Gain Deeper Understanding of Their Clients’ Life Experiences

Elizabeth L. Morgan, Ph.D., CFLE
/ CFLE Network, Winter 2020

See all articles from this issue

Viewing clients’ life experiences through the prism of intersectionality can aid in understanding the vulnerabilities of many of the families and individuals with whom Certified Family Life Educators (CFLEs) work. Because intersectionality offers fresh insights potentially useful in individualizing service delivery, we’re providing a brief overview of the concept and its applications CFLEs could refer to and share with interested colleagues when planning workshops, home visits or other client services. This overview highlights the origins of intersectionality, its two interconnected components, the purpose and goal of intersectionality, and several benefits of viewing clients’ life experiences through the prism of intersectionality. The overview ends with examples of intersectionality included in two authors’ separate accounts of their journeys toward advocacy as well as their experiences advocating for LGBTQA+ youth.


Origins of Intersectionality

Intersectionality is a concept introduced in 1989 by Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw, a professor of law at both UCLA and Columbia University. She coined the term to draw attention to the narrow view of antidiscrimination law applied by courts in three legal cases that dealt with both sexism and racism, according to a 2019 online article, “The Intersectionality Wars,” written by Jane Coaston ( Among other gaps in the courts’ interpretation of antidiscrimination law identified by Dr. Crenshaw in her paper “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” published in the University of Chicago Legal Forum (1989), the court opined that the plaintiffs, Black women, could sue their former employer on the basis of sex discrimination or racial discrimination, but not on the combined claim of racial and sex discrimination. Doing so could lead to a separate, protected class of “Black women” and thus create the potential for other separate, protected classes, a possibility the court considered not in keeping with the intent of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1965. “In other words, the law seemed to forget that black women are both black and female, and thus subject to discrimination on the basis of both race, gender, and often, a combination of the two,” as summarized by Coaston (para. 20).


Two Interconnected Components

The first component of intersectionality, as exemplified by the experiences of the Black women, refers to the multiple identities we all possess and how those identities impact our life experiences. An individual who self-identifies as a lesbian mother of two adopted children and has recently divorced her same-sex partner could experience discrimination based on her gender identity, sexual orientation, single-parent status, or her divorced status. She could also experience “unique and distinct kinds” of discrimination created by the overlap or intersection between one or more of her identities according to statements made by Dr. Crenshaw in her keynote speech, “On Intersectionality,” at the Women of the World Festival 2016 (

In that same speech, Dr. Crenshaw elaborated on the second component of intersectionality. Identities, in and of themselves, are not the direct causes of vulnerabilities. Rather, the contexts in which individuals live, work, and coexist make certain identities and intersections of identities vulnerable to discrimination. Organizational policies; community norms; values and mores; cultural and other forms of stereotypes; local, state, and federal laws; political platforms and ideology; as well as beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors sanctioned by major social institutions are among the contexts that determine whether an identity or an intersection between identities benefits or excludes individuals. In sum, whether identities and intersections of identities become vulnerabilities or benefits is context dependent.


Purpose and Goal of Intersectionality

Dr. Crenshaw explained the purpose of intersectionality in an interview with Sara Hayet, a Women and Gender Studies major at Lafayette College ( Crenshaw described intersectionality as a metaphor “meant to help people think about the fact that discrimination can happen on the basis of several different factors at the same time, and we need to have a language and an ability to see it in order to address it” (2015, October 15, lines 46–50). The goal of intersectionality is to address discrimination by “deconstructing social stratifications that disadvantage and marginalize” individuals, according to Goldberg and Allen who authored “Teaching Undergraduates About LGBTQ Identities, Families, and Intersectionality” for Family Relations, An Interdisciplinary Journal of Applied Family Science (2018). In other words, the aims of intersectionality are to identify and alter contexts that, in their current form, advantage some and disadvantage others based on individuals’ identities or intersection of identities.


The Prism of Intersectionality

Intersectionality can assist CFLEs to better understand their clients’ life experiences and thus provide more individualized support services. Intersectionality provides a prism through which to view the multiple identities and intersecting identities of clients and the environments (i.e., contexts) in which they live, work, recreate, go to school, and otherwise interact with others. This viewpoint can increase CFLEs’ awareness of current or potential sources of stress that could influence client outcomes associated with a variety of support services, such as court-mandated parenting classes, drug rehabilitation services, therapeutic support groups, and GED classes, as well as academic outcomes from kindergarten through high school and beyond. Subsequent actions by CFLEs could help alleviate the impact of a potential source of stress, including modifying a service delivery model, calling colleagues’ attention to a problematic policy, or suggesting evidence-based alternatives to clients. Intersectionality helps identify what is unique about the life experiences of each client.


Examples of Intersectionality

The two articles that follow provide examples of intersectionality: multiple identities, intersections of identities, and contexts in which identities and intersections did or could become vulnerabilities, and contexts in which identities and intersections did or could become benefits.

In the first article, “Parental Acceptance and Support of LGBTQIA+ Youth: Key Factors for LGBTQIA+ Youth to Live Quality Lives through Adulthood,” Keonna Freeman writes about some of her identities (listed in order of first mention: a lesbian, member of a family with Baptist beliefs, child of color, niece of a great uncle who was gay, “straight” teen with boyfriend, college student, teen mother, CFLE, a prelicensed mental health professional, a crisis clinician, mentor of a local high school gay–straight alliance club) and her environmental contexts (listed in order of first mention: Baptist church, home with Baptist beliefs, college, friends’ house, nonprofit organization). Viewing Keonna’s life experiences through the prism of intersectionality will help you identify contexts that evolved from creating vulnerabilities of some identities and intersections of identities to accepting these identities and intersections. Read article >>

DeShanna Neal, whose pronouns are they/them/theirs, is the author of the second article, “Black on the Outside.” DeShanna writes about some of their identities (listed in order of first mention: minority member of a social justice organization, Black woman, young Black mother, mother of a transgender child, advocate for their transgender child, public figure, advocate at a national organization, disillusioned advocate, graduate student majoring in applied family science), and a professional work context (large nonprofit organization). Viewing Deshanna’s work context through the prism of intersectionality can help readers better understand the sources of their stress and appreciate the intensity of stress they experienced. Read article >>