Making space for youth: Individual and organizational identities in the Philadelphia Student Union

Sonia M Rosen, University of Pennsylvania


This dissertation study utilized a life histories methodology to examine how core members of the Philadelphia Student Union (PSU) develop identities as organizers. Using the framework of identity projects to understand how young people internalize what it means to be an organizer and then act on those self-perceptions (Harré, 2007), my analysis unpacks how young people came to take on organizer identity projects, how such projects changed their lives, and how their performances of these organizer identities enabled them to affect PSU's organizational identity. As youth joined and then committed to PSU, they began to assume identities as organizers. Youth felt compelled to commit to the group because they were excited to see themselves differently, they were inspired by PSU's reframing of the social world, they welcomed the opportunity to accomplish tangible goals, and they enjoyed becoming part of a strong, supportive community of organizers. This commitment to PSU represented young people's entry into organizer identity projects that changed their lived experience by taking up intellectual, emotional, social, and temporal space in their lives. In the context of PSU's collectivist model of leadership, members' performances of their organizer identity projects functioned to shape the organizational identity in several important ways. Members performed their identities for outsiders, altering the group's external reputation and helping to build key alliances with various groups and individuals. Internally, youth shape PSU's organizational culture by "stepping up" to make decisions and affect group outcomes and "stepping back" to support their peers and encourage the participation of all members. Ultimately, this process sustains PSU as a youth-led organization even as its members routinely cycle through as they graduate high school and naturally "age out" of their membership in PSU. This study offers insight into the relationship between agency, collectivist leadership, and youth identity.

Subject Area

Social psychology|Educational psychology

Recommended Citation

Rosen, Sonia M, "Making space for youth: Individual and organizational identities in the Philadelphia Student Union" (2012). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3509403.