Promoting a Culture of Assets Instead of Deficits

There is a pervasive culture of deficit in the education world when it comes to talking about or working with certain groups of students. In this post, I’d like to highlight the ways that deficit thinking enters into our language and institutional efforts to broaden participation. I’ll end with a great activity called the Community Cultural Wealth Walk.

Our Language Choices Reveal our Beliefs 

Let’s be clear about who we’re talking about here. In my experience working in higher education in the United States, we often talk about these students in terms of their deficits:  African-American, Hispanic/Latinx, Native American, Pacific Islander, and certain groups of East Asian students; students who are the first in their families to go to college; students from poor families; students who are recent immigrants to the United States; students with disabilities; students who are not fluent in American English; transgender students and cisgender students who identify as anything other than heterosexual; and women, especially in certain STEM disciplines.

We educators use lots of terms like “underrepresented”, “at-risk”, “underserved”, “marginalized”, “underachieving” to talk about sets of these students when it is not convenient or expedient to be specific, or when we just want to be vague. I am just as guilty of this as anyone else.

I’ve been thinking about this language and how I can be more inclusive, respectful, and at the same time avoid adopting a deficit frame when thinking about these students. I don’t have any answers about this except that I think we should be really cautious about using words like “at-risk”, “underachieving”, “slow/fast” to refer to students. Perhaps there are better words that we should be using, but I think the more important thing is to interrogate our own conscious and unconscious biases, assumptions, and beliefs about students. These biases, assumptions, and beliefs show up in the way that we talk about students.

Please note: I am not suggesting that we need to act like “thought police” because that is not productive. Instead of shaming others for using terms that are taboo or have fallen out of fashion, I think we should strive to believe the best in each other first. Let’s not assume negative intentions of others solely based on their choice of words. It’s difficult enough talking about diversity and inclusion without also feeling like you have to avoid landmines of non-PC words. And, let’s not forget that sometimes the language of inclusion and diversity gets used (ironically) as a tool for excluding others in the conversation.

Institutional Efforts that Can Marginalize

Deficit thinking can creep into the way that we implement programs at our institution to broaden participation in higher education.

Example: Many institutions have bridge programs that aim to give a small set of students some extra support and resources (to accelerate their acclimation to the college environment, to help them develop better study skills, to help them learn some content knowledge, to give them summer research experiences, etc.).  Harvey Mudd College has one of these too, which I directed for several years. Whenever I hear about these programs, I want to know these things:  (1) who is the program for, how are those students invited/chosen, and what is the language used to describe them? (2) what kinds of resources are provided to those students and what is the language that is used to describe those resources?

Deficit thinking can seep into these summer bridge programs because we fall into the trap of thinking that we are remediating students. If these students would not have been accepted to the college or university if they didn’t join the bridge program, then that sends a very clear message that the students are less qualified to be there. (Mudd doesn’t do this.) And honestly, I don’t think there is a whole lot of remediation that you can do in a short amount of time. I worry that these kinds of efforts stigmatize students and hurt them more than they help them.

On the other hand, if the students in the bridge program are accepted to the college or university regardless of their participation in the program, then they deserve to be at that college or university just as much as any other student. Of course, students all have their own strengths and weaknesses.  To create a more level playing field, we want to offer resources to help students grow. And if those resources can’t be deployed to all matriculated students, then we should prioritize those resources to those who could benefit the most–that’s why we have bridge programs. I believe these bridge programs work best when we give students agency. We should focus on helping students self-identify things that they want to work on (study skills, math, writing, etc.) and give them individualized supports to help them achieve their goals. I also strongly believe in setting high bar for that learning so to allow them to be leaders and supports for others.

Community Cultural Wealth Walk Activity

The privilege walk is a powerful activity to help people understand about privilege and reflect on their own privilege. (Click on that link to watch a video if you’re not familiar with this activity.)

One negative aspect of this activity is that if you have marginalized people participating in the activity with more privileged people, it can serve as a reminder to the former about their lack of privilege. In a way, it’s that classic problem of marginalized people bearing the burden of explaining things to others.

However, let’s be clear that whatever privilege walk activity you use, the questions that are asked reveal a set of societal standards for who has cultural capital and advantage. For example, sometimes you’ll see a prompt like “Take a step back if you grew up taking public transportation.” Why is that a negative thing? What if we viewed it as a positive thing? “Take a step forward if you’re comfortable riding public transportation because you rode it consistently for a part of your life.”

Last semester, when I taught “Social Justice and Equity in STEM” with Sumi Pendakur, she introduced me to the Community Cultural Wealth Walk Activity. Here’s how it works: during one of our class sessions, we had students do a standard privilege walk activity. It was familiar to some students, but not all. Some students were in tears. We had a great discussion in which we defined privilege and allowed students to confront their own privileges. As usual, many of our black and brown students and women were at the back of the room.

In the following class session, we used this Community Cultural Wealth Walk Activity instead. Here are some of the prompts in the activity:

  • Take a step forward if you grew up with more than one language or dialect spoken at home.
  • Take a step forward if you have cooked dinner for a family of at least 4 people for less than $5.
  • Take a step forward if you grew up having to negotiate more than one culture.
  • Take a step back if you had very few significant obstacles to overcome to succeed in education.

This time around, many of the students who were at the back of the room were now at the front of the room! It was a really powerful experience for many of them, and it opened up a great conversation about how society and media program us to favor certain forms of cultural wealth and to discount others. This activity doesn’t negate the fact many people have privileges that afford them real advantages in life. The point is not that “Oh! You have your privileges and I have mine so we’re all good.” The point is that our society privileges certain forms of cultural capital over others, and that is why some people have more advantages than others.

(Updated on Nov 28, 2016) María Oropeza Fujimoto, Eugene Fujimoto, and Huang I-Chen have given me permission to share their Community Cultural Wealth Walk Activity here. Many thanks to them!

(Updated on Feb 11, 2017) Jolina Clément shared with me that students at her school created what sounds like an amazing and beautiful piece of performance art. The students participated in a privilege walk, which resulted in a White girl ending up in front of everyone else. The students of color had their faces painted white. After that point, the students continued by doing the community cultural wealth walk and ended up together. At the end they removed the paint from each others’ faces. Sounds like an amazing and moving work of art!

(Updated on Aug 29, 2020) How do we do this activity in a virtual classroom? We’re using a simple Google Sheet, set to “anyone with the link can edit”. Each person picks a row and then they put an “x” in their space (and remove the “x” from the previous space) each time they want to take a step forward or back.


For further reading:

Blake, J. Herman. “Approaching Minority Students as Assets.” Academe 71, no. 6 (1985): 19-21.

Yosso, Tara J. “Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth.” Race ethnicity and education 8, no. 1 (2005): 69-91.

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