Affinity groups and spaces have a long history within large corporations. In fact, 90% of Fortune 500 companies use affinity groups (commonly called employee resource groups, ERGs, in the workplace). Companies such as Xerox and AT&T have been successfully utilizing ERGs for over 50 years. The purpose of these groups is to provide a safe space for people with common interests to connect and grow together. Many times, the common interests lie in the participants’ identities, including but not limited to; lifestyle, race, ethnicity, or gender. Racial affinity groups are frequently used as a method of working towards racial justice within large professional communities. With support from colleagues, participants in these groups engage in discussions, share ideas, and celebrate the identities that make them unique.
Educators everywhere are looking for meaningful ways to embrace diversity, equity, and inclusivity (DEI). Many students of marginalized communities are unsure of their voice and may even feel silenced by school structures. Finding a safe space, where they do not feel alone, in which they can listen, support, and advise each other can help them to find or strengthen their voice. In addition to collaborative efforts, affinity spaces can offer opportunities for individual growth. In this space, members can find productive methods of reflecting and learning from past experiences. With guidance, many students find that personal growth and even healing occur. Qualitative data demonstrates that students feel more “seen” and included after taking part in an affinity group. These groups take the time to celebrate and even embrace marginalized identities. After students start to see themselves in a positive light, they are more able to demonstrate self love, confidence, and courage. This newfound assurance allows them to more easily celebrate the unique identities of their diverse peers.
Successful affinity groups have structures in place from the outset. Corporations typically clearly outline goals of the group and make sure they align with the company’s goals. While leaders might naturally emerge through the process, it is helpful to start with a clear person in charge. This person helps develop norms of the group and keeps discussions productive. The leader should demonstrate vulnerability by engaging in dialogue with the group, but step back when no longer needed. It is helpful to have a grounding activity or a central article to read aloud in order to focus the group. Discussions related to the activity or article can sometimes feel safer to discuss if personal experiences aren’t being shared.
A strong beginning is critical to the success of an affinity group. Before starting one, it is beneficial to touch base with other schools to see if they have worked on similar efforts. What went well? What should be avoided? Also, consider conducting some sort of needs assessment with the entire school community. What are the attitudes of stakeholders? This means connecting with and surveying families, community members, and support staff. Since hard conversations are bound to happen, it is important that this group has administrative support. Although affinity groups can start as a grass-roots effort from the students and staff, it is important that district and school leaders are on-board and supportive.
The benefits of school-based affinity groups are numerous. One should be prepared, however, for a few bumps in the road. It might seem counterintuitive to have a space in which only specific types of students can participate in order to help all feel included. Community members might need support in understanding that there are times for discussing issues in smaller, safer, spaces. After this, we can gather as a large, diverse group to collaborate, plan, and move forward in making sure all of our students feel safe and seen at school. As said by Matthew Chestnut in an article posted by Learning For Justice, “Until a school is so inclusive that a student doesn’t feel silenced in any school space, affinity groups can be an important tool for change. Their purpose is to make schools better, safer places where every student feels heard. But that takes work. It doesn’t happen by accident.”
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