As "Making Space" shows, school can be an uncomfortable place for students outside the dominant culture, and affinity groups can provide spaces for students to be themselves and address issues of injustice and inequity within the school building. This toolkit helps jump-start the process of establishing or revamping an affinity group at your school.
- How can affinity groups provide a space for marginalized students to be seen and heard?
- What conditions and resources are needed to run an effective affinity group?
1. Identify key issues.
Whether you're contemplating the launch of a new affinity group or thinking about retooling an existing one, it's important to know how your school is perceived by the people who spend time there—students, families and staff. Convene a task force to conduct an anonymous survey on the school climate as it relates to diversity, multiculturalism and inclusion. Make sure all voices are heard. (See Teaching Tolerance’s School Climate Questionnaire and the Mix It Up Survey for examples of questions to ask survey participants.)
The task force you convene can also gain advice and tips by talking to other schools that run affinity groups. This research can help your task force brainstorm ways to troubleshoot questions and concerns that might come up—for example, “Who can join what group?” and “Aren’t affinity groups exclusionary?” and “Why do we need affinity groups, anyway?”
2. Get an administrator on board.
Staff may react to affinity groups with dismissiveness, claiming that identity issues are not important or not a priority in your school. They might say, "We see beyond students’ race or ethnicity here." Or you might sense fear or jealousy from staff or students who ask, "Why do they get their own group and other students don't?" You'll want the support of an administrator to help tackle these criticisms and hesitations.
And if an affinity group is doing the work it is intended to do, then aspects of the school culture must and will change in order to become more inclusive and welcoming to students outside the dominant culture. In this regard, administrator support is crucial.
Then there’s the consideration of time and space: Effective affinity groups need, among other things, a closed-off space to meet and a recurring, sufficient time slot (preferably during school hours). Students need enough time—more than a 20-minute midday break—to process what can be challenging conversations and to organize around those conversations.
3. Explain the purpose to students, parents and staff.
As Monita K. Bell explains in the feature story “Making Space,” affinity groups “allow students who share an identity—usually a marginalized identity—to gather, talk in a safe space about issues related to that identity, and transfer that discussion into action that makes for a more equitable experience at school.” It’s important to convey this definition and intention to students, parents (or guardians) and staff. Consider sharing the feature story with some of these stakeholders and leading an open discussion about the ideas and issues it raises.
4. Find a facilitator.
Who will lead the group? An adult whose identity matches the students' in an affinity group is preferable. Surveying adults in the building (or community) can help identify strong candidates. Ask survey participants about how they identify and what types of groups they would be willing to lead. Then follow up to see if they’re willing to facilitate the affinity group(s).
In situations where a facilitator who shares the same identity as students in the affinity group isn’t an option, students can provide guidance on whether they prefer to seek a facilitator from outside the school community. Ask them, “Do you want me to find someone else?” But be cautious about whom you select since an affinity group should be a safe place for students—and that safety isn’t ensured when, for example, a white facilitator leads an affinity group for students of color, or a heterosexual facilitator leads a group for LGBT students.
5. Recruit members.
It’s important to get the word out—so find creative and collaborative ways to advertise the affinity group. The Seattle Girls' School holds an affinity/alliance fair so that students can learn about various groups. This school recommends holding subsequent meetings on different days so students can participate in more than one group if desired. And once some students join the affinity group, find ways to involve them in getting the word out.
6. Follow students' lead in determining the group's focus and activities.
Facilitators should be mindful of not pushing an agenda on students in the affinity group. Instead, they should listen to students’ voices and ideas for projects or topics of discussion. Darnell Fine, who coordinates affinity groups for his middle school, always begins an affinity group by asking students what they want to discuss. Often, students choose to discuss what it means to identify a certain way. That conversation might lead to others, such as understanding differences within an identity group, strengthening identity pride, developing leadership skills and responding to school issues and concerns.
There are excellent resources on the why and how of creating affinity groups. Consider sharing the list of resources below with the affinity group task force.
This webpage on the function of affinity groups in this school’s community can provide a model for the inclusion of this topic on your school’s website.
This webpage offers information on how the Seattle Girls’ School launched affinity groups.
By Julie Parsons and Kimberly Ridley
An article from the National Association of Independent Schools, published in the Winter 2012 issue of Independent School magazine.
Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria: And Other Conversations About Race
By Beverly Daniel Tatum
A foundational text on the importance of having meaningful conversations about race and racial identities in educational contexts.
Tran Kim-Senior, an assistant director in the admissions office and coordinator of inter-cultural programs at the Lawrenceville School, wrote this syllabus for the implementation of sustained dialogue groups at her school. Unlike affinity groups, sustained dialogue groups are not formed based on identity. But like affinity groups, sustained dialogue is rooted in “fostering meaningful change” in a community. The ongoing nature of sustained dialogue could be a useful model for affinity groups.