One evening this past fall, Calhoun students and teachers came together on Zoom to discuss the impact of participating in affinity groups. “It’s a space where I can be myself and talk about my identity and culture,” said Lauren H. ‘22. Upper School English teacher Ellen Kwon described it as, “an extra special place to feel seen.”
Creating an inclusive community is central to Calhoun’s mission, but a key step in that process is ensuring that each individual feels supported and seen for who they are. Affinity groups — a group of people who share a common identity — provide an environment in which students can build community and explore their identities in a safe space.
“[Affinity groups] mean being with students who look like me and understand my struggles without me having to explain it,” says Basma E. ‘23. Within racial affinity groups, students are able to find solidarity with peers who have had similar experiences, without the added burden of needing to explain or justify themselves to those who may not be able to relate. This helps students build confidence and a sense of empowerment. These conversations are also crucial in processing the pain and anxiety of racial injustice. “It can be really isolating to see something on the news or on your Instagram feed and be shocked, angry or confused, and not have anyone to voice that to,” says Lauryn M. ‘21. “Affinity groups are a space to talk to people who might have the same feelings as you.”
The feeling of belonging found in affinity groups is not always a given within school communities. “As someone who went to independent schools my entire life, and someone who was often the only girl of color in the whole school or grade, racial affinity groups are one of the reasons I'm at Calhoun,” explains Kyle Anderson, 5th grade math teacher and a facilitator of the Students of Color Society (SOCS) in the Lower School—Elementary division. “It's something that I wish I had had as a student.” Institutions like independent schools have historically centered white identity — both intentionally and unintentionally — and affinity groups give voice to experiences that have been marginalized. “It's necessary to create a space where students of color feel as though their voices are heard and they matter,” says Fior D. ‘21.
"It's necessary to create a space where students of color feel as though their voices are heard and they matter." - Fior D. ‘21
However, affinity groups are not only necessary for those with historically marginalized identities. White affinity group spaces help students build self-awareness of their racial identity, acknowledge the pervasiveness of prejudice, and gain the tools to become allies. “Affinity groups are a place where I am given the opportunity to be educated, engage in conversations and examine a part of my identity that I have the privilege to ignore a lot of the time as I move through the world,” says Emily B. ‘21.
A common critique leveraged against affinity groups is that they are another form of segregation. In fact, it’s only when each group does their own processing and healing that constructive and impactful cross-racial dialogue becomes possible. “When done well, affinity groups lead to more connection across the greater community,” explains Eric Osorio, Associate Head of School for Teaching and Learning. “Opportunities to connect across lines of race and identity are possible because we are finding solidarity, safety and security within our affinity spaces.”
The success of affinity groups requires an intentional approach. Given that everyone is at various stages of their identity awareness, Basma points out that, “It’s important to prepare a lesson plan that challenges students, but is mindful that everyone is in a different place.”
Being able to hold potentially charged and emotional conversations starts with adults who are committed to ongoing self-reflection and personal growth. “One of the keys to facilitating [an affinity group] is making sure that we are continuing to engage in our own identity work as adults,” Eric explains. Finally, fundamental to fostering a sense of safety and support is “actively building trust between students and adults,” says Ellen. “It’s such delicate work, and listening with an open heart is really important.”
In the Upper School, adults frequently work alongside students to prepare agendas for affinity group meetings. This partnership can also be seen in the leadership role Upper School students have taken in holding these conversations. Over the summer, a group of Upper Schoolers formed the Diversity and Accountability Board (D.A.B.), which partners with administrators to make Calhoun a more equitable community. One of the first goals of D.A.B. was to create a more robust anti-racist affinity group program, making affinity groups a requirement for all Upper School students. Their collective action has already made an impact. “I've witnessed firsthand the power of students asking each other these questions and pushing each other forward. It’s been incredible to witness,” says Nicola Zimmer, Associate Director of Athletics, member of Calhoun’s DEI Team and co-facilitator of the LGBTQIA+ affinity group in Middle School.
"When done well, affinity groups lead to more connection across the greater community. Opportunities to connect across lines of race and identity are possible because we are finding solidarity, safety and security within our affinity spaces.” - Eric Osorio, Associate Head of School for Teaching and Learning
In addition to this change in Upper School affinity group programming, last year Calhoun launched the Little Students of Color Society (Little SOCS) for students of color in kindergarten through second grade to explore race and ethnicity in developmentally-appropriate ways. This program connects directly with the Students of Color Society (SOCS), an after-school space for third through fifth graders who identify as people of color. In the Middle School, affinity groups happen during the school day in order to give more students opportunities to participate. All of these shifts in programming have placed more weight on the importance of having conversations about race and identity across the school, and encouraged more community members to become involved. Mike Zurkuhlen ‘06, a Middle School teacher and member of the DEI Team, observes of the shift: “The norm at Calhoun is becoming one in which we’re all actively acknowledging and doing this work together.”
Even when motivation wanes or the current student leaders graduate, there will be work that remains to be done. But the current momentum, affinity group facilitators agree, gives them hope for the future of anti-racist work at Calhoun. “I hope our work helps people become more comfortable with having difficult conversations. These conversations are necessary and the only way that we're going to get better, not only as a community, but as a society,” says Fior.
That’s the real hope behind affinity group programming — to take these conversations and transform them into action that makes Calhoun a more equitable, inclusive school. “The power that we find in those spaces together will lead to those voices pushing our school, our institution and our communities to change,” says Eric. “Our ultimate goal for all of these spaces is about making a better community.”