Loving the Skin They’re In: Race-Based Affinity Groups for the Youngest Learners

It’s critically important for young students of color to feel uplifted, confident, and to have a sense of self. More than a decade ago, The Gordon School (RI) created race-based affinity groups—Common Ground—as spaces where children could be their authentic selves without risking judgment. Forty-three percent of Gordon’s enrollment is students of color, and 27% of the faculty and staff at Gordon are people of color.

Common Ground supports children of color as they speak freely about the experiences and challenges they face in school. Lower School Common Ground includes children identified by their parents as children of color and aged from first through fourth grade who meet for an hour weekly in eight week seasons. They discuss school issues, form bonds over common experiences, ask questions, and have fun together.

The goals for the students are deeply steeped in the tenets of Louise-Derman Sparks and Julie Olsen Edwards’ 2010 book, Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves, among other titles by the authors, to inform the school's anti-bias and anti-racist practice with young children.
  • Each child will demonstrate self-awareness, confidence, family pride, and positive social identities.
  • Each child will express comfort and joy with human diversity; accurate language for human differences; and deep, caring human connections.
  • Each child will increasingly recognize unfairness, have language to describe unfairness, and understand unfairness hurts.
  • Each child will demonstrate empowerment and the skills to act, with others or alone, against prejudice and/or discriminatory actions.
In March 2018, Common Ground expanded its reach even further. Families and school leaders observed the success of the lower school affinity group program, and they wanted younger students—often siblings of older Common Ground participants—to have an opportunity to play and learn with their peers. Gordon kindergarten teacher Julie Parsons, who started the first affinity groups at Gordon in 2006, worked with Shanon L. Connor, a preschool teacher at Gordon, to launch affinity groups among the youngest learners, the 5- and 6-year-olds.

A Personal Mission

Connor often reflects on her own experiences as an African American growing up in Rhode Island in the 1980s. She wonders how her life would have been different had she been given a chance to grow and thrive in schools that valued who she was. She had a proud, loving family that taught her about her culture, history, and the struggles her ancestors endured, but her time in school was less enriching. She remembers often feeling different or out of place, as if her thoughts, opinions, and life experiences were secondary to the majority.

In 2008, Connor joined Gordon as a preschool teacher. After teaching in Catholic and public schools in Philadelphia and Boston, where she believed she had made a difference in the lives of the majority of her students who were children of color, she was hesitant to change course and teach at a predominantly white, affluent independent school. Choosing to work in this new environment was a difficult decision, but as she became a part of the school community, she knew she could still have an impact on students in her care. She could encourage her preschoolers to love who they are and never be afraid of being their true selves. She could challenge stereotypes and be a role model for all children, but especially, children of color. She knew of the work Gordon was doing with affinity groups and was encouraged by its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Continuing Anti-Racist Work

Children of color continue to face many challenges in today’s world, which doesn’t always respect, accept, or appreciate their identities. Even at Gordon, where multicultural practice is a crucial part of the mission—one that its educators dedicatedly maintain daily—bias and discomfort arise. Students still express sentiments that mirror the data Gordon collected in a 2004 schoolwide assessment that explored the perceptions, attitudes, and expectations informing the educational experience of various racial and ethnic groups at Gordon. The study’s statements from students, families, and educators still ring true:
  • Students still live in two worlds, both of which are critical to them.
  • Students of color still sit alone within some classrooms.
  • Students of color report feeling socially lonely, isolated, and devalued.
  • Students of color feel an innate affinity with one another.
  • The curriculum can drive some racially charged feelings.
  • Race is still used as one element in creating classroom groupings and cross-grade "buddy" pairs.
The assessment led to the creation of Common Ground, which has thrived as a companion to— not a replacement for—sustained anti-racist work in Gordon's classrooms, playgrounds, strategic planning sessions, and board meetings. Gordon teachers use a shared set of guidelines for multicultural practice to ensure that all students—white students alongside their classmates of color—take an active role in their identity development. This work begins at age 3. Gordon’s white parents and faculty participate in their own race-based affinity groups, as do faculty and parents of color, and they come together throughout the school year in an ongoing series of cross-racial dialogues.

Expanding the Reach

Research shows that young students see and experience racism even if they do not have the words for it. That’s why a play-based curriculum that explicitly affirms racial identity is essential for students of color in predominantly white spaces to feel a sense of belonging. Through books, games, art-making, conversations, and play, Common Ground students learn to love their skin tones, embrace who they are, and vocalize what makes them unique. The youngest children thrive as they joyfully interact with one another and get to know each other in in-depth ways, and fourth graders become leaders for Common Ground, sometimes helping or role modeling for the younger students. They groan when it is time to leave, and they always say the time passes too quickly.

Parsons and Connor understand why they feel this way. This time with their students is unlike the time they have with them in the classroom. During the school day, these students are powerful, strong, and opinionated. In Common Ground, these qualities are nurtured and amplified by the experience of being in the majority and feeling a sense of connection and belonging.

The impact extends into the classrooms, hallways, and playgrounds. For them, there is nothing like observing how elated a young Common Ground student feels when an older student of color they met in the affinity program gives them a hug or a high-five during the school day. Students have a sense of confidence in the classroom and can easily speak to their peers about what Common Ground means to them.

When the COVID-19 pandemic closed their campus in March, older students of color gathered online. Zoom conversations included talking about the protests and how they were taking action. As they plan for the upcoming year in these uncertain times, there’s one thing they know for sure: Holding and creating space for students to gather for Common Ground will be an essential part of their programming. As early childhood educators, they are proud that Common Ground is an evolving space for students.
Shanon L. Connor

Shanon L Connor is a preschool teacher at The Gordon School in East Providence, Rhode Island.

Julie Parsons

Julie Parsons is a kindergarten teacher and affinity group facilitator at the Gordon School (Rhode Island).