In Practice: Creating Safe Spaces for Students to Explore Identity

Fall 2020

By Ashley Greene

safe-spaces.JPGAmerica is in a state of racial turmoil, and independent schools across the country have become more acutely aware of the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion within our organizations. For years, our schools have worked to increase racial diversity in the student body; create senior administrator roles for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work and diversity mission statements; and hire more people of color. But good intentions have fallen short, and a critical component of DEI work has been missing: a sense of belonging. Faculty and students of color alike are courageously sharing their stories of microaggressions and inequalities at their schools. And as institutions that want to acknowledge, listen to, and value all individuals, we must ask: How are we making it safe for people of color? How does the curriculum include them? What are we doing to protect, believe, and treat all students equitably? What are the opportunities for people of color to feel that an institution is their school?
The Episcopal School of Los Angeles (CA), a 6–12 school, has been working to address and explore these issues. The small and growing school of about 215 students is grounded in four virtues: generosity, integrity, curiosity, and courage. Forty percent of the overall tuition revenue is funded by need-based scholarships. Half of the newly enrolled students identify as people of color. Getting students and adults of color into the community was the easy part, however; supporting and acknowledging their needs took—and will continue to take—work.
To that end, the school implemented affinity groups for students and adults in the community. Affinity groups help create a “brave space” in which people can explore issues of shared identities and experiences; they can affirm their emotional and intellectual responses to being part of a distinct subset of the larger school community. These groups are an important tool for reducing the sense of isolation, discomfort, and marginalization many can feel even in the most progressive school communities. Affinity groups encourage embracing the different parts of identities and feeling confident and proud as opposed to silently suppressing aspects of identities as a survival tactic in predominantly white spaces.
Many of our students and adults of color have experienced affinity spaces at NAIS’s People of Color Conference (PoCC) and Student Diversity and Leadership Conference (SDLC). They’ve said they’ve found them to be a space where they don’t have to wear armor or leave pieces of themselves at the independent school community door. In 2019, we began surveying students and educating parents about the need for affinity groups before the fall conferences, and when the six students and seven adults from our community who attended returned, they helped ignite our larger community’s curiosity about how we can continue to create that same experience in our schools, spreading that understanding and affirmation to our entire community.

Our Approach

The existence of affinity groups can sometimes be puzzling to members of a school community—especially a community that already values diversity. At The Episcopal School of Los Angeles (ESLA), the responses to our affinity groups ranged widely, from enthusiastic support to skepticism and even some questions and concerns. Some were unfamiliar with the ideas and concepts behind these groups, and some initially regarded affinity groups as divisive and antithetical to the values of inclusivity and community. Training and educating the head of school and senior administration team was very important, as they were key to supporting and responding to inquires around affinity spaces.
In December 2019, before we jumped into creating affinity groups with students, all employees participated in a professional development day to discuss and explore their affinity groups. Our faculty created “personal social identity pies,” showing the ways different community members connect to parts of their identities. Adults were able to explore which identifiers had the most impact on their identity formation and how aspects of identity might combine, known as intersectionality. This exercise helped them see what allowed them to bring their full selves to work every day, or what hindered them.
Then together, we read the first chapter of So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo. As director of student life and diversity, I chose this book as an entry point—DEI work is a spectrum, and talking about race helps us learn to talk about our impact on each other. We journaled around prompts: Pick the identifier that takes up most of your chart. When is the first time you realized that you belonged to this group? Why is this aspect of your identity so meaningful to you? Think of a time it was difficult to be a part of this group. Thinking about all of the identities we bring to school each day opened the doors for a rich and enlightening discussion, one that would prepare faculty to do the same activity with students.

Our Process

In the beginning of the 2019–2020 school year, with the intention of rolling out affinity groups that year, I conducted our second school climate survey to collect data about our student body. The survey, which had about a 90% response rate, focused on racial and other identifiers as well as student comfort and support/encouragement levels at school. Once the survey was closed, we created a process to roll out the top six groups, a seemingly manageable number for our small school: students of color, multiracial, adopted, Jewish, LGBTQ+, and white. At the meeting after we rolled out these six groups, we expanded the number of groups based on feedback that students in the people of color space wanted smaller, more specific groups. The students of color group split into three smaller groups: Black/African heritage, Latinx, and Asian, including Asian/Pacific Islander, First Nations heritage, greater Middle Eastern heritage.
Then we thought about whether this would be an opt-in space or whether it would be a curricular touchstone. Benefits of an opt-in space included allowing students to say when they are ready to talk about who they are. Among the drawbacks, however, were a slow process to creating windows and mirrors and to pushing through discomfort. Leaning on our virtues of curiosity and courage, we felt it was important that all members—both school professionals and students—attend these groups, and as we thought about the time and place to create this space, we found that our advisory program would be ideal. During advisory, all students meet in small groups, once a week for 30 minutes. Each affinity group would meet once per month, or five times a year, during advisory with the option to meet additional times outside of advisory periods.
Once our groups were established, the chaplain, advisory coordinator, and I created themes for each meeting: getting to know each other; creating a brave space with community norms; experiences at ESLA; experiences in the greater world; and a time for wrap-up and farewells. And to ensure a successful launch and create student and faculty buy-in, we shared common language with our “Affinity Group FAQ” (see sidebar on page 104), a document we shared with the entire school community along with a letter from myself and the head of school.  

Key Takeaways   

Once you get into these spaces, you may feel joy and instant connections, like you’re right at home. Or you may feel uneasiness, confusion, or resentment for having to show up. The conversation will not always feel natural or organic and will need intentional planning and a good facilitator. Here’s what we learned:
Creating a white affinity group that is geared toward anti-racist work is necessary. White people aren’t always open to doing this work because they feel shame, guilt, or sadness. But if we define this space, we allow them to work through their feelings and ask questions as part of their anti-racist work. The group can consider essential questions such as: What were you taught about race in school? How will we acknowledge the difficulties and barriers, including feelings of defense and guilt or uninterested members of the group?
It’s important to be flexible, ask for feedback, and include students as facilitators once the groups get started. In order to know what students need, we must include them in the process. At the end of each session, they were encouraged to share anonymous feedback on an index card, and we took all of those comments into consideration for continued tweaking.
Prepare school professionals and parents in advance. Creating opportunities for adults to do the same work, before students participate, can help. When we shifted to distance learning in spring 2020, we created groups for families of color and a white anti-racist parent group. We also hosted book discussions around The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor by Layla F. Saad, and Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America by Michael Eric Dyson.
In our school community, we are continually being challenged to evolve and create opportunities for all to feel comfortable in their authentic selves. We know one thing for sure: Diversity needs to be more than quantitative; students need the opportunity to connect in authentic and intentional ways with students who share their identities.



Affinity Group FAQ

The Episcopal School of Los Angeles (CA) shared a document with the school community to help create shared language and faculty buy-in.

Here’s what it included:
What is an affinity group? It is a designated “brave space” where everyone in that group shares a particular identity. This identity can be based on race, gender, sexual orientation, language, nationality, physical/mental ability, socioeconomic class, family structure, religion, etc. Affinity groups can be a place for people in a community to come together to learn more about their identities and to feel more connected based on those identities. During affinity groups, participants might share and talk about their experiences or focus on working toward a particular mission or goal.
Who can be part of an affinity group? Only people who can speak from the “I” or “we” perspective with that particular group can be a part of it.
Aren’t affinity groups just exclusive and divisive? We all benefit from interactions with people who share common identities or experiences. When you are in the numerical minority of a larger community, these bonding interactions may only occur during an affinity group. During affinity group meetings, people can share freely and without inhibition about their experiences. These groups make them feel more visible and more included in our community and in doing so, enhance our broader commitment to inclusivity.
How can I support affinity groups I do not belong to? Affinity groups are only one aspect of creating a diverse and socially just world by creating a brave space for people to build strength and pride. Equally as important are the collaborative efforts between different groups of people toward creating equity for all. Allies are people who do not identify with a certain affinity group but want to support the equal rights of people from that group. Ally work and affinity work are both important aspects of creating social equity.
Ashley Greene

Ashley Greene was the director of student life and diversity at The Episcopal School of Los Angeles in California. She is currently the first director of diversity, equity, and inclusion at The Churchill School and Center in New York City.