Building Connection: Establishing Alumni of Color Affinity Groups

Winter 2021

By Trina Gary

RGB_Connections_Independent-School-—-Winter-magazine_Bongiorni2020.jpgWe have spent countless hours over the past several months talking about the COVID-19 pandemic and what many refer to as the racial pandemic in America. I think of racism as a malignant cancer that has metastasized onto COVID-19. While many believe the treatment plan to eradicate COVID-19 will require adherence to clear guidelines presented by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention scientists, eliminating racism in our country and in our schools will require a longer-term treatment plan that addresses the root cause of the malignancy: white supremacy ideology and the implicit and explicit biases that inform the programs and practices that have sustained race-based systems of oppression.
Like society, independent schools are turning inward, and so many school leaders are wondering how to seize this critical moment and harness the momentum to enact real, meaningful, and lasting change in their school communities. This requires listening and reflecting. And it requires each person to commit to anti-racism work. This individual commitment shapes institutions’ commitment to anti-racism. It is often sparked by the actions of those who care and say, “no more.” Independent school graduates of color are currently saying, “no more.”
Look no further than the Black@ movement, in which alumni and students are sharing their personal experiences at predominantly white institutions. As I read the Black@ accounts and, in my work, listen to the stories of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) independent school students and graduates, I can glimpse the depth of the hurt and what I understand to be trauma. One independent school alumna from the class of ’95 stated it this way, “Who deserves to be traumatized like that? We were good kids, and they traumatized us. How do you fix that? How do you say sorry for that? And those poor kids coming into ninth grade now, my heart drops in my stomach when I think about what they have to go through. It brings me to tears.”
How long have these experiences been residing in their minds and hearts? What is needed to heal the wounds, cleanse the mind, and restore one’s sense of justice?
In 2017, I launched the nonprofit organization Independent Trust to build community, promote the professional and social network of independent school graduates of color, and provide an affinity-based network to support alumni of color, many of whom were not interested in returning to or supporting the independent schools they attended. I thought, if we could provide a bridge for those who wanted it and needed it, we would be part of the healing process. So much of what I hear during Independent Trust events and in other listening sessions include the word “value.” I never felt valued at my school. I don’t know if they understand our value. How can we get them to appreciate us and know our value? When questions or comments stick with me for three or more days, they have taken up residence in my mind and, to some degree, in my spirit. These “value” statements have taken residence in my mind and spirit.
Where do current students of color see their value in your school? How can your school do better? When alumni have memories of experiences at their alma mater that made them feel seen and valued, it strengthens their sense of belonging in the community. These affirming experiences are what make alumni engagement and outreach efforts more successful.

The Importance of Affinity Groups

Beverly Daniel Tatum, award-winning educational leader, bestselling author, noted expert on the psychology of racism, and president emerita of Spelman College, says that in all we do for our schools, we should ask: Does it affirm identity, build community, and cultivate leadership?
If you are thinking about how to begin the healing process for your BIPOC graduates and current students, start with understanding them as people who have value. Listen to and learn their stories, acknowledge their hurt, histories, journeys, triumphs, and dreams by reflecting them in truth and power in your classrooms, curricula, and communities. Honor their traditions, and values with accuracy and intention, and provide space for them while they are in your community to express themselves and their new learning in an affirming and inclusive manner. Restructure your school to do what it may not have historically been created to do: Serve all students’ educational, social-emotional, and cultural development. Commit to creating an anti-racist community with clear action steps.
We are at a critical juncture in our schools, and current students and graduates are demonstrating that they care by calling on their alma mater to do better. They are also currently mobilizing for impact. They are creating their own BIPOC affinity spaces, some connected to their school’s alumni efforts, and other alumni BIPOC groups are working on their own. I encourage all schools to begin forming alumni of color affinity groups.
Affinity spaces offer a supportive and brave space for those who identify similarly to discuss shared experiences, create empowering group solidarity, and affirm identity. These spaces help strengthen community and engagement.
There will likely be pushback from people who do not understand or value the role that affinity spaces play for people of color in predominately white spaces. This concern or discouragement could come from alumni, current parents, board members, and others connected to the school. It is helpful to point out to these people that affinity spaces defined by donor giving already exist in schools. While schools may refer to these affinity groups by different names, such as bronze level, silver ambassadors, or benefactors society, they exist to increase engagement from a group of people, many of whom are alumni, who share net worth capacity and experiences related to that capacity.

Dismantling Silos

To effectively and more meaningfully engage alumni of color, schools must first carefully examine their alumni relations practices and systems. How can the alumni relations department connect with students before their senior year? In what ways can alumni relations staff and initiatives be more intentional about affirming the identity of students of color, building community, and cultivating student leadership? What silos, practices, and habits of mind are getting in the way of this engagement? Do we have a way to identify the faculty who are beloved by your alumni of color? And how are we inviting their participation in our outreach efforts?
Schools need to reimagine what and how information is shared across departments to ensure that all students are being affirmed and supported within the community, especially the BIPOC students who have reported feeling harmed by their independent school experiences. One practical first step in creating an alumni of color affinity group is to build and maintain an alumni of color database. The alumni relations department should work with the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) director, the dean of students, and admission team members to include racial and ethnic demographic information on all current and incoming students. The admission application should include a demographic section that includes (but is not limited to) the following identifiers: first generation attending college, gender, race, and primary language spoken at home. Learning more about a student’s cultural story, and understanding their story’s value in influencing their perspectives and experiences, will provide insight into how to best build an inclusive and anti-racist community that supports that student’s learning and well-being.
This collaboration among admission, DEI, and student and academic dean offices to discuss new students’ profiles can help build a foundation of support for these new students, particularly BIPOC students. This group should meet regularly, but especially before a new school year starts, to discuss all newly admitted students and determine what, if any, support may be needed to help their transition to your school. This meeting at the beginning of the year should also include a discussion about who would be the best advisers, teachers, and dorm parents for the student. It should also include a discussion about whose parents or guardians may be less likely to be able to visit campus for sporting events, parents’ weekend, and so on, and what the potential impact could be for the student. In other words, being able to anticipate a student’s needs and challenges will increase a school’s ability to proactively plan a course of action that can be affirming to students and can signal belonging.

Laying the Foundation

Communicate your intent and goals to form an alumni of color network to your community, and ask for their help in building a database. Help can come in numerous ways. Colleagues could share your communication with alumni of color with whom they have remained in contact, make an introduction, and become part of your outreach and engagement team. You should also identify and invite alumni who are in contact with their classmates of color to be a part of your outreach and engagement efforts by sharing communication with them about your work and the events you are planning.
Once you have a database in place, keep it current and include birthdays, graduation dates, important anniversary dates, and any honors or awards earned. Set up reminders to send cards or notes about these events and achievements—it’s an important way to demonstrate care and maintain connection.
Many students first learn about the role of the advancement office and the people who work in the department during their senior year, and these efforts tend to be perfunctory and merely ceremonial. When alumni offices wait until the weeks leading up to graduation to introduce themselves and celebrate their seniors, they’ve missed an opportunity to build a relationship. Alumni relations directors should collaborate with the dean of students, the diversity director, and a college planning adviser to create a strategy for more continuous engagement with students throughout their high school years. They should plan at least two events during students’ sophomore, junior, and senior years to affirm identity, build community, and cultivate student learning and leadership opportunities. (See “Start Early” below for specific programming ideas.)
Independent school graduates of color are a dynamic, intelligent, creative, and compassionate community, serving on corporate and nonprofit boards, running nonprofits, leading in their professional fields, and making a difference in the next generation’s lives. They are critical to the health and well-being of their independent school communities. And it is critical for independent schools to prioritize the health and well-being of these students and ensure that these graduates leave their campuses feeling like they belong.  

Start Early

Schools must start the foundational work of cultivating and engaging alumni of color long before students graduate. To build this relationship in a way that creates interest, create and plan programming throughout the high school years. Here are some suggestions:
Sophomore Year
  • Plan events that connect current students to alumni who share their academic, artistic, athletic interests through virtual or on-campus chats.
  • Plan events on financial literacy skills and how credit works. If your school provides a student charge card that allows students to make purchases, teach them how to establish money goals, manage their finances, and create a budget.
  • Plan events that focus on relationship building within the class.
Junior Year
  • Plan events on how stock markets work.
  • Plan events on how nonprofits work. How are they funded? What is the role and responsibility of the development office?
  • Plan events on philanthropy and the role it plays in society. Also explore how philanthropy looks in different communities, particularly within communities of color.
  • Visit HBCUs (historically Black colleges and universities) and HSIs (Hispanic-serving institutions).
Senior Year
  • Plan a college fair and conversations with alumni from different colleges.
  • Organize transitioning-to-college sessions with alumni who can address what they would have liked to have known prior to attending college. Include conversations with alumni who completed a gap year. What
    were the pros and cons of that experience?
  • Hold an induction to the alumni association.
Trina Gary

Trina Gary is the founder of Independent Trust and principal consultant of Brown-Gary Associates, LLC. She is a former independent school educator and administrator, partner to a head of school at an independent school, and parent of three independent school graduates of color.