The Conversation: The Power of Affinity Spaces for Asians, Pacific Islanders, and South Asians

Winter 2023

This article appeared as "Seen and Heard" in the Winter 2023 issue of Independent School.

At a recent virtual People of Color Conference (PoCC) affinity space, Dot Kowal, director of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Sonoma Academy (CA), was glad to see the grid of the nearly 300 faces of people on screen who identified as Asian, Pacific Islander, and South Asian (APISA). But when administrators were asked to keep their cameras on as part of an exercise to distinguish roles, it looked to her that there were about 15 administrators in the group. Even in her role she’s still surprised about representation. That’s why “connecting across the country with others, in affinity, is incredibly powerful,” says Kowal, who in 2020 had approached the California Teacher Development Collaborative (CATDC) about forming a study group for APISA educators in independent schools. Around the same time, Dr. Rochelle Reodica, now head of school at The Independent Day School (CT), separately connected with CATDC about this very idea. In February 2021, the two hosted a Community Conversation on how APISA educators could be involved in activism around Black Lives Matters in their personal lives and at their independent schools. That led to their facilitation of two study groups on “Deconstructing the ‘Model Minority’ Myth Using Our Lived Experiences,” with a third three-day virtual meeting in the works. In this edited exchange, Kowal and Reodica discuss what prompted them to create these affinity spaces, why it matters, and what they’ve learned along the way.

Dot Kowal: At our first study group, there were 42 participants on both coasts. And even though it was through the California Teacher Development Collaborative, half of our participants were not in California, which shows how badly we needed this space. Going in, we were both really intentional about picking apart the model minority myth and looking at Asian identity development and things that are really hard to look at: the anti-Blackness and colorism within our own communities. These were some of the longer, more sustained conversations I’ve ever had on those topics.

Rochelle Reodica: There’s something to be said for being in an affinity space where you can have these conversations more safely. Many of us talked about how we didn’t grow up in spaces where we talked about race, particularly because our families were immigrants. I remember some participants talked about not learning their native language because their parents wanted them to assimilate to be more easily accepted at school, for example. There were definitely some painful memories, and I think these were things that people had never discussed in a safe space. 

Kowal: I don’t think this is necessarily unique to the APISA community in the U.S., but there’s this idea that we don’t really count or that we are close to whiteness. This comes up in a lot of conversation: “Wow. Sometimes I forget you’re not white.” We can put ourselves in the shoes of our students and our families at our schools; it’s painful to feel erased or unseen. It’s painful to talk about being invisibilized, but talking about it in affinity helps.

Reodica: We talked about this idea of exceptionalism, which is tied to how we’re seen as the model minority. One of the aha moments for some participants was recognizing their proximity to whiteness because of assimilation. We pushed participants to talk and think about how that impacts their ability to build relationships across different racial groups. That was a difficult conversation to have because in some ways it’s also tied to where you live, the friendship groups you have, or the colleagues that you collaborate with when you’re at school. 

Kowal: After the success of the first APISA Study Group, another year went by. It was one of the hardest school years many of us have ever experienced. Then we organized the second study group. What was on your mind as we were planning? 

Reodica: It was really helpful to have the participants’ feedback from the first study group, and a lot of participants talked about how smaller group conversations were helpful because they were able to dive more deeply into some of their own stories.

Kowal: There were many levels of vulnerability, including being honest about what we don’t know about ourselves and our own culture. That was a big one for me as a facilitator. I am not someone who studied Asian American history or even had a strong interest in it until after college. I remember you put up a slide of Grace Lee Boggs and asked, “Does anyone know who this is?” Not many people recognized the photo or could say why she is relevant. We’re not taught that this is important, and that is wrapped up in white supremacy and the model minority myth. Asians aren’t supposed to be activists.

Reodica: As educators, it’s our responsibility to make sure that every student we work with knows our history. We are in a position where we can teach students about this. It is important to include other people’s histories as part of American history so that our children grow up knowing who Grace Lee Boggs and Yuri Kochiyama are.

Kowal: I think about my role as a DEI director. There are a lot of people who don’t see Asian people as the right fit for a DEI director because, “You’re not the majority minority.” White supremacy has created a sort of “oppression Olympics,” which is problematic in every way. And through this lens, I might not fall where some people think I need to fall to do this work. Getting over that and leading this work has happened concurrently with these study groups and deciding to take this role as DEI director in a predominantly white institution. I have convinced myself that I have a right to care about and do social activism, racial activism, and DEI work.  

Reodica: Not being the face of what a DEI leader is supposed to look like: Who decided that? And what does that even mean? As facilitators, we’re constantly questioning and challenging some of these things that are embedded in our culture and systems. If we don’t do that, then we start to fall into those traps. 

Kowal: Going back to that first community conversation about APISA educators as co-conspirators in Black Lives Matter—at the end, we had a call to action where we said, “What are you going to do differently?” I remember there being silence and eventually people were saying, “You know, this is all so new. We are just starting to digest this. I think our next step is having more conversations with the people in our lives or reading more.” At that point, I recognized how early most of us are on this journey.

Reodica: I do remember that long pause and some folks being really honest about where they are. They weren’t ready to jump into the action step of bringing something back to their school community yet because they recognized that they hadn’t actually done some of the internal work that needed to happen. I appreciated that because the danger, and what I’ve seen happen in independent schools, is that people with good intentions plan initiatives and programs at the school level. But the programs fail because there’s not enough buy-in from the community, or the people in the community haven’t done the important internal work that needs to happen for this work to be authentic and sustainable. 

That’s also one of the reasons why the study groups we hosted were successful. We provided that space for people to do the internal work that they needed and were really hungry for. I’m looking forward to the next iteration. 

DO YOU HAVE A CONVERSATION TO SHARE? Have you had a great conversation with a colleague recently that broke down silos or got you thinking about your work in a new way? Have you chatted with someone on (or off) campus that led to an unexpected collaboration? Tell us about it. Do you know of—or are you a part of— a great student-teacher duo? We want to hear about it. Send a brief description to [email protected], and we’ll follow up.