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Thea Dodds

Building community is complicated. Diversity makes a community richer and more resilient. But in order for everyone to work toward a common goal, some assimilation is necessary. What’s the best balance? What’s the best way to support a diverse community and help all to feel known and respected? At Holderness, affinity groups might be the answer.

Holderness School has a long history of inclusion, of accepting students from a wide range of backgrounds, religions, heritage, and perspectives and inviting them to be part of our community. At every level we work to integrate students, expecting all to treat each other with respect and compassion.
So why is it that Director of Equity and Inclusion Jini Sparkman, with the help of faculty Alexandra Disney and Jordan Graham, is organizing homogenous groups and encouraging students and faculty with similar backgrounds to meet and hold exclusive discussions?
Affinity groups are not new—they often happen at lunch or in dorms informally—but recently they have gained significant attention not only at Holderness but also in educational and sometimes even corporate communities nationwide. With careful and intentional planning, they can bring together people who don’t even know they have something in common and help them to strategize and support each other. Holderness has been considering affinity groups for a long time but is now building a program that recognizes that members of the community have different needs and need safe spaces to ask questions and find answers.
“The strength of Holderness depends on our ability to value the pluralistic identities of our students,” says Jini Sparkman. “We don’t want assimilation. We want to value the many identities that students bring to our campus. The creation of affinity groups says, ‘We see you, we value you, and we are going to create space for this.’”
Here are five things you should know about affinity groups:
1. Affinity groups are gathering opportunities for people who share a common identity.
Affinity groups provide opportunities for people to connect with other people who share aspects of their identity, especially in situations in which aspects of their identity are in the minority or are marginalized. It’s a chance to gather, share experiences, wrestle with questions of self-image, and strategize solutions to common problems. Students who share a Jewish heritage, students of color, students who identify as LGBTQ+, and white allies--these are all affinity groups that could be formed at Holderness School. It is a space where students and adults don’t have to be afraid of being judged and can say things that they can’t say in mixed groups. For the short time when the group is together, members of the greater Holderness community can find comfort in knowing that someone else has gone through what they are going through.
Perhaps the most significant affinity group that has formed at Holderness over the last couple of years has been the STEMinists, a group of female students, initially led by Hannah Fernandes ’17, who met, and continue to meet, to support each other and consider the learning culture at Holderness, particularly in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) classes. During their conversations, the girls have come up with strategies for supporting each other in the classroom and celebrating their common passion for STEM.

“As we work towards a more inclusive school that prides itself on its dedication to community, we need to first recognize that not all students can find community within Holderness because not all of their integral identities are acknowledged, visible, explored, or celebrated,” says Alexandra Disney. “I think that only when we recognize this will we see the need and necessity for affinity groups.”
2. Affinity groups require both the head and the heart.
Participating in affinity groups starts with a willingness to be vulnerable, to admit to not knowing all the answers but possessing the will to try. One has to care enough to engage in the process of trying to make things better. They must be willing to speak their truths.But it also takes a significant amount of thought and consideration. Participants have to be willing to consider their world perspective and the ways that their community may be affecting them and also their own agency in the creation of that community. The have to walk in another person’s shoes and participate in conversations that may throw everything they think they know out the window and start again. It’s about caring and compassion as well as intellectual perseverance.
3. Each of the affinity spaces function differently.
Affinity groups serve different purposes for different groups. The ways in which they are organized, the questions they consider, the outcomes they seek will vary from group to group. Male affinity groups, for example, might consider the question, “What does the #metoo movement mean for me?”, while female affinity groups might focus on how they can support each other in building confidence and self-respect.
In another example, this fall, Holocaust survivor Marion Blumenthal Lazan spoke at a special assembly and shared her experiences. It was an opportunity for the whole community to learn and grow. Afterwards, Jini Sparkman set aside time for Jewish students to meet with Marion, supporting an affinity group that shares a common heritage and allowing its members to share their common feelings and perspectives.
“Before that meeting many of our Jewish students didn’t even know each other,” says Jini. “It gave them a chance to get to know each other and perhaps be a bit more confident in acknowledging their heritage now that they know there are others like them.”
4. Affinity groups both challenge misconceptions build positive identities.
Affinity groups are an opportunity to dismantle negative misconceptions, but they are also an opportunity to develop positive perspectives as well—a guy shouldn’t feel badly for being a guy. Affinity groups are an opportunity for students to build their religious, gender, racial, and sexual identities independent of the larger community.
Part of that building of a positive identity may also have to do with supporting others. In a white affinity space, for example, it may mean discussing and discovering ways in which participants can support their classmates of color. They  can talk about how to get out of the way, how to empower people of color but not do it for them. For white people it is about understanding how to leverage their privilege, how to be effective allies and actively work against injustices.
5. Affinity groups need to be structured to support growth.
At Holderness, Jini plans to introduce different types of affinity groups. Some meetings will be  closed, with only those who share a particular affinity invited to participate. Other meetings will be open, or open by invitation. They will involve intentional dialogue on a prepared topic and may take the form of a panel discussion or a question and answer activity. The final affinity group involves sharing out in which members of an affinity group can voice their thoughts and ideas to the greater community. This could take the form of a Picador article, an art installation, or a chapel talk. For example, in the fall, students who are a part of the Alliance, a group of students dedicated to helping the LGBTQ+ community at Holderness, organized a chapel service. Students spoke about their experiences and expressed their support for LGBTQ+ members of the community.
In an article published by the Association of Independent Schools in New England, author Michael Brosnan writes, “Schools need to believe that the cross-fertilization of ideas makes for, as one teacher puts it, ‘the maximum opportunity for learning.’ ‘We want our students to be engaged in their communities and help move this democracy towards its ideal,’ says a diversity director. ‘They can’t do this in a monoculture. They need diverse school communities and a multicultural curriculum.’” Holderness is committed to this ideal, to creating a strong community in which all members feel supported so that they will be ready to participate in a democratic world. Affinity groups will help us get there.

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