This year, Park launched an affinity group program with the hope of engaging families across the Park community in thoughtful conversation and connection. Created in partnership with the Parents’ Association, the program seeks to bring together community members who share common backgrounds and lived experiences. Affinity and alliance groups have been a part of the Park student experience for several years, and members of the parent/guardian community have hoped to create them for parents as well.
While we don’t label them as such, it’s important to recognize that many affinity groups already exist at Park. Each athletics team, advisory group, and grade level represents an affinity group with which its members identify. Various spaces, such as the faculty room or gendered bathrooms, similarly exist already as “affinity” spaces. Even Park itself – the larger community our families join when deciding to send their children to Park – is an affinity group. As a community, we accept and even celebrate these types of affinities.
Criticism of affinity groups often centers on the perception that they are exclusionary. Reframing this mindset is essential as we move forward with this initiative. Our view of affinity groups as being an intentional and appropriate grouping that provides support to members of the community that often feel “othered” is crucial. The feelings of isolation that come with marginalized identities are lifted when safe spaces are created to show members of our community that they are not alone. Affinity Groups provide an essential opportunity for people within the community to come together to talk about common experiences, raise questions and develop solutions, support each other, and together find ways to negotiate the larger community space we all share. The shared connections and understanding these groups facilitate and the opportunity they create to amplify voices of people outside the centered group can serve to deepen the understanding of the community’s diverse identities and needs, and thereby create a greater sense of community for all.
During the summer of 2020, the co-chairs of the PA DEI committee, along with PA leaders Eliza Hoover and Doreen Ho, created a survey for all Park families, seeking to assess their interest in affinity groups. Nearly 60 families responded, indicating interest in joining or helping lead various groups, and the PA created a new committee to oversee the creation, launch, and coordination of affinity groups. The committee sought to create systems and structures to support the groups so that they would function with consistency, that they would be sustainable, and that they would have a clear sense of mission and inclusion.
Among the PA’s goals was to ensure that affinity groups would become an integral part of the Park community. This is a priority that aligns consistently with the overall goals of Park’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Implementation Plan, which recognizes that “equity and inclusion” is the ongoing, foundational work of building community, and that affinity groups are an integral aspect of that foundation. Jessica Parsons and Divya Kumar stepped up to chair the new committee and began working to identify facilitators and tie the whole effort together.
By December, group facilitators were working with Park DEI liaison (and parent) Elyse Seltzer in affinity group leadership training. Divya notes that the training was tremendously helpful, “laying the groundwork for myriad aspects of affinity group work, including creating group guidelines, managing difficult conversations, and learning how to use different tech tools for virtual meetings.” In January, eight new affinity groups launched, extending invitations to all Park parents/guardians who wished to join.
The initial eight groups – chosen based on expressed community interest as well as where there was a parent able to serve as facilitator – include:
Asian/Asian-American/Pacific Islander Parents/Guardians
Families Receiving Financial Aid
Families Supporting Children with Learning Differences
Asked to provide one word about how they felt about their experiences leading affinity groups so far, Park facilitators said: “energized,” “relieved,” “positive,” “jittery,” “connection,” “exhale,” “excited,” “optimistic,” “nostalgic,” “supported,” and “finally.” As a group, they shared a common sense of relief in being able to communicate openly and deeply about the shared experience of participants in each group. One participant noted that the groups provide a valuable opportunity for unfiltered conversation, with less of a need for the sort of diplomatic language that often makes it harder to get to the real core of a matter.
CydCharise Jeyes (parent of a first and fifth grader) believes so strongly in the value of gathering in affinity that she stepped up to co-facilitate not one or even two but four affinity groups. She observes, “The primary benefit of affinity groups is that they make people comfortable. It’s so valuable to have a forum where the people present share a similar experience to whatever is on your mind. Because the Park parent/guardian group is so unique and diverse, we can really be a resource for each other.” Even as each of the groups focuses on distinct and different topics, there is a welcome sense of relief in finding a space in which to talk about the concerns that impact their families, and to connect with others with similar experiences. Participants agree that “Everyone really seems to be needing the space.”
Given that the initiative launched with just those groups for which there were parent volunteers ready to facilitate, Park’s affinity groups do not represent all the possible affinities the community shares, so there is much room for growth. The committee hopes that more parents and guardians, upon seeing these efforts underway, will identify other affinity topics they would like to help lead, so that space for those efforts can be made as well.
While we hope more families will engage in these conversations as time goes on, the relative size of a group does not impact the quality of the experience. A participant observes, “You can get a sense of community with five people on the screen or with 40. However many people join, the conversation is still being had.” But if more people join, that many more people will benefit from the sense of peace that comes from being in this constructive, supportive space together.
While parents and guardians at Park have always found ways to connect with others who share their experiences, there is a difference between ad hoc gatherings and the statement the school makes by enabling them. Reflecting on the group dynamic, participants noted that even in groups that brought longtime friends and peers together, the structure of affinity group conversations around a given topic or experience allowed for deeper, more substantive discussions because they created a dedicated time and space devoted to these issues, as opposed to more casual previous interactions.
The group facilitators communicate between meetings and share agendas, resources, and guidelines. After the first round of meetings, all the facilitators came together to share successes, surprises, and things they would like to do differently – a powerful enactment of the way in which the experience of individual groups supports and empowers the collective efforts of them all. A group leader observes, “Overwhelmingly, folks felt like their groups went well, and everyone seemed so excited and positive and energized and relieved. So many good feelings!”
In addition to these affinity groups, the initiative has also led to the creation of a working group for White Parents/Guardians Working Toward Anti-Racism – Education, Reflection, and Action. The working group looks forward to ensuring transparency regarding the topics discussed, the materials used, and to sharing the presentations used in its discussions, with the hopes that all can know, see, and engage with what is being discussed.
The realities of COVID-19 have, perhaps unexpectedly, helped this effort get off the ground. From a practical standpoint, the need for all meetings to occur virtually has eliminated one significant barrier to participation: families no longer need to find a way to be on campus for an in-person meeting, thus opening the (virtual) door to those with childcare or professional obligations that make in person attendance difficult. In addition, the loss of the usual points of connection families are accustomed to finding day to day at Park has made these opportunities for connection all the more welcome. Further, the context creates a greater opportunity to expand connections to include participants drawing from outside preexisting social groups.
Still, the facilitators note, participation has not yet grown to the level all hope for. Understanding that it sometimes takes time for important programs like this to become fully incorporated into the community’s consciousness, everyone hopes that ongoing communication and transparency will encourage more people to get involved. The leaders note, “We want to ensure that all who wish to join a group feel welcome, have a clear sense of when groups will meet and receive appropriate reminders.” Equally important is the hope that friends will reach out to friends to encourage the involvement of those who may be less naturally inclined to find their way into these conversations, knowing that greater engagement in this work will only make Park a stronger community.
We look forward to all the community building to come from these solid and exciting beginnings, and are grateful to all whose commitment and investment of self have brought the program this far.