Affinity groups are meant to be safe spaces for educators or students who share an identity, such as a common race or heritage, to discuss mutual concerns and help each other navigate a K-12 education system where they are in the minority.
But these organizations have recently come under attack by a conservative think tank and a parent organization, which argue that the groups are effectively a form of segregation.
Here are some basics on what affinity groups are, why they exist, and why they’re being challenged now:
What is an affinity group?
While America’s student body is diversifying, teachers remain predominantly white. That means teachers of color often feel isolated in school buildings, and they need to feel welcome and supported, according to Saili Kulkarni, an associate professor of special education at San Jose State University.
That’s where affinity groups come in.
“Oftentimes, a teacher of color might be the only one right at their school sites, and be experiencing some racial microaggressions or challenges and not have anyone to really kind of confide in,” Kulkarni said. “So these spaces provide that validation or that support for the kind of challenges that they may encounter.”
The same idea has guided the formation of affinity groups at the student level, such as Black male support groups or Latino student associations, or for students with particular sexual or gender identities.
Why affinity groups are being challenged
Since last year, amid the national backlash against equity and inclusion initiatives, affinity groups have become targets of complaints filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights by a parent group called Parents Defending Education. The group has filed four complaints and a federal lawsuit against school districts for offering safe spaces for students or educators of color, alleging that the existence of these groups violates the Civil Rights act and the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
The group has so far filed complaints against the Jefferson County public schools in Colorado, New York City public schools, the Orange County school district in North Carolina, and Wellesley public schools in Massachusetts. Parents Defending Education also sued Wellesley schools for offering affinity groups for Black, Latino, and other students of color. The lawsuit was settled this February, with the district agreeing to clarify that the groups were open to any and all students.
The group has also filed federal complaints against districts for other equity-related initiatives, such as equity audits, extracurricular activities for students of color, and even school board statements condemning systemic racism.
“Treating children differently on the basis of skin color—regardless of intent—is immoral,” Parents Defending Education founderNicole Neily says in a statement. “When it is done in public schools with taxpayer dollars, it is also unconstitutional.”
Similarly, the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a right-learning think tank, has sent letters challenging affinity groups to two school districts in that state.
Affinity groups have been around for decades
Black teachers formed the first affinity groups in Georgia in 1878, when they asked for salaries equal to their white colleagues, according to a report comissioned by the Black Teacher Project, a group dedicated to train and sustain Black K-12 teachers.
Decades later, after school desegregation, many Black teachers lost their jobs and, as a result, their voice to advocate for Black students, according to a paper by Vanessa Sidle Walker, a professor of African American educational studies at Emory University.
Those losses still have an impact today. Because America’s student population is becoming more diverse, as educators of color remain underrepresented, their ideas are often undervalued and they have to take on additional burdens, according to the Black Teacher Project report.
“It’s this idea that the integration of folks was completed on some sort of equal footing,” Kulkarni said. “We haven’t come to terms with the anti-racist work in K-12 spaces, and therefore there continue to be these issues. Whether everybody recognizes them or not, they exist.” The ongoing frustration perpetuates the need for teachers and students of color to band together for support and a safe harbor.
Keeping Black teachers in the classroom
When Emily Dech, a teacher in Minnesota, started an affinity group in her district, she was one of only five educators of color in the district.
“We really felt this need for a space with just so many different things going on, so many instances of being in a very white-centric work environment,” she said. “We needed a space just for us to be able to come together and just breathe and process and be there for each other.”
Dech centered her affinity group around the idea of “racial battle fatigue,” which the University of Minnesota describes as the “cumulative psychological, social, physiological, and emotional impacts of racial micro and macro aggressions and racist abuse on racially marginalized groups.”
It was exhausting to work in a predominantly white environment, Dech said, so the group shared research and resources with each other on how best to navigate their stress while supporting students of color.
Then three of the five teachers of color, including Dech, were cut from the district last year because of last in, first out policies and certain teaching positions being removed.
The charter school where Dech works now has a much more inclusive environment, but she still formed a new affinity group, this time with nine members.
“Now we have a widespread teacher shortage, but within teachers of color, 50 percent of us leave within their first five years,” Dech said. “And so we need to have something that helps us stay.”
Affinity groups can also serve teachers cross-sectional needs
Kulkarni developed a group for special educators of color through San Jose State, which includes about 10 special education teachers from California.
Special education teachers of color often need a space to share concerns that lie at the intersection of teaching students with disabilities and being an educator of color, she said.
“They’re dealing with not only the racial microaggressions, [such as] some of the the racist comments or the racist undertones to some of their work, but they’re also dealing with folks who don’t recognize disability as an identity,” she said. “And therefore are constantly trying to advocate for students to receive some equal supports, to be integrated into classrooms, to have opportunities to participate with peers of the same age.”
Black special education teachers in Kulkarni’s group said they constantly feel like their decisions are being questioned by administrators or other teachers, or are not taken seriously when they ask for specific resources to be able to educate their students. The group allows them to feel supported by sharing their mutual frustrations and helping each other navigate similar work problems, Kulkarni said.
They also felt tensions while talking to other special education teachers if they were white and felt like they had to keep advocating for themselves and their students simultaneously, she said.
Dech and Kulkarni both disagreed with conservative groups’ claim that affinity groups for educators or students of color constitute segregation
“I think it really comes from that place of discomfort or avoidance,” Kulkarni said. “If folks want to get together around a particular culture, racial background or language, they should be able to do those things because it’s a shared experience that they want to put together.”
A version of this article appeared in the November 30, 2022 edition of Education Week as Safe Space or Segregation? Affinity Groups For Teachers, Students of Color