Parent affinity groups can have profound effects on schools. This post about my experiences starting an affinity group at my daughters’ elementary school, originally appeared on Blavity, a an online community of “the most exceptional multi-cultural creators and influencers in the world.” Blavity partners with diverse content creators and influencers to “help them reach a wider audience, amplify their message, and fund their hustles.” I am proud my work is highlighted there. Check out my article there, as well as more great content by Black millennials, artists, culture critics and entrepreneurs.
One Step Back, Two Steps Forward–Starting a Black Family Affinity Group at your School
As I mentioned in a previous post, I last spring I begun hosting a Black Family Breakfast affinity group for Black families at my daughters’ elementary school. This is part of an effort that my principal, I and a few key staff have initiated to “explore race and culture” at our school. Teachers noted last year that parents needed to be involved in the process (not just teachers and kids). As parents, we can undermine efforts of staff in creating a safe and welcoming environment for all families. That said, after several conversations with Black families at our school, we decided to get together to share ideas and resources to help make our school and even more welcoming place.
Apparently my “great idea” of bringing Black families together was not met with open arms by all staff. A few days after sending out invitations for our second meeting I learned some teachers were voicing concerns about Black parents getting together to talk about their experiences at the school (?!) This happened even at a school with an enlightened and supportive principal like mine! At this moment, I realized, there was still a LOT of work to be done in our district and at our school. Nonetheless, I’m glad I’m doing it.
What was all the hubbub about? Some staff expressed their concerns that an affinity group would be too “exclusive” and could potentially be seen as unfair by other racial and cultural groups at the school.
As a Black woman who is constantly having to navigate “white spaces”, I understand the importance of being able to “tell it like it is” and in a room full of folks who “get it.” I also understand how important it is to be able to speak about my experience without having to worry about defensive reactions of others.
With support from the principal (which is KEY) we decided to move ahead and use this incident as a “teachable moment.” The principal agreed to listen to staff concerns while still encouraging them to live with the potential discomfort that their questions stirred up. I explained to the principal that I was happy to answer any specific questions staff had, and we both agreed that if staff felt other affinity groups should be formed
Luckily, a friend of mine shared an article that proved helpful in explaining why our affinity group is so important for our families. This article is focused on setting up student affinity groups, nonetheless, I feel it also applies to parents as well:
Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Good Friday have long been on the calendar at Madeira School in McLean, Virginia; no major tests are given on those days. But it wasn’t until students in the school’s Muslim affinity group were discussing the dilemma of choosing between taking tests or attending Eid services that the lack of inclusion on the calendar became apparent.
“You really shouldn’t be having tests on a major holiday. We can communicate this up to the teachers and the administration,” math teacher and affinity group leader Jeannie Rumsey told the students. “We can find another time for you to make that up, but this is a major holiday for you and you should be able to celebrate it.” After organizing and communicating with their administration, the group succeeded in adding the major Muslim holy days to the following year’s school calendar. The dates were given the same treatment as the Christian and Jewish holidays: no tests.
This example of collective action is one of the purposes of affinity groups in schools: They allow students who share an identity—usually a marginalized identity—to gather, talk in a safe space about issues related to that identity, and transfer that discussion into action that makes for a more equitable experience at school.
Even though I experienced some initial pushback, it’s been interesting to see some positive outcomes of moving forward DESPITE the initial resistance.
First, it became very clear that YES… our teachers actually NEEDED to talk about race. Even if it’s just exploring how we feel about talking about it. (A good first step, No?) I am also learning that this work is ESPECIALLY important in schools with language programs. I never had an option to NOT talk about race teaching at other more diverse schools in our district.
In contrast, at my daughters’ former school, where a full HALF of our classrooms are bilingual Chinese, there may be many teachers who are very experienced teacher may never have never been confronted with issues of talking about Black culture or even race in general. So, I realized I had to reset my assumptions about the general comfort level or knowledge folks have about addressing race/culture in the classroom. This may even be more true for Asian-Americans teaching in mostly Asian-American schools because as People of Color they may get “checked” less often by folks of other disenfranchised groups such as Blacks and Latinxs.
Outside of my own learning, starting the affinity group didn’t ask anything of teachers (as it’s all parent initiated and supported.) Nonetheless, the conversation about whether we should or shouldn’t have a Black family affinity group (or other affinity groups for that matter) DID cause there to be more conversation about race among staff. :)
More and more, I began seeing folks coming out of the woodwork to form an informal network of folks interested in elevating this important conversation. This has in turn led to a clearer purpose and resolve to push for change around how we spoke about racial equity in our school.
- A teacher sought me out the next morning to tell me how she’s been “fuming” about some of the ignorant comments and resistance of her teacher peers. The experience of listening to other staff voice questions and concerns, is making her want to speak up more and fight for the voices and needs of our most underrepresented kids. (Also, including LGBT, Spanish-speaking, low-income, etc.)
- Our Literacy Specialist and the School Social Worker have on their own initiative decided to take on the idea of creating a K-5 Book Talk curriculum for ALL teachers in the school addressing race and culture. (WOHOOO!)
- Our principal has also committed to funding our teachers and librarian in increasing the number of books with people of color in our school and classroom libraries. #WeNeedDiverseBooks!!! (I posted a resource for doing a Library Audit here if you are interested. I have also posted multiple book lists for diverse books here, here, and here.)
All of this had not directly been DRIVEN by families. Nonetheless, this type of dialogue would never have happened, if Black, Latino, Asian and White families hadn’t STARTED the conversation. Being at our school and serving on various parent leadership groups (School Site Council, Parent Teacher Organization, etc.) I know these questions had come up time and again. But over the six years I’ve been at our school, it had never been on the front burner. The fact that all this new activity happened was a direct result of families having conversations about the importance of naming and celebrating culture and race at our school. It’s one thing to have a principal make demands of teachers (among all the other demands made of teachers each day.) It is quite another for parents to make direct requests from teachers on behalf of their kids.
How are you supporting conversations about race and culture? How can families support staff in moving past their resistance and discomfort to address positive change at your school?
Ali Collins is an educator, community organizer and mom. She lives with her husband and twin girls in San Francisco, CA.
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