Interview with Judy Osborne, Diversity Education Facilitator at The Westminster Schools

What inspired your workshop on affinity groups?

Last year my colleagues and I participated in research on faculty perspectives on inclusion. We learned about how those feelings translate into how people feel about racial inclusion and dynamics on predominantly white campuses, and how affinity group conversations can also support faculty. We found that similar to our student body, faculty also thought of affinity groups as important resources for creating community. When adults are participating in affinity discussions themselves, it can help them in facilitating with student groups. The purpose of the presentation is to put our school's journey out there, share perspectives with other schools that might feel that affinity groups are divisive, and share resources that have been helpful for us.
Some schools may be hesitant to offer affinity group opportunities because they fear their community's pushback. These schools may not feel sufficiently equipped or prepared to talk about the benefits of these spaces in their communities. I recommend explaining that the word "affinity" is just a descriptor of the space. For some, affinity has become a "trigger" meaning ‘something that I’m not invited to or excluded from’. In reality, it simply represents safe spaces where people with different interests and backgrounds can come together to support one another. Meeting by way of affinity has tangible, positive outcomes for all kinds of institutions, from educational to corporate environments. Religion-centered schools and single-gender (all-girls or all-boys) schools are both examples of this kind of specialized support.

Given the shape the world is in when it comes to civil conversations about difference, affinity spaces are logical ways to have honest dialogue.  If we don’t have these conversations here, then where will they happen? We want to provide facilitated ways for students to vent frustrations but also receive support, guidance and affirmation. The most encouraging things I’ve seen are the great ideas our students generate in these spaces about ways that we all can engage with each other. 

What will the workshop cover?

In the workshop, we’re going to suggest a few different ways to talk about affinity groups in your schools and to name the areas that they already most likely exist. School administrators will know best which strategy is right for their school, whether that means unveiling the affinity groups one by one, or holding a massive community forum for discussion. We’ll also be providing resources to help schools prepare. Schools that are interested in exploring these programs should know what other schools already have in place so that they can connect for support and guidance. 

How have affinity groups affected your school community?

At this point we have optional student groups in the Middle School and the Upper School and have now begun the conversation on lower school practices. Our students - particularly those who identify with LGBT or racial/ethnic identity groups - are empowering one another to get together, strategize around micro-aggressions they experience, and step up to become leaders even if they aren’t labeled "leaders" in the larger community. It gives them opportunities to grow and to learn to have constructive conversations with their peers, family members and teachers.  
Faculty have also seen positive benefits of supporting each other, sharing stories and figuring out how their experiences are affecting our students. Even if they meet once a month or once a week, our affinity groups know that they have a place to vent about frustrations, strategize positive solutions, and figure out ways to communicate and grow. It also provides good training ground for more effective cross cultural/racial conversations and for resolving conflict.
Affinity groups have given us opportunities to learn about one another and to be individuals in the group. Sometimes students and faculty can be seen through their group identifiers, rather than as individuals in an environment. The stereotypes and assumptions that come with that can be very damaging to peoples’ confidence and success. It makes it harder to simply be yourself.
Even though we have these programs in place, we are not finished perfecting them. It’s a process. We have to continually reassess. We work with consultants, and we ask ourselves questions all the time: How do we provide the right groups for our current population? How do we spread the word? How do we schedule these groups so that students and faculty can attend with their other commitments? We try to provide space for everyone who wants space.  

Judy Osbourne

Judy Osborne is an award winning educator with more than 25 years experience in child advocacy, community program development and diversity and inclusion training and facilitation. A native of New Jersey, Judy started her career in journalism as a news reporter for a large daily publication before transitioning into education, social justice planning, conflict resolution and equity and inclusion building. She has been a teacher and facilitator at The Westminster Schools in Atlanta for the last 18 years, focusing on student and faculty program development, training and support.