TOP 10: How to Facilitate an Affinity Group
Being well prepared as a facilitator is key to the success of any affinity group.
We recently had a workshop participant ask us to explain the role of the facilitator, and our answer is that a good facilitator is one who is engaged and organized.
As an educational professional running an affinity group for students, here are some tips for being effective in the role:
1. Find a co-facilitator.
All facilitators should be able to say "I am [identity]." It is best practice to have co-facilitators for affinity groups. Draw on any professionals within your organization who might be interested - don't limit yourself to the teachers. Two (or more) facilitators are important especially when there are difficult conversations. Having co-facilitators who are present at each meeting safeguards your professional boundaries, ensures that you have someone else to help share the responsibility, and helps to bring new perspectives and ideas.
2. Consider the physical space and how the group is advertised.
There are many considerations when choosing the right space for meetings, how it’s advertised, and the types of posters or signs that are used to invite students. It’s important to consider how a group might be perceived by members and non-members in both positive and negative ways. In the words of a Black student reflecting on an affinity group meeting: "For the first time I felt I could be in a room full of Black students and feel like other people weren't wondering why we were gathering. It gave us a purpose, and permission.” Discuss with students if the location feels comfortable and safe and find a new one if needed.
For an LGBTQ2S+ affinity group the meeting might need to be in a discreet location in order to help protect students who are not out, or who don't yet feel comfortable being seen as part of the group.
Try to find a space where everyone can sit in a circle.
3. Plan ahead.
Affinity groups don't just happen. You must plan how the conversation will work and consider the needs of the students. Decide ahead of meetings how turns will be taken to ensure a balance of speaking and listening. Think about what you want to achieve and then plan discussion prompts (eventually students can help to develop the discussion prompts).
Be aware of what's going on in the world and if there are issues that need to be discussed and debriefed.
Consider your own timetable and what you'll do if a student is upset and needs follow-up. Consider the needs of the group to get to know each other, to go deeper, to be social, to have real conversations about their experiences in the world.
4. Start with conversational norms and a statement of belonging.
Make sure at the start of every meeting that everyone is in the right place based on being able to say "I am [identity]". If the group isn’t the right fit based on a student’s identity, help them to find another group that might be a better fit.
Conversational norms are important for a well-functioning group. They help to define the space so that everyone has similar expectations for how the conversation will be managed. They also serve as a touchstone when things don't go as planned. Revisit these norms regularly, especially if there are new members present.
The following are conversational norms that could be used in a racial affinity group.
This is a brave space for reflection and truth telling.
Everyone's an expert on their own experience. Be willing to share yours (how much you share is up to you).
Balance listening and sharing from the “I” perspective.
What is learned here leaves here, and what is said here stays here.
Conversation is about deepening our awareness of our experiences, roles, and responsibilities in social systems.
We strive to have an affirming experience, create fellowship, examine what it means to live in a racist world, understand how to be anti-racist.
Assess intent vs. impact. Address “ouch moments” in a constructive way for all parties.
In a virtual meeting:
Please ensure your video is on, and that you are in a space that will offer privacy to all participants in the group.
No recording of any type.
The host will disable the individual chat; only group chats will be permitted.
5. Invite everyone to introduce themselves.
Allow ample time for people to introduce themselves. Prompts for establishing relationships might include: "Please share the story of your name" or "How did you feel coming to this group for the first time" or "Let's each share five key parts of our identities, and be sure to include your racial identity as one of them."
6. Be prepared to participate...but not too much.
A good affinity group facilitator actively participates in the discussion and shares their experiences with respect to the affinity identity. This role is different from being in the classroom, and in an affinity space you must feel comfortable being open and honest about your identity and how it impacts your life. Be aware of your own balance of speaking and listening and take turns like the other members of the group. Remember, you don't need to be "the teacher" and shouldn't be taking up most of the talking space.
7. Be a visible leader.
Be open and willing to explain to the student and parent community the purpose of affinity groups and why they're valuable. Invite students, and spread the word. Advocate for affinity groups, and share with leadership about the experience. Join forces with other affinity group leaders so that the student body sees facilitators as a team within a school that supports affinity group work. Consider starting affinity groups for faculty so that they can also have affinity experiences and become advocates for student affinity groups.
8. Do the work.
As part of your own professional development consider joining an affinity group or attend a conference like the NAIS People of Colour Conference (which runs racial affinity groups as a core part of its programme).
It's important to keep reflecting and examining your own beliefs and experiences to better serve the students in the role of facilitator. Plus, you'll feel more confident having seen how other people lead affinity spaces, and by gaining more exposure to the types of discussion prompts that are most effective.
Reach out to the other affinity group facilitators and share your experiences. Don't be afraid of the hard conversations and emotions that arise when doing this work, and be prepared to address them as learning opportunities.
9. Shared experience.
From time to time find a common discussion prompt or issue to explore across all of the affinity groups within your school. This allows for a greater sense of belonging across the school community and for students to feel that they have allies.
The common prompts could focus on a particular social issue or event. For example, if there is an act of hate that targets a particular group, all groups could discuss the event and its impact.
10. Make sure you're compensated.
It takes a lot of thought, preparation, time, and emotional energy to make an affinity group run well. Make sure that you're compensated. Compensation can come in the form of wages, work load, lieu time, or counting towards co-curricular responsibilities. You should be recognized for this work.