What We've Learned About Affinity Groups
When we recently held our end-of-year, virtual retreat for Talking Together for Change, we spent time planning for 2022 and reflecting on what we have accomplished this past year. It is hard to believe that within the scope of a year we went from an idea to a full-fledged organization that is helping Canadian educational professionals centre social justice in their schools and classrooms.
Despite the experience and knowledge each of us brings to the work we do, we are unfailingly amazed by the amount of learning and unlearning we can do on a daily basis as we prioritize relationships and dialogue as a pathway to social change, as we welcome difficult conversations into our personal and professional lives rather than shying away from them, and as we think critically about how to be individual accountable for social change in a way that will help to dismantle the systems of oppression in which we circulate.
In all the work Talking Together for Change has done together, we each agreed that one of our strengths as a collective is our commitment to ongoing reflection. Every affinity group we plan, every training session we offer, we rigorously reflect on how we are centring equity and justice in the topics we address and the way in which we engage with the issues and values at the core of our work.
With this spirit of life-long learning in mind, at the end of year one, we decided to check in with our founding members to ask what they’ve learned this year about affinity groups.
Conversations about topics like colonialism, white supremacy, racism, transphobia, homophobia, and ableism are inevitably emotionally charged regardless of the make-up of people who are entering the conversation.
This year, I’ve learned that many people are genuinely anxious about being vulnerable in discussions about these topics, and this feeling is heightened when they don’t perceive that there is a precise structure that dictates (maybe even limits) what will be discussed.
In affinity groups, although facilitators try to create frameworks that make these conversations accessible for all, there is a level of necessary uncertainty required to allow space for the emotions that arise, for difficult questions to be asked, for uncomfortable realizations to emerge about ourselves and others.
Recognizing that this anxiety can become a barrier to having these conversations at all, I’ve learned how important it is when training facilitators to help them become as comfortable as possible addressing difficult moments in affinity group conversations as a fundamental step for building and repairing trust.
So much of what I have learned this year is confirmation of research and lived experiences - that affinity groups can truly be a gift - not only for the participants but also for the facilitators.
While the work is deeply emotional and can be charged, each time I have been involved in an affinity group either as a participant or a facilitator, I have been reminded that it is imperative to come with a stance of curiosity and desire to deeply listen to others. This has allowed me and others in the groups to have first-hand experiences of how powerful affinity groups can be for deepening relationships with others, while furthering one’s understanding of oneself.
Throughout the year, I have learned how important it is to be intentional in planning - from establishing and reflecting on conversational norms, providing even more time for discussions using well-designed prompts, and leaning into discomfort when addressing difficult moments. I have challenged and been challenged in ways that have allowed me to witness transformative change that I can see is necessary to be able to understand and dismantle systemic oppression. I have experienced not only the value of facilitating with others but also the joy it brings.
The work is deeply emotional. The relationships that evolve are meaningful. I have learned the importance of making the time to honour these emotions and nurture these relationships, while ensuring that I, myself, take time to reflect and practice self-love. I have learned that affinity groups help me, and others, build a community of critical friends that is vital since equity and social justice work cannot be done alone.
I am grateful to all those who have been part of the affinity groups I have had the honour to facilitate and to those who have provided spaces for me to be a part of.
One of the things I was reminded of this year when it comes to affinity groups is how important connections are.
I took part in some affinity groups as a participant this year, and they were an important reminder for me of the connections that can be built when enough time is set aside for conversations. As a facilitator, it’s easy to want to include a lot of tools and content so that I can point to the goals achieved and learning gained. However, as a participant I was reminded that the most valuable part of any affinity group is actually listening, sharing, and reflecting as part of the group. So, where once we as facilitators might have planned the time for conversations in breakout rooms to be 10-15 minutes long, we no longer hesitate to give participants 20-30 minutes together to reflect and discuss.
These longer stretches in breakout rooms still feel daunting at times. As a participant I know that there were a few times when I was told that I was about to head into a breakout room for 40 minutes and my gut reaction was to balk. However, I reminded myself that discomfort is an opportunity for growth and found that the time was productive because it allowed for deeper and more reflective conversations. As a facilitator, that reminder to give more time in discussion groups rather than less informs our planning.
Happy New Year!
As we welcome the year ahead and recommit to building a more just future for all, we hope you too can find joy and growth in deep reflection, conversation, and relationship building.