“It’s nice to have a group of people who you can rely on, and even if you guys don’t have the same interests or you don’t come from the same places, you still have this one underlying thing in common,” member of the Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Affinity Group (APIDA) affinity space Sofia Filardo (10) said.
Under new Office for Identity, Culture, and Institutional Equity (ICIE) leadership, the school’s faculty-led affinity groups have come together as a collective of defined spaces. Affinity groups at the school are groups of students of similar identities who want a space to explore their identity with people who share similar experiences, co-adviser of the LGBTQ+ affinity space and Studio Arts Technician Emily Lombardo said.
The groups include the LGBTQ+ Affinity Group, the Black Excellence Affinity Group (BLEX), APIDA, the Latinx Affinity Group, and the Multiracial Affinity Group. There is also a working group for white students called “White Students Critically Working on Whiteness.”
Only people who share specific identities can enter affinity spaces. The closed nature of the White Students Critically Working on Whiteness allows white students to work towards social justice by themselves, Kafoglis said. “It allows us to engage with whiteness without having to lean on people of color to do the work for us.”
Affinity spaces are necessary both at the school and in general, Director of ICIE Christine Moloney said. “Children are often left without the language or skill to process their identity in a healthy way. Affinity spaces provide structured conversations in a safe space to reduce identity stress for all at the school, she said. Students can build deep, caring human connections when they practice awareness of their own identities, the identities of others, and when they practice identifying and combating unfairness, she said.
The ICIE Office has always overseen the affinity spaces, Moloney said. ICIE is sticking to this structure while streamlining sign-up through the ICIE email address instead of through affinity space leaders, Moloney said.
The APIDA affinity space, which meets once every two weeks, provides a safe space for students who want to explore aspects of their Asian identity, co-faculty advisor of APIDA Lester Lee said. “It’s really nice to have a space where we can come in with a shared set of expectations, shared cultural values, and create deeper understandings of experiences we’ve gone through,” he said.
Students support and empower each other in the space, co-advisor of APIDA and UD English teacher Stan Lau said. “For example, there was a spike in anti-Asian violence after Donald Trump made comments about where he thought Covid came from, so [APIDA] became a place of support and solidarity during a national crisis,” he said.
BLEX is a space where students can gather together, hear each other, bring out the best in each other, and nurture their ambitions in an institution where they are the minority, co-adviser of BLEX and English Department Chair Vernon Wilson said.
Meeting new people, catching up with her friends, and hearing about their day is Nia Huff’s (10) favorite part of BLEX, she said. “It’s important to give Black students in a predominantly white institution space to share how they feel, learn, socialize, and make memories,” she said.
The LGBTQ+ affinity space is not only a place where students can feel heard and share their stories — it is also a place where students learn about LGBTQ+ history and current events, Lombardo said. “Sometimes we talk about current events in the LGBTQ+ community, which there are so many things happening all the time, and then we’ve been trying to do a storytime where we’ll come up with a topic and people talk about what’s happening for them in that topic,” they said.
Unlike other affinity groups, White Students Critically Working on Whiteness is a working group, or a group that works together to achieve certain goals. The group allows students to engage with their own whiteness to work towards racial justice, co-advisor of the group and math teacher Benjamin Kafoglis said. The group started a few years ago, after students and leaders from the already existing affinity groups said that they wanted a space for their fellow white students to do this type of work, he said.
“We are now calling it a working group, not an affinity space,” Scarlett Goldberg (11), a member of the ‘‘White Students Critically Working on Whiteness” group said. “I personally didn’t like calling it an affinity group because white people don’t need a safe space — the entire world is our safe space. So, it felt a little odd in that way.” A ‘working group’ is a much more fitting name as the members are there to work on their whiteness in a context of antiracism, she said.
The groups are faculty run, so Lombardo’s main role as an advisor is to be an advocate for students, they said. “If there is something that’s going on at HM, that they feel is making an LGBTQ+ student feel excluded, they could come to us with that and we can help advocate for more inclusivity as needed,” they said.
In the LGBTQ+ space, there are a lot of identities that need to be nurtured, Lombardo said. “It’s sometimes a challenge to make sure that we are covering material and topics that can speak to everybody on the sexual and gender spectrum,” they said.
In the BLEX affinity group, the advisors can show students the past versions of the same issues going on today because they have experienced more, Wilson said. “We have had meetings where we’ll show short videos, or we might show a part of an old 90s sitcom, so in that case, we are of the voice of older generations that is helping them to see some of the continuity throughout history,” he said. Students can then ask themselves, “Is there progress?” and think about the past and the future of the Black community, he said.
A large group of students return to BLEX each meeting, Wilson said. “Among Black students, I think there’s a sense that they often feel that their questions, concerns, or experiences are not seen and not heard by the larger culture, and an affinity space feels like a place where they can voice that and figure out ways to be themselves in the most meaningful way they can,” he said.
The newest affinity space is the Multiracial Affinity Space, which was added this year. Several students who self-identify as multiracial requested the space, so administrators worked together to provide it, Moloney said. As a multiracial person herself, Moloney thoroughly enjoyed the space’s first meeting this Wednesday, she said.
Audrey Carbonell (11) helped start the Multiracial Affinity Group. Carbonell talked to Moloney about starting an affinity group because there was not a space for multiracial students prior to this year, she said. “[Moloney] is also someone of multiracial background so she wanted to be part of it too,” Carbonell said. “‘Multiracial affinity group’ doesn’t mean that people have to necessarily come from the same racial background, yet there is something that they share: an ambiguity with their backgrounds.”
Many identities fall under the category of APIDA, which is both a privilege and a challenge, co-advisor of APIDA and English teacher Jennifer Huang said. “If we go into a structured conversation with a predetermined topic, it’s totally possible that the students in the room are going to have radically different experiences — some people may have everything to say about it, and others may be like, ‘Oh, this really doesn’t affect my life,’” she said. The group gets to hear stories from many different backgrounds, but also it can be difficult to accommodate the conversation to everyone’s identity at all times, Huang said.
Being in the same space as people who share similar experiences outside of the classroom setting is beneficial, member of APIDA Christine Tao (10) said. “I hope to have a group of teachers that I can rely on if something happens regarding my Asian identity that are Asian and that understand my experiences,” she said.
Huff joined BLEX to receive guidance from advisors and to get advice from upperclassmen who have gone through similar experiences as herself, she said. The upperclassmen are willing to help — they are currently scheduling a Q&A for the underclassmen to ask the seniors questions about navigating the school, both as a Black student and in general, she said.
The White Students Critically Working on Whiteness working group has only met three times, Goldberg said. “However, I’ve really enjoyed being able to work through some stuff in the group.” For example, ICIE has provided resources to help Goldberg pull apart the media and biases which she has ingested since she was very little, she said.
“We have been discussing whiteness and focusing on the student body’s response to the creation of this group,” she said. The group has also discussed misconceptions about the group. “I’ve heard a lot of students have been uncomfortable with it or thought that it was funny,” Goldberg said.
The White Students Critically Working on Whiteness group has received feedback from students about the existence of the group, Kafoglis said. “Some were initially worried that this space was analogous to the affinity groups for people of marginalized identities, which it is not.” While he does not blame white-identifying students for being hesitant to be a part of the group, he encourages students to listen to how they define this group and its purpose, then assess based on that if they are interested in attending a meeting, he said.
All the affinity spaces at the school are faculty-led. Lau used to be a faculty advisor of a group similar to APIDA when he taught at San Francisco University High School, he said. There, two upperclassmen leaders helped faculty co-advisers plan and facilitate the conversation, he said. Lau hopes to introduce student leaders, but because APIDA is fairly new, it will take time and momentum to change the structure. “I would like to have students take more leadership in the group and have more input in shaping the space,” he said.
The fact that affinity spaces at the school are faculty-led allows the faculty to take the burden of organizing and logistics off of the students, Huang said. “Students can just have a space where they turn up, put their backpacks down, and have a chance to interact with the adults in the community without this looming shadow of grades,” she said.
The relationships between a faculty advisor and a student in the affinity spaces are not the standard teacher-student relationship, Lau said. “It’s easy to think that it’s a one-way street when it comes to teachers giving information, but with affinity spaces, the learning happens both ways,” he said. In particular, Lau has learned about students’ experiences in relation to social media and the internet surrounding students’ APIDA identity, because there was no social media when he was growing up, Lau said.
Lee’s role as a faculty advisor has two aspects — providing educational resources and emotional support, he said. Setting the norms, facilitating discussions, and giving students vocabulary to talk about topics about race is the educational aspect, Lee said. “Helping students name the feelings they’re having and working through those experiences is also my role,” he said.
This year is the first time affinity groups are meeting in-person since the spring of 2020. “People are just way more engaged in person, however last year, more people showed up over Zoom because students had time to come, and there was a little bit less back and forth talking on Zoom,” Lombardo said.
At the first few meetings in APIDA, the group did icebreakers to get to know each other and set norms to make sure that everyone felt comfortable sharing in the space, Lee said. After they established that base, they moved into discussions. At their meeting before Thanksgiving break, the group talked about how their families celebrated the holiday. While the faculty advisors create a plan for the meetings, students are also welcome to bring up topics. “Sometimes students will come in and be like ‘I can’t believe this happened,’ and we are more than happy to help process and talk about those things,” he said.
The advisors of BLEX create a loose agenda so students feel that there is business to each meeting. Wilson also wants students to feel like they are in control because the affinity space is for them, not faculty, he said.
Huff likes how informal the space is, she said. “It’s just an outlet I can go to whenever I have time after clubs, where I just drop by there and say hi, talk, or debrief,” she said.
Huang hopes that students use this space to engage with their Asian identities actively and thoroughly, as Huang herself wished she had a space like APIDA when she was growing up, she said. “In my personal experience growing up, it was pretty common for me to just subordinate my Asian American identity to every other identifier that applied to me, and I didn’t have a space to think about that,” she said. There were always avenues to explore aspects of her identity such as a writer, a reader, or a girl, but nothing comparable existed for her Asian identity, she said.
Lombardo hopes that students feel a sense of community in the space, they said. “Particularly with LGBTQ+, throughout history, we’ve had to create safe spaces to be able to share stories and this is exactly what the space is for these students, maybe not everybody is able to be out at school or out at home, so this is a place where they can truly be themselves without any judgment,” they said.
In the future, Lau hopes APIDA can collaborate with other affinity groups, like the LGBTQ+ group because many students in APIDA identify with more than one affinity, he said. “The challenges that queer or trans-Asian-American students aren’t necessarily different from, for example, a Black student who identifies as queer or trans,” he said, “but holding the space for students to be in two groups at one time would be beneficial.”