Do we need an alliance group for students of color at Stanley?

Posted by Donna Meallet on 1/24/2019

Even in the most progressive independent schools, issues of race often lie just below the surface of children’s daily experiences. To alleviate this experience, we’re taking one step in the Middle School to help connect students of color with one another on a regular basis. Our new Middle School Students of Color Affinity group (SOCA) will allow students to gather, talk in a safe space about issues related to their identity, and transfer that discussion into action that makes for a more equitable experience at school.


SOCA's first meeting Do we really need an affinity group for students who self-identify as students of color? The authors of “Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves” Louise Derman-Sparks and Julie Olsen Edwards, describe how the physical features that children see — such as eye shape, skin color and hair texture — are connected to our society’s description of race. This physical recognition is children’s first encounter with racial differences. And while Stanley begins early to know all students, give students the chance to do the same, and to give them tools to talk about identity – when children are eager to examine their similarities and differences – still students of color often feel the weight of being one of few in a classroom, in a book group, in a discussion about race.


Identity and success in the independent school

How does current research inform us about the experiences of children of color in schools where the dominant racial culture is white? A 2003 study by Edith Arrington, Diane Hall and Howard Stevenson examined the variables that lead to success for African-American students in independent schools.

Of the students interviewed: 75 percent reported making a special effort to fit into their school communities; 82 percent reported that they had negative school experiences; and 40 percent did not believe the school treated all students the same.


The authors concluded that, “For black students, success is best defined by a strong sense of connection to the school community; a positive sense of self across contexts, but especially in the school; social and emotional health; and a racial identity that would serve as a resource as they develop, but particularly when students encounter racism.”


Another Independent School article by Michael Thompson and Kathy Schultz (2003), focusing on the “Psychological Experiences of Students of Color in Independent Schools,” highlights the fact that students of color, because they are in predominantly white schools, often experience intense social loneliness.


A video, “Independent School Seniors on the Importance of Affinity Groups” from the Southern California People of Color in Independent Schools, gives an idea of the power of affiliation groups within schools like Stanley.


A mission-driven mission

Stanley’s SOCA group launch is based in our mission and heritage. Stanley’s mission points in several places to the importance of developing each individual’s voice. Our mission states that “We engage, challenge and inspire children to reach their potential and develop their own voices within an inclusive, diverse and collaborative community that values distinct contributions and abilities.”


Two of our stated school values directly associate seeing the whole child with important social-emotional and societal values. Our mission states that understanding ourselves as individuals promotes positive relationships:We value individuality. We recognize each child is unique and significant; therefore, we respect and build positive relationships with children and encourage them to know themselves – their strengths, challenges, learning style, culture and interests.”


Our school values also promote diversity within the wider world and in each individual’s social responsibility role: “We value diversity of all kinds – in students, staff and parents. We develop in children an understanding of similarities and differences in people and the ability to make socially responsible decisions. Towards this end we promote flexibility, resourcefulness, critical thinking and communication.”


The SOCA is also in keeping with Founding Head Carolyn Hambidge’s vision for Stanley to see the whole child. Educated at the Froebel Institute, Carolyn’s views as an educator brought to life in this school include an intense respect for the person being taught, and the belief that education should be focused on personal growth, fulfillment and care for others.


Faculty and staff at Stanley believe that diversity and multiculturalism are intrinsic to quality education for all. It is staff and students with this belief that will foster the Stanley SOCA through its first year and beyond, staying close to our mission, and working closely with each other.


Launching the SOCA at Stanley

Our SOCA had its first meeting on Friday welcoming about 20 students and five Stanley staff members. It was inspired into being by the germ of an idea from a recent National Association of Independent Schools People of Color Conference and preceded by weeks of planning and training on affinity groups and best practices, and manifested by the passion of several staff members.


A letter to went to all Middle School parents from Head of Middle School Greg Chalfin, and the program was kicked off at a Middle School assembly in mid-January noting that I will be facilitating the SOCA group monthly at lunch, and that another group – for students who do not self-identify as Students of Color and wish to learn more about work around being an ally in diversity work – will have an opportunity to do so monthly at lunch with Middle School Counselor Stephanie. Neither opportunity is required for any student, but these spaces are important places for students who seek to have a place to explore their own identity.


Staff members joining in the inaugural meeting of the SOCA were Jairo Barsallo, Leneta Jones (co-chair of our Multicultural Affairs Committee), Valentina Reiling, Catalina Rincon and myself. Several alums also participated including Katie Boston (current long-term sub), Max Leo, Alex Meallet and Carla Mestas (founder of the CIRCLE organization here in Denver). We were also joined by visiting activist and facilitator Jeremy Michael Vasquez, who worked with Middle School and 3-4-5 students on social activism last semester and facilitated our all-school Martin Luther King Jr. assembly on Friday.


In his letter, Greg noted that the SOCA is part of the Middle School’s overall initiative to support student voice on campus. “In alliance with the Gender and Sexuality Alliance started by Angelina and Grace in the first semester,” says Greg, “affinity groups offer an opportunity for students to learn, grow, affirm their own identity, and feel empowered both individually and as a group for who they are and what they believe. Through this open dialogue and meaningful conversations, we believe that this will help fulfill Stanley’s mission for students ‘to know themselves – their strengths, challenges, learning style, culture and interests.’ I am excited for the wonderful growth happening within our community for our students and our staff.“


Let’s get started

How do you define racial identity development? Beverly Daniel Tatum in “Why Are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria” describes it as “the process of defining for oneself the personal significance and social meaning of belonging to a particular racial group.” Children internalize aspects of racial identity from the adults and peers around them. For students of color in predominately white independent schools, resisting negative stereotypes and affirming carefully considered definitions of themselves are critical to counterbalance the limited number of role models who mirror them racially.


We know that it is not a one-shot deal, we know we need to be continuously engaged with school personnel about how to talk about common ground with students and parents. Children will have developmentally appropriate questions and teachers will need to respond accordingly. 


We believe that  through open dialog and meaningful conversations more members of the school community will come to understand that well-facilitated, racial affinity groups are gatherings that enable positive identity exploration and are good places where people can pose questions and process issues. As a learning base, affinity groups offer affirmation of identity, empowerment of the individual, and empowerment of the group within the learning community.


A short list of goals for the program, include:

  • Conduct a Racial Climate Assessment to obtain useful data about students’ school experiences. 
  • Facilitate positive identity exploration, self-awareness, pride, and self-esteem through books, games, discussion, and structured play activities that connect students to each other. 
  • Provide students with the opportunity to discuss topics of race, identity, and diversity in a safe space that will enable students of color to develop their voices. 
  • Encourage and develop leadership skills. 
  • Develop accurate language and vocabulary to describe themselves and others. 
  • Increase the school’s ability to recruit and retain families and teachers of color. 
  • Provide a majority experience for students regularly who are in the minority at school.


On Friday, as a group, the SOCA laid ground rules like “Don’t put down other races. Don’t label other races as ‘others’”; “Be supportive. Respect the speaker”; “Respect those not in the room by not using names when talking about other people”; And “Don’t put words in other people’s mouths.” The played an ice breaker aimed at taking apart first impressions, and why we all associate certain traits with certain people.” Together, they forged on to establishing mission and goals in collaboration with all of the group members, aligning with Stanley’s mission and vision and communicating the group’s core values and common interests.


Going Forward

Attending the SOCA lunch is completely optional, and important that it is so. Our goal is for everyone to feel as though they have a safe and comfortable spot. Through continued education efforts at all levels, we will grow together as community in our understanding of each other and the work it takes to be a diverse and welcoming community.


Affinity Group lunches are designed for students to develop and strengthen their own racial/ethnic/group identity rather than as a time to learn about others. The qualitative difference between affinity group work and other aspects of school is that safety and trust must be fostered, expected, and assured by each member to explore shared racial/ethnic/group identity development.


Some of this work is uncomfortable—no question. We will be working with all the students throughout the remainder of the year on developing skills and working with issues of oppression in a variety of forms. This is a journey and there is no quick, easy or right resolution.

While we know that what often drives inclusivity practices is the desire for universalism and “equity through neutrality,” we know that in fact the end result can be the silencing of the needs, concerns and experiences of the marginalized members of our community. We don’t want any of our children, or their families to feel they have to “check any part of themselves at the door” or not feel the joy of being seen and appreciated for their authentic selves. Some of us may be uncomfortable as a result, but we are working towards becoming a community where it is safe to be yourself and know that you are welcome.


Goals for students

Ultimately, our planning and process boil down to what students can expect to experience – and making that our top priority. Why would they want to participate in affinity group dialogues?

  • Through talking with people who are like us, we can gain new insights into our own beliefs as well as others.
  • We can gain support. We can practice talking about difficult issues before we join discussions in a mixed group.
  • We can unpack our own “baggage” before joining dialogues with mixed groups.
  • We’ll get beyond celebration. An affinity group should not be simply an “identity pride” space. Together, we can ensure the SOCA translates conversation around identity-related issues into action that helps mitigate those issues at your school.
  • We’ll focus on empowerment or allyship and explore different ways to work with others. Effective affinity groups serve the needs of marginalized students — those outside the dominant culture— to undermine systemic inequities. A group that is only about the identity of whiteness, without acknowledging the dominance of whiteness as a source of inequity, will fail to meet this goal.
  • Together, we’ll gain mutual support, new relationships and trust and learn that we have a voice in making a difference.


The SOCA meets on Friday during lunch in the Pub. All middle school students of color are welcome to join these conversations. In Session 1, we connected with the issue of racism and each other. In Session 2, we will talk about how people from different backgrounds can bring about change in the community. In Session 3, we’ll reconnect and identify what action we can take.



Donna Meallet




Identity Development Theories Resources