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Insights and lessons learned from our work together


The Role of Affinity Spaces in Fostering Belonging

Affinity spaces—the creation of small groups within a larger group where participants share a common characteristic—offer a way for education networks to foster connection and belonging among participants. Networks can form affinity spaces based on role (ex., superintendents, principals, etc.) or aspects of identity, such as race or gender. Some education networks are affinity spaces in and of themselves. For example, networks like Black Principals Network (BPN) and Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents (ALAS) were created so that individuals working in school administration could connect with peers of the same race or ethnicity.

The support and connection affinity spaces provide can help educators navigate challenges they experience and bolster their commitment to the work.

“Often we’re the first Latino to do what we’re doing in our community or context,” said Dr. Maria Armstrong, executive director of ALAS. “We want to make sure their voices are elevated so others know they’re not alone. We also support each other in navigating changes in policy and discourse in the community. For example, how do we combat through action the unwarranted hostility in school board meetings and community gatherings? How do we prepare our communities for that?”

From their experiences, education networks have found a few helpful considerations for the design and facilitation of affinity spaces.

  • Give affinity groups ownership of how and for what purpose they are coming together. The National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) has affinity groups based on professional role and topics of shared interest. For these groups, NAESP usually has two members of the community serve as facilitators. Facilitators determine the pace of how often they’re meeting and what they’re meeting about. They receive compensation for the added responsibility. For example, facilitators for the Women in Leadership group organize a book study every year.

  • Determine what guidance you might want to set for affinity groups. Dr. Maria Armstrong of ALAS refers to this as “autonomy with parameters.” Affinity groups with ALAS all have a basic structure where they meet three times a year virtually and once per year in-person, in conjunction with ALAS’ in-person events. BPN works to ensure some consistency across different spaces within the network by having some consistent components within every session, such as sharing quotes or leadership stories, or time for collaboration or reflection.

  • Be intentional about facilitation of these spaces. Some networks have found it helpful to hire outside facilitation. For example, Benjamin Banneker Association (BBA) engages local facilitators from the communities, which makes it easier for the students they work with to feel a level of connection with the facilitators and helps foster a sense of belonging for students.

  • Consider ways to keep affinity groups connected outside of meeting times. NAESP uses Canvas to so affinity group members can take advantage of the platform’s chat function in between meetings and use the platform to archive resources they’ve shared with one another.

  • For identity-based networks, consider creating affinity spaces within affinity spaces. For example, ALAS has gender-based affinity groups.

Education networks are finding their members value affinity spaces when they’re offered. “School leadership is a lonely job—especially in these times when the profession is shifting and school leaders don’t necessarily have the training and support to do what they’re being asked to do,” said Kaylen Tucker, associate executive director of NAESP. “Knowing they have a safe space and a network of peers they can rely on through affinity spaces makes it easier for them to stay in their jobs. Knowing the difference these spaces make makes me want to work harder so everyone can have a space where they feel that way.”

Affinity spaces can benefit organizations as well by deepening participants’ engagement in the network, creating opportunities to expand the network, and providing opportunities for feedback and reciprocal engagement. These benefits can help ensure education networks are delivering relevant, actionable knowledge to their members and ultimately driving the impact they hope to see.

“For us, affinity spaces reconnect us to our mission and vision and helps establish purpose,” said TaraShaun Cain, executive director of BPN. “These groups keep us in the ideation space to keep imagining how we can be more of a resource to our members, how we can leverage the experiences of others in our networks to grow our networks, and what reciprocal engagement might look like. It keeps us connected to our purpose while also in a constant state of reimagining.”

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