If you’ve ever been part of an affinity group, you’ve seen how much diversity exists among people who share one identity marker. Opting into an affinity group can be a welcome relief, a place to be seen, where you don’t feel the need to explain yourself. But, like members of any group, affinity group members need cultural competency and shared values. Without them, biases and assumptions from both outside and within can lead to harmful behaviors.
Several members of our team have experienced leaving an affinity group. For Dione, it was one of several ethnic and cultural parent groups at her kids’ school. “We join these groups for the same reasons we pursue individual friendships or any relationship,” she reflects. “Our values are the same and we make each other a priority.” She left the parent group when she discovered most parents were focused more on boosting their kids’ academic performance than on building community together.
For Kim, leaving a volunteer group that didn’t align with her values was a difficult decision. “They hadn’t articulated their views from the beginning,” Kim explains. “When a values conversation came up, I had already been working with them for a while but never knew their stance on a particular issue. After hearing it, I resolved to find another organization to volunteer for.”
An Asian educators group seemed inviting to Nick initially. “But it became clear that only a few voices dominated and not everyone in the group truly had a voice,” he recalls. “There were also assumptions made within the group about what everybody needs, based on a particular identity.”
The Challenges of Unstructured Groups
Affinity groups often form organically and unofficially. We see them created by individuals looking for a connection, support, or even a lifeline within their organization. But when affinity groups lack structure, they aren’t equipped to hold space for the conflict that naturally arises from diverse perspectives and needs.
Unfortunately, those within and outside the group can assume that everyone with a shared identity marker should understand each other and get along. But biases and our socialization don’t disappear when an affinity group is formed. They can actually become more insidious when members of a group assume bias and discrimination only live “out there” in the wider organization.
Any group can get trapped by the “rules of DEI” that simply mirror white supremacy culture–where “good” and “acceptable” mean proximity to whiteness (along with proximity to being male, cis, heterosexual, and able-bodied).
This is why affinity groups need cultural competency. Members need to be able to talk about the many facets of their identity, practice listening deeply to each other, build relationships, understand power dynamics, help co-create equity, and expand emotional agility to navigate difference and conflict.
Without these competencies, we’ve seen affinity groups devolve into spaces of unproductive venting, rather than ones that build connections crucial to supporting one another. Or we’ve seen them dissolve completely.
Is Your Organization Ready to Support Affinity Groups?
What does an organization need to establish well-structured, supportive, and culturally competent affinity groups?
Start with a clear set of values. If you haven’t explored or excavated your values, any affinity group, and the values it will naturally create within itself, will lack alignment with the rest of your organization.
Next, the group needs a voice and a connection point to leadership. Leaders need to understand the group’s purpose and place in the organization’s goals and vision, and they need to take affirmative steps to support the group, including providing a budget and giving people time to engage together. In short, there need to be clear and supportive structures for participants.
Most importantly, any affinity group should share its organization’s belief that every employee is deserving of connection, esteem, and joy.
Asking what an affinity group needs is a crucial first step. Ask the group members directly, hear their diversity of answers, and then provide the support they need to do their best work.