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The Proven Impact of Affinity Spaces

This article provides an overview of research on affinity groups, explaining what they are, how they form, and what research says about them.

By Drisana Hughes

Many leaders and advocates want to find ways to make their institutions more welcoming to those with minoritized racial identities. Affinity groups, also known as affinity spaces or caucus groups, are one approach to creating spaces that foster a culture of belonging, respect, and equality within an organization, school, or company and help to advance the larger institutional work of racial equity.

This article provides an overview of research on affinity groups, explaining what they are, how they form, and what research says about them. 

I. Who participates in affinity groups?

Affinity groups are groups of people with a shared background or identity characteristic that meet regularly to engage in activities or discussion. Many affinity groups are centered around a shared racial or religious background, and in other instances affinity groups are formed around sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, familial attendance in higher education or common interests. 

II. How are affinity groups formed? 

Affinity groups are intentionally created and provided with resources, usually through their parent institution. Generally, most affinity groups are opt-in.

Often the groups originate through requests from Black, Indigenous and staff of color to have an emotionally safe space to gather and process work or school experiences. In addition, recently, many organizations have formed affinity groups for white community members to engage in racial equity work and build accountability

III. Why do affinity groups exist? 

While the practice has been put into organizational effect in recent years, it is a longstanding strategy in social justice initiatives and community organizing. Affinity groups in their current form started in the 1960s during the civil rights movement as a space for racially minoritized groups to stay connected to each other, organize against racism, and learn skills from one another in the group.

Affinity groups can have a variety of goals. Some decide to engage in activism and organizing, while other groups focus on being a safe emotional space for group members to engage with each other outside of the larger institutional environment.

IV. What are the effects of affinity groups on organizations?

From improving morale to creating a more engaged community, researchers have shown that affinity groups can create impact. Here are five key ways research shows affinity groups to help organizations: 

1. Create a Culture of Inclusion and Belonging: Research has shown that affinity groups can advance feelings of inclusion at higher education institutions. Multiple studies on affinity groups have shown that members felt supported and more connected to fellow members after participating in an affinity group

2. Generate New and Creative Ideas: Since many spaces of dialogue and deliberation are dominated by white, male voices, BIPOC affinity spaces can offer an opportunity for racially minoritized individuals to develop strategies and ideas within a smaller and emotionally safer space. The affinity group environment can lead to new ideas, creative thinking, and innovative strategies that were otherwise unlikely to develop in larger, more traditional spaces. 

3. Reduce Stress: Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), which serve mainly Black students and a large number of low-income students, have been an engine of economic mobility for many students who faced prior academic barriers. Black students who go to HBCUs have been shown to have less stress and more positive feelings about their own racial identity than Black students that go to Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs). Although they are not necessarily affinity groups, HBCUs are a great example of how the principles behind affinity groups can be applied on a larger institutional scale. 

4. Improve Self-Esteem and Confidence: On an individual level, studies have shown that members of affinity groups have reported increased resilience and empowerment and had improved self-acceptance or self-esteem after participating in an affinity group. For example, ERGs can be a great way to improve company morale and support employees. 

5. Increase Cultural Awareness: Affinity groups have been proven to help more than just their membership. Affinity groups can raise collective consciousness at an institution about a particular marginalized identity. Scholars have shown that intergroup contact is a key method of altering biases and fostering meaningful and positive relationships between groups. Furthermore, research shows that participation in affinity groups helps members understand the diversity of experiences and opinions within their own identity.  Lastly, researchers attest to the benefits of the formation of race-based affinity groups for white individuals as a strategy to advance organizational goals on racial equity.

V. How are affinity groups used for professional and academic growth? 

Within higher education, affinity groups foster a sense of belonging for the group’s members, including the relationships formed in affinity groups can turn into mentor and mentee relationships and personal and professional networking opportunities. Additionally, many affinity groups go above and beyond working with current students and serve as vehicles to help recruit new students and a way for alumni to stay connected after they graduate. During the recent crackdown on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) offices and practitioners, many of the only efforts at  recruiting diverse students that remain have been from student affinity groups.

Affinity groups are widely used in corporate spaces as well, although in those settings they are known as employee resource groups (ERGs). ERGs are known to bolster employee morale and  support professional development. In some cases, business leaders rely on ERGs to solicit and garner helpful feedback about their processes and systems. Since ERGs allow different employees across a company to meet and engage with one another, they can help streamline intra-company communication and collaboration. 

Moving Forward – The Path to Racial Equity 

Many colleges, universities and corporations were formed with built-in systems that exclude racially minoritized groups. The mere creation of affinity groups at an organization can help to interrogate and combat these discriminatory structures. As institutions become increasingly more multicultural, affinity groups can help companies and organizations learn from diverse perspectives and support their employees and students of all racial identities — which is a critical step for achieving racial equity. 

Sources

American Educational Research Journal

Stories Untold: Counter-Narratives to Anti-Blackness and Deficit-Oriented Discourse Concerning HBCUs

Introduction Despite the wide ranging accomplishments earned by historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), narratives regarding HBCUs often use deficit-oriented framing that erase their achievements. This context of pervasive institutional anti-blackness is rooted in the historical marginalization of HBCUs that continues to reinforce itself through less favorable depictions of HBCUs in the media and ultimately…

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Current Directions in Psychological Science

Making Advantaged Racial Groups Care About Inequality: Intergroup Contact as a Route to Psychological Investment

Introduction Members of advantaged racial groups have historically denied or minimized the existence of racial inequality in the United States and other countries. Existing research has extensively analyzed the incentives and motivations behind why advantaged racial groups resist acknowledging the existence or scale of racial inequality. Some of those motivations include fear of losing privileged…

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Administration in Social Work

Addressing Racism in the Organization: The Role of White Racial Affinity Groups in Creating Change

Introduction The authors of this study examine the role of racial affinity groups or caucuses in understanding institutional racism and transforming an institution towards antiracism and racial equity. They trace the development, execution, and operation of a white antiracism caucus that was facilitated by the two authors at a social service agency. They found that…

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American Sociological Review

A Theory of Racialized Organizations

Introduction This study marries racial and organizational theory to better understand how racialized organizations limit personal agency of racially minoritized groups.  Under a new theory of racialized organizations, the study tackles how organizations themselves reproduce racialized structures and patterns independent of conscious coordination of individuals. This new theory illuminates trends in resource allocation, depicts the…

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Journal of Deliberative Democracy

Affinity Groups, Enclave Deliberation, and Equity

Introduction This study is about the usefulness of enclaves or affinity groups, in public forums and political processes. Specifically, the authors focus on the value of enclaves of people with “similarly marginalized perspectives or social locations” as opposed to shared racial or ethnic identities. While the authors acknowledge these categorizations can often overlap, they believe…

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