Deciding on Structure: Affinity Group or Intergroup Work
A crucial fork in the road when deciding on an appropriate structure for political education and dialogue efforts around questions of immigration and race involves whether to begin with “affinity groups” of similarly-positioned participants (i.e. from a particular racial, ethnic, national, gender, or other background) or to bring all parties into dialogue at the outset. Project participants were split on this issue. Deciding on the structure is a challenge because it can be difficult to predict which arrangement will be most effective for a given group. Indeed, several of the people we interviewed disclosed that, having the benefit of hindsight, they would have opted for a different structure based on the needs of their community. The following discussion highlights some of the key arguments that emerged both in support of and against separate affinity group work preceding intergroup engagement and illustrates why making this decision is such a challenge.
Among those who advocated for affinity group work prior to introducing an intergroup environment, most reflections centered on the need to work through intragroup issues. In this scenario, participants are able to focus on building intragroup understanding, address their apprehensions about working with another racial/ethnic group, and articulate their needs and why they feel compelled to engage in intergroup work. This internal examination allows groups to face difficult questions, such as:
What has our group done to contribute to the lack of understanding, tensions, violence, etc.?
What do those of us in the room need from the people in the other affinity group in order for us to trust them?
What could potentially sabotage these efforts and keep us from cementing these relations?
Are there any past failed efforts at reconciliation that we need to address and overcome?
Relatedly, beginning political education initiatives with people who share at least one identity category makes it easier to “meet people where they’re at.” For example, several project participants who use an affinity group model suggest it allows African Americans to approach the question of present day immigration through the lens of mobility as a strategy for overcoming oppression. By drawing on this community’s personal experience and historical memory, this perspective may more easily open a door to shared understanding than other approaches taken in a more intergroup setting. Similarly, the Mississippi Poultry Worker Center MPOWER relied on affinity group work with new Latino immigrants to delve into the racialized histories of Mississippi and the role of the Civil Rights Movement in struggles for justice. Because this history was new to many participants and was particularly shocking due to the violence it entailed, as well as the more practical issue of conducting the conversation in Spanish, facilitators felt that the affinity group model worked well.
Affinity group time also creates an opportunity for people that share an identity category to recognize the intragroup diversity that exists in terms of perspectives, beliefs, and experiences. In the words of Carolyne Abdullah, Director of Community Assistance at Everyday Democracy:
People were amazed at how they were of the same racial/ethnic group and yet see issues differently or have different priorities — even though collectively they were trying to address the same systemic racial issues that are embedded within the dominant culture. And although they knew going into an intra-group dialogue there were some cohesions and linkages among themselves; when they got into the heart of the dialogue, there were questions about what should be the main focus or emphasis to take action on as a collective body.
Others say that they start with affinity groups because this structure is accessible and conducive to creating a safe space in which participants can more easily establish a feeling of trust. It also provides an opportunity for folks to get used to sharing on an honest and deep level; this primes participants to be able to do this more easily once moved into an intergroup setting.
In contrast to those who advocated for affinity groups as a prequel to intergroup programs and dialogues, other project participants felt that beginning in a mixed race/ethnicity environment was appropriate for their communities. On the most rudimentary level, some folks opted for this structure because it was deemed practical and efficient. One person noted that there are not a lot of organizers devoted to doing intergroup work full time, so bringing the groups together separately at first only elongates the process and delays the start of the program or dialogue. Another cited the practical issue that many folks have little time to spare, so when you are asking people to commit to a series of conversations, skipping the affinity groups aspect is often the most time efficient route.
Perhaps more controversially, other participants felt that the method of approaching intergroup work through initial affinity group gatherings is too tentative. The argument here is that by having folks do affinity group first, you are implicitly underestimating their ability to successfully navigate an intergroup setting. Moreover, affinity group work can serve to reinforce the real and perceived divisions that exist between communities, thus unintentionally working against project objectives. In the words of one participant:
Our first instinct was to start separately and then bring folks together, and I think we wasted a lot of time and underestimated people. At least in our context, it was a mistake – we should have brought the two groups together from the very first session. … I just don’t think we got to anything all that important until we brought them together. It ended up, because we had some staff in the room, we had African Americans and immigrants in both sessions, and the most interesting and important things happened when those people engaged with each other. If you have a skilled facilitator, it’s very possible to set up a room where the atmosphere is not polarizing or negative. And the point is to do that work.
Other project participants recognized the value of starting with an intergroup structure, but chose to transition into that structure gradually. At the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice, some of their member-level education brings together a group of people and then introduces one or two delegates from other communities into that space. For example, the organization may take a small number of African American members to a location where day laborers congregate to do some education work. This tactic allows for intergroup interaction but on a deliberately smaller scale.
In another example, some programs invite participants to do brief racial affinity work in small groups as part of their intergroup effort. The community-based programs of Leadership Development in Interethnic Relations open with identity work that examines what cultural assumptions the participants carry with them. One session then breaks participants into small affinity groups and uses community history material to unpack, through specific racial lenses, the history in terms of migration, forced migration, colonialism, and slavery. Subsequent sessions then add to this foundation by building a structural analysis, examining how the groups represented have interacted historically, and then moving toward understanding how this history and these struggles can inform how the groups could work with each other as allies.
As a final example of this hybrid approach, in one unique case, the opportunity to engage in affinity group was built into a curriculum as an optional complimentary component. Everyday Democracy’s Facing Racism in a Diverse Nation dialogue guide’s seven sessions are designed to so that an optional three session Dialogue for Affinity Groups dialogue guide may be used to add two sessions prior to Facing Racism in a Diverse Nation and one module after the conclusion of the Facing Racism in a Diverse Nation material. This option allows for individual groups and communities to assess their needs and judge whether affinity group work is appropriate for their circumstances.
Finally, another consideration related to how to structure intergroup efforts centers on the challenge of how to build trust among participants and how to move them to a place where they begin to trust the intergroup bridge building program or dialogue effort. Organizers and planners must strike a balance between introducing people to the depths of this work early enough that they feel compelled to continue the process while also recognizing that delving too deep too quickly without establishing adequate trust can alienate people. In the words of Cricket White of Initiatives of Change,
We have to decide. It’s a call you have to make: Do we need to accomplish something meaningful enough in the first session to reassure people of the value of this, or do we need to be gentle with people the first time so they’ll come back a second time? We don’t always get it right, but we try.