The Importance of Racial Affinity Spaces in Climate Change Education

After multiple school years upended by the pandemic, we’ve witnessed more starkly than ever the necessity of building relationships to enhance student learning and personal growth.

This school year, many educators and school districts have a renewed emphasis on socioemotional learning and coping resources for students as they return to in-person learning or continue with virtual instruction. The same emphasis is needed for educators. At the Summer Institute for Climate Change Education, Climate Generation provided opportunities for educators to reflect and connect after these challenging times, knowing that we cannot expect anyone to excel if they are not supported emotionally, culturally, and socially.

It is especially important to acknowledge the ways that racial justice is inextricably linked to climate justice to deepen understanding of what it means to incorporate climate change into the classroom. We wanted to create an environment that welcomed educators to share their own personal experiences connected to this intersectionality through racial affinity spaces and a Leaders of Color Reception.

What is an affinity space, and why do we need separate white and BIPOC spaces?

Affinity spaces are places where people who identify with one another in a particular way can discuss topics of importance to them.

It is important to provide separate affinity spaces for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and white people for multiple reasons. For People of Color, much of their daily lives are immersed in the dominant white culture, and an affinity space can provide a place to feel included and validated so they can authentically discuss issues and experiences without judgment from those in the dominant culture or pressures imposed by white cultural values. It also gives BIPOC people a chance to converse without needing to explain racism or white supremacy culture to white participants who may not yet understand.

Diversity in Children's Books

BIPOC affinity spaces also create time to share experiences, build community, and foster healing and joy. Time to process and find collective healing from the traumatic experiences of the past school year is necessary so every educator can support their students.

White educators also benefit from affinity spaces. White people tend to be less experienced in talking about race, noticing the connections between race and societal issues, and recognizing how their own racial identity affects them. This can result in feelings of fear and inadequacy, sometimes causing white participants to emotionally shut down during interracial dialogue. In other cases, white people may dominate interracial conversation or inadvertently perpetuate racist stereotypes, putting excessive burden on people of color to explain why their actions or words were hurtful or racist.

A white affinity space enables participants to address their questions and fears openly, learn from their mistakes without harming individuals of color, and confront their biases and privilege so that they can commit to deeper anti-racist work.

George Floyd’s murder further revealed the pervasive racial inequities and injustices in our communities, followed by political actions to make classroom discussions about race illegal. White educators must step up to support BIPOC colleagues and students. White educators can model culturally responsive teaching practices in their classrooms, acknowledge their privilege, and hone their skills in recognizing and dismantling racist practices in their classroom for everyone’s wellbeing. White affinity spaces can provide a point of reflection, opportunity for learning, and honest feedback to begin or continue this journey.

Takeaways from the Summer Institute for Climate Change Education Affinity Spaces

Climate Generation’s affinity spaces were designed to address the past years’ challenges in two main ways: offering space for BIPOC educators to build community and connection to others in climate change education work, and providing white educators a learning space and opportunity for commitment around anti-racism in the classroom.

Group Agreements

The first BIPOC affinity space, the Leaders of Color Reception, was held as a pre-Institute virtual gathering with Dominique Diaddigo-Cash as lead facilitator. Dominique’s experience as a Restorative Justice Circle-keeper with Saint Paul Public Schools and the MN Dept of Education was valuable in utilizing the circle approach to create a welcoming, safe, and inclusive space for participants to meet, listen, and learn from each other and build community. Following the Reception, two BIPOC affinity lunches were held during the Institute as a way to continue to build and strengthen connections between BIPOC educators, to reflect on the Summer Institute, and to talk about ways that bring healing and joy.

“Creating intentional space at the Summer Institute for the Leaders of Color Reception and Affinity Lunches was refreshing and felt powerful,” said Jothsna Harris with Climate Generation, who participated in the BIPOC affinity spaces.

A participant shared, “I’m leaving this space feeling less anxious about being at this conference. I am less anxious about not coming to this space as a science teacher.”

Educators at the Leaders of Color Reception were invited to describe what they need their white colleagues to understand and address in order to support anti-racism in schools. Responses were shared with white educators at their first affinity space to augment discussions of how to support BIPOC colleagues. Reflections included:

“The collective experience of BIPOC is extremely diverse…
As educators we cannot make those assumptions and must be open to the understanding that our students’ experiences and understandings can be more vast than our own. This is not a single story.”

“I have noticed in diverse classrooms that white students have more quantitative observations/experiences, ie. connect to [the] idea of sea level rise – ‘I have a grandparent with timeshare in Hawaii’ or at ‘my cabin I am noticing these changes.’ Teachers should disrupt the dynamics of these discussions by asking questions in multiple ways. The message that ‘you are not a part of this experience’ – can be the lasting message.”

“Recognize the narrative – know that communities of color are already having the climate conversation.”

“Question the dominant narrative – whose science is this?”

“Advocate for restorative practices, instead of punitive ones – it means building a shared understanding of each other and starting from a place of honoring and respect – advocate for this in your school community.”

A second white affinity space emphasized cultivating an anti-racist classroom and supporting students. Educators unpacked terms such as white privilege and discussed how systemic racism presents in schools, including but not limited to normalizing whiteness, lack of BIPOC representation in learning materials, racial bias, and funding disparities within districts.

During small group discussions in both white affinity spaces, educators expressed a renewed commitment to move forward with anti-racist work. Commitments included:

“To step-up and show-up more for colleagues of color.”
“Learning about my students and their families and stories.”
“I will not make up stories for other people.”
“Getting used to correction; be willing to change.”
“Listening actively to the experiences of others.”
“Put in the energy to become educated, engage in discussions about challenging topics with students.”
“I will follow through on reaching out to an incarcerated student who was subjected to white privilege in my school.”
“I am committed to continuing my anti racist journey knowing I won’t have all the answers.”

The affinity spaces gave educators a chance to reflect, build community, and reenergize themselves for another school year of climate change and climate justice education. A huge thank you goes to all the educators who participated with honesty, openness, curiosity, and thoughtfulness in sharing their insights at the Institute!

Take Action!

Climate Generation has seen how valuable affinity spaces can be and will continue offering them each year. Educators are invited to join us at next year’s Summer Institute! Until then, other professional development opportunities and resources abound related to climate justice, affinity spaces, and anti-racist education:

This piece was co-authored by Climate Generation staff Marie Fargo, Sarah Goodspeed, and Jothsna Harris.

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