A Deeper Look into Catlin Gabel’s Affinity and Interest Groups

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In recent years, Catlin Gabel students and staff have taken a more hands on approach to creating an environment that celebrates diversity of students and peers. This has taken the form of Affinity Groups, a concept that has been taken from outside of Catlin Gabel and incorporated to further discussions of inclusivity in the school.

With the goal of establishing places for people with a part of their identity they feel may not be well represented within Catlin Gabel, affinity groups have, following the beginning of this school year, been introduced as a co-curricular space for students to meet with others that share similar traits that include but are not restricted to ethnicity, sexual identity, or socio-economic class.

Alongside these affinity groups, both interest and privilege groups have also been opened for students to participate in. In these groups, students can discuss cases of privilege or pressing social issues occurring in Catlin Gabel, Oregon, or throughout the world. In early February, a mass email was sent out about the introduction of what was then known as a “White Affinity Group”, with the goal of the establishing a zone to discuss the, “white experience and roles that whites can play in social movements.”

The initial response to the creation of this group was lukewarm from students, some even mocking and attacking the introduction through social media, exaggerating the nature of the group and their goals. In order to clarify with students about the goals of affinity, interest, and privilege groups, CatlinSpeak talked to Catlin Gabel’s Director of Equity and Outreach Jasmine Love about the process of establishing these groups in the last two years.

“If you’re a member of an underrepresented group or you’re having an experience that makes you feel isolated, you can create an affinity group. Such as if you’re transracially adopted or if your parents are going through divorce. I put that out to the whole student body and the only ones that came through were race-based.” Love explained regarding some students’ confusion about what grounds for creating an affinity group, which has been available for students to create since the end of last year.

Catlin Gabel affinity groups were initiated in order to create safe environments for students to discuss group issues. (Photo: Solomon Hammerly '16)
Catlin Gabel affinity groups were initiated in order to create safe environments for students to discuss group issues. (Photo: Solomon Hammerly ’16)

One focal point of students who internalized the announcement of the Exploring White Privilege group was the instinct to refer to the group as a “White Affinity Group.” Love addresses this by pointing out how, “One of the really important things is that we stop saying white affinity groups, because that is not a thing. Affinity groups are for underrepresented groups in our community, to come and connect in a place where they might not feel connected. There are privilege groups, and the group that is exploring white skin privilege would be similar to one exploring male privilege for example, and [the misuse of White Affinity] is where things got inflated.”

Hayle Meyerhoff ’16 clarified the intentions and explanation of the privilege group she leads, CatlinSpeak met with her to cover the inner workings and discussion on how a privilege group was planned for Catlin Gabel. “The reason [her, Tristan Furnary ‘16, and Jack Malsin ‘16] didn’t call it the white ally group is because we feel that the term ‘white ally’ is rather self serving, thinking that ‘we’re good people, we’re allies,’” Meyerhoff starts off by saying. This was initially touched upon in her clarification email, but wanted to make sure that “White Affinity” or “White Ally” did not become synonymous with “Exploring White Privilege.”

This question of whether discussions of White Privilege need to have a specific white privilege group catered to discuss these type of issues was proposed among students Meyerhoff spent their first meetings with, “I agree with what they were saying, that we don’t gain anything more from being in an only white group. but I also feel like the idea of an all white group is important because if people of color were in the group, I’m worried they might be expected to teach the rest of us, and I feel like that’s kind of an undue burden on those people.”

Seeking other views on the news of the Exploring White Privilege group being exclusive to white people for the benefit of growing comfortable discussing privilege without said assistance, CatlinSpeak talked to Black Student Union co-leader and Black Affinity Group member Juma Sei ‘18.

“What an affinity group is really supposed to be is just a place for people of the same affinity to just come let their hair down, that’s something that’s especially needed in Catlin Gabel’s black community considering so many black people are surrounded by so many white kids that it’s kind of nice to just be around other black kids in your community.” Sei explained about the nature of an affinity group versus the more focused discussions of privilege and other social issues that occur in interest and privilege groups.

When asked about the choice to allow only white students for the Exploring White Privilege group, Sei explained how he thought it “…was interesting, because I noticed the reason why a lot of white people aren’t comfortable talking about privilege is because in each conversation there seems to be a sense of guilt. It surprised me that when finally given the chance to talk with other white people about privilege, everyone thought we needed other people there.”    

Though it may be perceived initially as a form of exclusivity to have this group restrict this discussion to only those who may apply, these affinity and interest group leaders believe that it is the best course of action to encourage and initiate discussion of privilege in a predominately white community.

That said, forms of diversity at Catlin Gabel are still readily apparent in other affinity groups. From Multiculturalism, to All Queer Environment, to Transracial Adoption, affinity groups have grown to extend beyond ethnicity-based groups in recent months. Even with these new developments, the turnout for these groups has still yet to engage a majority of students.

“When [Catlin Gabel Students] hear “affinity groups” they think exclusive, exclusivity, and how it doesn’t feel inclusive. If you can speak from the ‘I’ statement, and you can go to these affinity groups, then you have an experience of coming together in a place you might feel isolated in.” Love told CatlinSpeak about ways to make Affinity Groups a more useful part of student life at Catlin Gabel. With much progress left to be made, affinity, interest, and privilege groups may be able to become a more common and publicly discussed activity in the following years.