Common Ground

Race-based affinity groups for Gordon students

above: fourth graders get handshakes from Common Ground teachers, and applause from their peers, at the last Tuesday Common Ground meeting of the school year, 2018. In fifth grade, they will join Middle School Common Ground, a parallel, but different, program.

Common Ground is a voluntary program that facilitates positive racial identity exploration, self-awareness, and connection for students whose racial group is underrepresented in the school.
Common Ground facilitates growth and development through structured, developmentally appropriate activities, projects, and dialogue that provide affirmation, support, and advocacy for students, while fostering critical thinking and building a sense of respect for themselves and others.
The program began in Lower School in 2006, and the Middle School program in 2007, expanding to include Young Kindergarten and Kindergarten in 2018.
Lower School Common Ground
For the 2020-2021 school year, Lower School Common Ground will take place during the school day
The program is play-based, and students are eligible to join during the spring season starting in Young Kindergarten. Three Lower School faculty members facilitate the program. Students are sometimes in mixed-age groups, and other times in grade level groups.

Two facilitators reflect on Common Ground for younger students
Middle School Common Ground
Middle School Common Ground builds on the program for younger students, focusing on dialogue, projects, and experiential learning activities.
Middle School meetings are led by a group of faculty members who develop activities and create opportunities for open dialogue in a supportive space. 

Frequently asked questions

Where you stand in relation to others in society shapes what you can see and understand about the world."
- Ozlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo, in Is Everyone Really Equal?

What are affinity groups? 

The term “affinity group” refers to people who share a similar identity. Some examples of affinity groups at Gordon are “Girls Field Hockey Team,” which is structured around gender, a “first grade classroom,” which is structured around age, or the Parents of Students of Color group, which is structured around the racial affiliation of the children attending Gordon. All of these groups share a common identity, such as gender, race, age, or affiliation. 

In a school setting with children who are associated with minoritized groups, affinity groups can provide a safe space where students can build connections, process difficult moments that occur on the playground, in the cafeteria or in the classroom, and receive support and affirmation in a setting with other children who have similar experiences. Primarily, the goal of affinity groups is to facilitate positive identity development by helping children to advocate for themselves, as well as developing leadership and empowerment skills.

Why are there affinity groups at Gordon? 

The Community Diversity Assessments done in 2004, 2008 and 2013, which included student voices, revealed that some of Gordon's students of color experience feelings of isolation, loneliness and disconnection. Students of color also described hearing insensitive, often stereotypical comments from their peers about the people who represent their social groups, making it difficult to bring their full selves to the learning experience of school. 

In response to the 2004 Community Diversity Assessment findings, the diversity committee formed a task force in 2005 whose responsibility it was to research the process of creating affinity groups that support students of color. The task force extensively researched the literature on racial identity development and visited NAIS member schools with successful affinity group programs.
In 2006, Gordon launched race-based affinity groups in the Lower School, and a year later, in the Middle School. In 2008, Gordon administered a Racial Climate Assessment to measure the school's progress related to the mission-based work and practices. The assessment showed that Gordon was making progress, as students described feeling like “race” was more on the table for discussion at Gordon. The students who participated in the 2008 study described Common Ground as a place where they felt supported and affirmed around their racial identity.
In 2013, students continue to describe Common Ground as a safe space where they receive affirmation, encouragement and advocacy. As one student exclaimed, “Common Ground is a place where I can be free."

What happens in affinity groups? 

Students, as well as the adults in affinity groups, share their personal reflections and experiences with the goal of empowering group members to be advocates for themselves and each other. The student affinity groups in Lower School are play-based and provide students space to be together, discover connections, process their feelings, and support one another while building a community that strengthens and supports their development as they return to communities where they are in the minority.

The Middle School affinity groups are focused on experiential activities that help students to reflect on who they are, and how they come to understand, feel, and live out their racial group membership. The goal is to help students develop the skills of recognizing, communicating and negotiating situations they perceive as unjust, whether here at Gordon or out in their communities. 

Affinity groups create separation and exclusion. Isn’t this divisive to the Gordon community? 

Research shows that by the age of two years, children are actively sorting and trying to make sense of their world. Developmentally, they are engaging with their environments through sorting blocks, animals, colors and people. Children, as early as age two, are asking questions about who is similar and different from them. Unfortunately, young children are already the recipients of misinformation about people who are different. Often they are bombarded with subtle messages about who and what is valued in our society, and begin to act on their misunderstandings with classmates. As educators we are aware of these misconceptions and are hard at work supporting all children in learning how to play, live and work together.

At Gordon, the misinformation that children can have about others are viewed as learning opportunities and knowledge-building experiences, particularly for children who are part of the majority culture. For children and adolescents who are in minoritized groups, programs such as Common Ground can provide a safe space for students to experience support, encouragement and affirmation for who they are. An important goal for Common Ground is to create a caring school where all learners feel they have a role in making Gordon a positive environment for all who live and learn here.

Whom should I contact with further questions? 

The academic administrators of the school are available to answer questions: Lynn Bowman, Assistant Head;  Maryanne Pieri, Early Childhood and Lower School Director; and Gabe Burnstein, Middle School Director.

Common Ground as a national model

Independent School Magazine asked Julie Parsons and Kim Ridley to co-author an article on Lower School Common Ground.

Independent School Magazine is published quarterly by the National Association of Independent Schools. The article, Identity, Affinity and Reality: Making the Case for Affinity Groups in Elementary School, appeared in the winter 2012 issue. 

The feature article outlines the genesis of Gordon's Lower School program, bringing in the research of Beverly Daniel Tatum, Rebecca Bigler, Michael Thompson and others, as well as voices from the Bank Street School for Children, St. Stephen's and St. Agnes School, Georgetown Day School and the Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School, other independent schools that have developed race-based affinity groups in lower school.

At a glance

 Who is eligible to attend?
Students are eligible for Common Ground when their parents identify them as students of color on Gordon’s Family Information form when enrolling.
That form uses the National Association of Independent School’s definition of students of color, which defines students within the following under-represented groups to be students of color: African American (Black), Latino/Hispanic American, Native American, Asian American, Middle Eastern American, and Multiracial. 
Who chooses to attend?
On average, 80% of the Lower School students of color participate in Common Ground.
In Middle School, 92% of the students of color participate.