The racial equity policies passed by the Oak Park Elementary School District 97 and Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200 school boards both acknowledge that those districts are rooted in institutional racism that help perpetuate disproportionate academic outcomes and school experiences.    

Affinity groups are small, but powerful, antidotes to the systemic racism and prejudice that students of color experience in Oak Park schools. 

“Though our local schools are racially diverse, they still replicate patterns of systemic racism, which routinely benefit white students and disadvantage students of color,” said Terry Keleher, an Oak Park parent-activist and the director of Strategic Innovation at Race Forward, a national nonprofit racial justice organization.

“That’s why it’s so beneficial for students of color to have dedicated space with each other to let down their guard and be able to process experiences, feelings, and impacts. When you’re not part of the dominant group or culture, affinity groups can provide the needed space for safety, support, sustainability and survival.” 

Groups like Black Leaders Union (BLU) and Students Advocating for Equity (SAFE) at OPRF, and the Social Justice Club at Percy Julian Middle School, have provided those places of respite for many students of color in Oak Park. 

But affinity groups aren’t entirely free of trauma and stress. 

Cynthia Brito, who coordinates the Social Justice Club at the middle school, said that while the club has been a transformative space for her students — one where its 26 members (all black or Latinx) have been able to honestly talk about their struggles — she feels that the “content of the club has been hijacked” due to students having to “constantly put out fires related to all of the racial aggression they’ve experienced.” 

The club, which was started in January, has been at the forefront of a push to remove a series of Depression-era murals at the middle schools that only portray white people. In addition, the club members have helped lead walkouts against racism.

Brito and her students said they have also received pushback for their efforts. During a school board meeting in May, many Social Justice Club members complained that they were being unfairly scapegoated for what most teachers in the middle schools believe is a culture of disrespect and misbehavior. 

Many teachers have insisted that this is not the case — that the rampant behavior issues at the middle schools cuts across races and are related to a lack of concrete, uniform disciplinary policies. 

Still, Brito said, her club has experienced its share of isolation. For instance, they were kicked out of a classroom where they had been regularly meeting, she said. 

“On the one hand, the students are healing through activism, but on the other hand, they also want to do other work, like learning their history and doing art,” Brito said. 

For young people like Antoine Ford, an Oak Park and River Forest High School student who has volunteered with the Social Justice Club, affinity groups are double-edged swords. 

The adults who coordinate affinity groups and provide a variety of formal and informal safe spaces for students — such as Brito at Julian, and Shoneice Reynolds and Anthony Clark at OPRF — are often the most trusted and respected adults among students of color. They’re also likely to generate heat from administrators and other teachers for their efforts. 

For instance, Clark was placed on administrative leave after D200 administrators suspected that he helped Ford plan an unsanctioned protest march in February — a claim that Ford and Clark both vigorously denied. Reynolds was also placed on leave, but for reasons that are less clear. As for Brito, she said that she can feel the animosity coming from some teachers when she’s inside of Julian.  

Ford — a young African American male who was just beginning to find his voice — said the experience with Clark turned him off to the notion he can trust affinity groups sanctioned by the schools. 

“I feel like the school leads [groups like BLU and SAFE],” Ford said. “And the school system is already ridiculous. It’s messed up. I don’t want to join something that I have a problem with.” 

Ironically, however, Ford’s burgeoning social voice had been cultivated by peers and adults affiliated with affinity groups at the middle and high schools. 

Keleher said that the problem is not so much with the affinity groups as it is with “white educators who haven’t experienced racism” and who “may view affinity space for people of color as unnecessary, exclusive or even threatening. Or they may believe racial equity requires diversity in every space.” 

Keleher said that a lot of education on the part of whites is required for affinity groups to become the safe, non-threatening spaces they’re designed to be.

“White people need to learn to honor the rare spaces that are beneficial and empowering to people of color,” he said. “White anti-racist affinity space can also have value, as long as it’s clearly defined and utilized as space to challenge, rather than consolidate, white dominant power.” 

SAY Connects is sponsored by the Good Heart Work Smart Foundation in partnership with Success for All Youth (SAY).

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