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Affinity Spaces at Colorado Youth for a Change: holding space to come together

At Colorado Youth for a Change, we know that the connection between students and adults in schools boosts attendance and graduation, and when students are paired with AmeriCorps members that share similar identities, they are able to form trusting and supportive relationships. We strive for this same connection among CYC team members and seek to create an environment that honors our collective stories.  

An Affinity Space is a designated “brave space” where everyone in that group shares a particular identity. This identity can be based on race, gender, sexual orientation, language, nationality, physical/mental ability, socioeconomic class, family structure, religion, etc. Affinity spaces can be a place for underrepresented/marginalized people in a community to come together to feel less isolated and more connected.   

At Colorado Youth for a Change (CYC), we decided to start Affinity Spaces for our AmeriCorps members this year as a way to build community and create a space for folks to process their experiences at their service sites and in the world. Our AmeriCorps members come from a variety of backgrounds, and of those serving in CYC programs, 38% identify as LGBTQ+ and 16% identify as non-binary or gender fluid. Over one-third of members are BIPOC and 11% speak Spanish; meanwhile, one-third of members are 18-24, one-third are 25-39, and one-third are 40 and over.

We currently hold two virtual spaces, a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) space, and an LGBTQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning, plus) space. The Affinity Spaces are facilitated by CYC staff members who share the identity of the group they are supporting. Staff members spent six months planning, learning, and engaging in trainings before launching the spaces in September. The facilitators continue to participate in ongoing training and discussion around holding meaningful and impactful Affinity Spaces. Each month, the Affinity Spaces present a different theme for discussion and processing. Some of the themes we have discussed have included belonging, navigating the workplace, representation, culture, and identity.

In the past, members have expressed the need for these kind of spaces to feel better supported and connected with folks with a shared identity. One AmeriCorps member stated, “I hope to get a sense of community and a better understanding. It has taken me a long time to accept who I am and would like to hear others’ experiences.” Another member said they were hoping to “find people that I have this specific thing in common with and similar life experiences. I grew up in a predominantly white community and rarely got the opportunity to experience being around People of Color except for my family.”           

In Affinity Spaces, folks can share stories about the discrimination they have faced, as well as find a sense of belonging, joy, connection, and community.  Leslie Eslava, one of our Colorado Reading Corps Coaching Specialists who facilitates the BIPOC Affinity Space along with two other CYC staff members, said, “I’ve really enjoyed the conversations! It’s great being in community, even though we are all spread out across Colorado. We are able to connect across distance and still have that sense of community and belonging to support one another and have a shared understanding, while feeling comfortable because of our shared identities.” Alayna Shaw, our Senior AmeriCorps Program Manager who facilitates the LGBTQ+ space along with another staff member, added, “It has been really powerful to see the ways in which members in these spaces step up to validate and affirm one another. If someone is feeling down or is talking negatively about themselves, their peers are quick to interrupt and reframe their thinking. While this peer-to-peer support is always powerful, when it comes from a peer with a shared identity that is salient for you, it is impactful in a different way.”

We also want to uplift the voices of some of the members who have participated in Affinity Spaces this year. Here are some quotes pulled from a survey we sent to members asking about their experience in the spaces*:  

  • “If anyone at any point in their academic or career field is able to be a part of an affinity group, PLEASE join it. You will find community with a shared identity. I have absolutely loved the spaces that have been created for the BIPOC community and the LGBTQ+ community at CYC. As a whole, I have felt so supported by CYC from start to finish on matters related to every intersection people can exist on, be it race, gender, class, religion, sexuality, etc. Everyone in the organization is well-versed on topics related to marginalization and are quick to educate those who are still at different stages in their own learning journeys so that the responsibility doesn’t fall on marginalized people to educate as it often does. On top of having the equity vocabulary, this organization also puts its words into action and these affinity groups are proof of those equity skills.”
  • “As a queer person, feeling seen and supported impacts how effectively I can serve my students. It also gives me new approaches I can take when relating to queer students in particular.”
  • “The sense of ‘belonging’ that I’ve found from this group has been so helpful. It’s made honestly my whole life come together right into this one group that feels like a safe space for me.”
  • “My affinity group has impacted my feelings of inclusion immensely. One thing that other jobs do is put you in to a box or make you ‘just a number.’ While working in this capacity for CYC, I have felt a great deal more expressive and proud in all my identities. I exude a ray of hope and honor that I am allowed to reply to children when they speak of their family dynamics. They come from an era where teachers can and will dismiss talk about identities in all forms. I feel blessed when my students feel included and celebrated for being open about aspects of themselves and those around them.”

“As a queer person, feeling seen and supported impacts how effectively I can serve my students. It also gives me new approaches I can take when relating to queer students in particular.”

CYC AmeriCorps member

At CYC, we are committed to continuing a process of learning and unlearning and finding ways to ensure all of our AmeriCorps members and staff  feel more supported, safe, and validated. We are at the very beginning of our Affinity Space journey and are excited to continue to expand our knowledge and practices.

–Saskia van Adrichem, Colorado Reading Corps Coaching Specialist
–Alexis Kincaid, Corps for a Change Program Coordinator
–Monique Gallegos, Manager of Reengagement Services
–Alayna Shaw, Senior AmeriCorps Program Manager
–Leslie Eslava, Colorado Reading Corps Coaching Specialist

*survey quotes edited slightly for clarity.

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