IBPOC affinity groups: Helping to build a more inclusive campus

Written by Meribeth Deen in collaboration with staff from the Equity & Inclusion Office 

UBC’s Anti-Racism and Inclusive Excellence (ARIE) Task Force Final Report recommends ongoing support for people working to build communities and spaces curated for Indigenous, Black, Persons of Colour (IBPOC) students, faculty and staff. Many of these spaces take the form of affinity groups. 

One Thursday in November, a group of IBPOC women, transgender and non-binary faculty, staff and graduate students met up in the UBC Pharmaceutical Sciences Building to expand and hone a definition of a mentor: sometimes a mentor pushes you into situations you’re not ready for and helps you move your career forward in the process; sometimes they show you that it’s okay to fail; sometimes they show you that you don’t have to fit the stereotype that’s tied to your identity. Event participants also shared their personal challenges and ideas to support one another – then enjoyed a catered lunch and informal social time.  

The conversation could have been on just about any topic, but having a facilitated conversation offered a launch pad for members of the group to connect.  

Affinity groups like the above IBPOC STEM Network aim to build communities of support and well-being around some aspect of shared identities and lived experience, to provide a space where people can celebrate those identities, offer mentorship, and mobilize advocacy for equity and inclusion. The IBPOC STEM Network is funded through small contributions made by several STEM departments. By pooling resources, this Network has been able to create opportunities for connection across departments and Faculties.

The IBPOC Coffee Club fund, offered through the IBPOC Connections Faculty and Staff program by the Equity & Inclusion Office, also provided initial seed funding and staff support. 

So how do affinity groups help to build a more inclusive campus? Although not an exhaustive list, the following three ways stand out:

1. Affinity groups can make space for intersectionality. 

People form communities organically, and often, these communities are made up of people with shared identities, interests or experiences. People within the group may end up representing a very narrow margin of the people who are tied to that identity.

Affinity groups tend to intentionally bring people together under a broader umbrella which is purposely inclusive, allowing relationships to form across within-group differences. For example, the IBPOC STEM Networks connects people with different sexual orientations, IBPOC racial identities and nationalities. Sharing stories within such an intersectional space like this allows for a greater understanding of diverse lived experiences among people connected to the particular identity.  

2. Affinity groups can connect people across campus…and across hierarchies.  

An IBPOC affinity group at UBC Okanagan, for example, includes leadership, staff, faculty, grad students and post docs.

“I met people at our last meeting and I wondered, how have we never crossed paths before?” says Sanji Lacey, one of the group’s co-founders. “And there’s some networking that happens. For example, I met someone from the Sexual Violence Protection and Response Office (UBC Okanagan SVPRO) who has had racialized students come to her looking for help. Since then, she’s always looking for other IBPOC people to connect the students with, and so I said, you can connect them with me or my other colleagues. It’s about building out support for everyone.”

Strengthening networks, dialogue and learning across different types of roles and units on campus can also help to build stronger supports and also spur collaborative initiatives to create change across different units. 

3.  Affinity groups can help  counter between-group divisions, building stronger relationships between marginalized and dominant culture groups and allies. 

By providing people who belong to historically, persistently and systemically marginalized groups the space to talk about their shared experiences and exchange strategies to affect change, affinity groups can serve to validate, heal, and empower. These groups can also help build capacity among members to thrive as they navigate dominant culture in the workplace and/or the classroom. When coupled with dominant group allyship capacity building, the benefits of affinity groups can help enhance inter-group dialogue and collaboration towards change. 

Financial or in-kind contributions and support from the institution – whether seed funds from the Equity & Inclusion Office or sponsorship of activities by various offices – can go a long way in helping these groups be successful. That said, many affinity group organizers may relate to Sajni when she says, “It’s a fine balance between institutional support so that it’s not an extra labour that we take on, but also that it doesn’t get taken over by the institution”. Self-determination and community-led organizing are important principles for the success of affinity groups. 

There are many affinity groups at UBC which help to connect and support IBPOC, 2SLGBTQIA+, and disabled students, faculty and staff. Visit the Equity & Inclusion Office Connections & Support page for more information.