by Katherine Chew, BFS School Counselor
One practice we use regularly at Brooklyn Free School with students, staff, and parents is affinity groups around different identities. We meet in these groups to have space to reflect on our experiences with that identity, while having the support of other people with similar histories and ways of being treated interpersonally and systemically by our society. We also sometimes use these groups to create and implement action steps we think will help express ourselves, educate others, or make change either within the school or extended community.
We had two ongoing female affinity groups at BFS this year, a teen group and one with 8-12 year olds. In both groups the topics ranged through broad themes: body issues and development; beauty standards; expectations put on females to act, look, or behave a certain way; internalized sexism; gender spectrums of identity and expression; labor and economics; the list goes on.
Examples of action steps taken by the two groups:
Teen Female Affinity Group:
Students wrote down a huge array of things that have been said or done to them in their lives related to being female, and posted them on a wall in the HS classroom. Excerpts:
"You're a pretty girl. Harassment is just going to happen." (my Dad)
"Can you smile for me?"
Every time I go on the subway, there is a guy who stares at me the entire time.
"I'm going to rape you."
- Students did a day of action at school where they boycotted all school activities for the whole day. They wanted the school, especially the HS, to feel their absence as far as: contributing in classes and meetings; being responsive to school needs; doing a majority of the physical work asked of HS students (cleaning and helping staff); social conversations among peers, and more.
GAG (Girl Affinity Group):
- Students were concerned about the upcoming “Mini Prom” and how girl students in particular were being encouraged to dance or go to the prom with someone. They talked about how they just wanted to have fun with their friends, and the importance of consent. They came up with 4-5 agreements to begin a larger conversation with the whole Lower School the following day. Their agreements highlighted the importance of asking someone when you want to do something with or to them, and that no student should pressure another to dance, touch, or “go out” with someone else.
At the end of the school year we brought these two affinity groups together. This idea had come from the older group early in our process of meeting when they thought about what a difference it would have made in their lives if older teen girls had talked to them about many of the issues that arise growing up identifying as female in the U.S.
The plan was that the younger students would come for one half hour, and then the groups would have time separately to close out their groups for the school year. When the half hour mark came, there was an immediate request from everyone to continue together for the full hour. The younger students had prepared some questions in advance about what it is like becoming a teen girl, and then we opened the floor to new questions and discussion.
The older students talked about how internalized sexism makes you criticize yourself or other females – ‘not the right height, weight, breast size, hair’ – and not to be upset with yourself for thinking that way, but to fight it and keep resisting. Younger students shared about how they are still expected to only like purple and pink, and how they can’t even buy a belt in the “Girls” department of a clothing store. The older students shared remembering how they felt older kids didn’t notice or care about them when they were younger, but that they really respected these younger girls and knew they were smart and courageous. Both groups talked about how significant these groups had been, that they wanted to continue next year, and different plans they had for moving forward.