8 Things I Wish I’d Known When Creating an Affinity Group for People of Color at Work

Members of the People of Color Employee Resource Group in 2019.

I wrote this blog when I worked for a large conservation organization in Washington, DC and posted it on my LinkedIn in 2021, about six months before I resigned and changed jobs.  I helped bring together what is now a people of color employee resource group towards the end of 2018 during a time that my employer was beginning to look into issues of diversity and inclusion in the workplace.  My former employer hired an outside consultant to conduct an audit of JEDI issues in the workplace, and during that time I was invited to participate in a focus group comprised of people of color who worked there.  The emails for all of the participants were in the calendar invite, and three staff took it upon themselves to organize an affinity group, starting with the 20 or so focus group participants, but open to all staff who were interested.  Two and a half years into the experience of organizing this affinity group, I shared these thoughts.

I have worked in conservation my entire professional career, and for the last 11 years have worked mostly in an office setting in Washington, DC for an organization that is majority white. I am not an HR professional, nor am I an expert in Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) issues, but I know firsthand some of the common barriers and experiences of being a person of color.

For example, I am often complimented on my ability to speak English and at every stage of my life people have been unable or unwilling to pronounce my name correctly. But I’m a man in 40s, so I have privileges that many people of color do not have. I also have light skin. And I am somewhat comfortable in white spaces, not just at the fancy schools and the places I’ve worked, but also when I spend time with my mom’s extended family.

Two years ago, two of my co-workers and I set out to form an organization within our organization where the people of color we worked with could gather to talk about the issues that uniquely face the people who look like us. In the beginning our intentions were no more sophisticated than creating a space where we could talk to one another. But conversations turned into plans, and now we are the founders and leaders of a staff-led, vibrant People of Color Employee Resource Group.

It’s not necessarily what we set out to do, but that’s what happened. We initially came together to talk among ourselves about our shared experiences, but it grew into a formal organization, with committees, chairs, events, and most recently, recognition from our employer. It’s been stressful, but fulfilling, and looking back, it’s been some of the most meaningful work I’ve done in recent years.

Recognizing that I’m not an expert on this, but knowing that maybe I could pass some knowledge or experience off to others who are considering doing similar things in their place of work, I want to share 8 things I wish I had known when we set out to create an affinity group for people of color at work.

You have to start somewhere
We learned that it’s better to do something and learn, than to plan things out for two years and do nothing. We started with lunch. We invited about 20 colleagues to bring a bag lunch, discussed our ideas for creating a group, and agreed to do it again the following month. The next month we had even more people, and we grew in numbers and activities from there. If you can’t do lunch, go do happy hour. Or if it needs to be more formal, try to put together some kind of event that works in your work culture, but do something. And do it now.

Admit what you don’t know and ask for help
Despite the title of this blog, which was written to grab your attention, I did not start our affinity group on my own. I was there at the beginning, when three staff put our heads together, but from the moment we started bringing our ideas to the attention of our colleagues, we had help, including from our fellow HR professionals. And my God did we need the help, because none of us had any idea what we were doing. You’d be surprised how much your colleagues are willing to help if you ask them. Also, be humble. No one has the answers to everything. This can be especially hard for men.

Your reason for existing is to make your colleagues feel safe to be who they are
It can be a scary experience to be in a place where you don’t look like everybody else, and this is true for people of color when we come into white dominated spaces. So when we started coming up with ideas for how to form our affinity group, our goal was to figure out ways for our colleagues to be comfortable bringing their true selves to work. While our initial focus was on race and ethnicity, we also tried to create a culture where this extends to other aspects of who we are, including but not limited to our gender, sexual orientation, age, ability, and everything else that makes us the incredible unique team members we all are.

Create opportunities for different levels of engagement, from leadership to passive participation
Our initial reason for coming together is we just wanted to find each other. But in our discussions, we realized that our staff wanted more than community. Sure, there were some folks who wanted to be passive participants and come to lunches and happy hours that others organized. At the same time, there were some folks who were ready for revolution! They wanted to jump right in, figure out ways to improve the working environment, and take those concerns to leadership. There were others who saw this as an opportunity for professional development, either to take someone younger under their wing and help guide their career, or just buddy up with someone for support. And of course, some people sought out leadership roles, and were comfortable addressing a crowd or organizing public events. In the beginning, a lot of the roles were self-realized. You want to do something? Get to it. We are too early in our journey to determine if these roles will become permanent, or if we’ll continue to evolve.

Remember, there’s a lot of diversity within the affinity group
Even within very specific affinity groups, there will be huge diversity of backgrounds, mindsets, experiences, worldviews, and reasons for participating in the affinity group. For example, our group put on an event to celebrate the African American experience and invited our members to a story telling event about the lives of our Black colleagues. African Americans are hugely diverse, and just at our institution we have folks from Africa, the Caribbean, immigrants, descendants of slaves, and mixed-race people. We planned a similar event for Asian American Pacific Islander month and our participants are just as diverse. And diversity goes beyond appearances and identify. Many of us are in mixed-race marriages or relationships, or have a grandparent who doesn’t look like us.

Affinity groups are challenging, messy, and emotional -- but rewarding
JEDI issues are emotionally sensitive topics that are extremely difficult for even the best of HR professionals to handle. There are going to be issues that the affinity group cannot handle, that are beyond your ability, and you should recognize that. Change is hard. The barriers to a just and equitable workplace are baked into our society and culture and require systemic change. There is no one size fits all solution for addressing JEDI issues, but an affinity group can be a place where your colleagues can feel safe, and find people who may have similar life experiences. Within our group, we have grown to not just be colleagues, but friends, and have come to care a great deal about each other.

Affinity group work should be paid work
Not everyone’s vision for the affinity group was the same, and as we grew in our journey, we realized the need to become more formalized. The first thing we formalized was our leadership structure, and that has been in place for nearly a year and a half. Organizing ourselves that way placed a lot of the burden of running the group on those who volunteered for leadership positions, and we are now reassessing that structure to create more roles to more evenly spread out the work. Thankfully, our institution has seen the value of our group, and has supported affinity group leadership to spend part of their workweek on this.

Make room for allies
It’s perfectly normal to create spaces where people of color can connect to talk about the issues that we face. Every high school and college in the United States has a minority or black student union. Most large organizations and institutions have something similar. But it’s worth thinking about ways to invite allies into your group, either at specific moments or as members. In fact, affinity groups are particularly well placed to create spaces to talk about cross-cultural issues, so inviting allies in to be a part of those discussions makes the workplace a safer, more comfortable place for all staff. But it is important for us that we maintain some safe spaces that are only available to people of color.

Men need to step up
As a man, I have noticed the unpaid labor of building a safe and welcoming workplace falls too heavily on the shoulders of our female colleagues. There are entire books written about this dynamic, but one thing men are wont to is to take part in work and take up too space by incessantly speaking. Create room, boys. We also have a tendency to speak in the royal “we” and take credit for others’ labor (the irony of authoring this blog is not lost on me). This disempowers women to be leaders, among other things. Men need to do a better job of supporting our female colleagues and we need to use our power and our privilege to support JEDI at our place of work and we need to carry more of the burden.


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