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Affinity Groups Kickoff at Summer Institute (and Beyond!): How You Can Get Involved

Affinity Groups Kickoff at Summer Institute (and Beyond!): How You Can Get Involved

“Nothing about us without us.” This traditional civil rights organizing slogan supports the idea behind the five new statewide adult education affinity groups for ABE professionals that met for the first time at this year’s virtual ABE Summer Institute in August. Doing advocacy work with people who understand your experience and values builds confidence and community, and there’s power (and support) in numbers!

What is an “affinity group”?

Affinity groups are gathering opportunities for people who share a common experience or identity.  ABE professionals attending Summer Institute were invited to join an affinity group with the understanding that they personally belong to its community (with the exception of the Antiracism committee, which is open to everyone committed to its ideas). As one facilitator explained, “It’s an identity group, not an interest group.”

So far, MN Adult Education affinity groups include:

  • Antiracism Committee
  • BIPOC Professionals in ABE
  • LGBT+/Queer Professionals in Adult Education
  • Mental Health for ABE Professionals
  • Non-native English Speaking Professionals in ABE

How did these affinity groups get started?

The idea to organize these groups came out of several conversations that have been happening in MN Adult Education circles in recent years. Literacy Minnesota has a committee of BIPOC staff members who meet to share their common experiences and plan actions together as minority voices in our profession, which is dominated by white professionals but predominantly serves learners of color. Literacy Minnesota staff have also presented sessions on racial equity for several years. Conversations happening at MN ABE professional development (PD) events since the murder of George Floyd in May confirmed strong support for making antiracist changes; ABE professionals felt inspired to start a statewide group for BIPOC professionals, as well as an Antiracist Committee for all ABE professionals to help identify and address myriad structural injustices that learners and colleagues face.

The need to represent the experiences of LGBTQIA+ learners and staff also emerged as a conversation in MN Adult Education through IamABE’s PD sessions on representing these identities in curricula and in ABE spaces, starting in 2019. ABE professionals involved in all of these recent activities came together before Summer Institute this year to organize affinity groups to continue working toward these important goals, sharing the work with as many colleagues as possible!

Highlights from the inaugural meetings at Summer Institute

In our inaugural Zoom meetings on Wednesday, August 19, facilitators were joined by groups of new participants ranging in number from a handful to several dozen! We held a separate Zoom meeting for each affinity group in which we laid out the meaning of joining the group, and promised that affinity group communications would remain confidential and not be recorded. This allowed participants to speak more freely and share experiences more openly within their respective communities. Facilitators let joiners know that affinity groups will be led independently by ABE professionals, but may collaborate with ABE agencies in the future (i.e., MDE, LAN, ATLAS, etc.). We also laid down some brief discussion guidelines to make sure conversations were respectful, confidential and mindful of everyone’s needs.

Affinity group facilitators initiated introductions and discussions within each group, inviting participants to share why they had chosen to attend, what their hopes and goals for the group were, and whether they had any concerns about joining.

Justyna Sparrow and Habiba Sheikh, who facilitated the Nonnative English Speaking Professionals group, said, “The members were excited about being in a group where they can share very similar experiences, fears, challenges, etc. They felt understood and relieved that they are not the only ones dealing with the challenges related to their identity as non-native English professionals.”

BIPOC Professionals in ABE group leader Wendy Roberts reported: “Participants shared that they joined because they would like opportunities to connect with other BIPOC staff outside of their organization, to see more people who look like them and to advocate for racial equity, such as inclusive curriculum and more BIPOC staff representation in ABE, because progress (equitable hiring practices, racial equity in our work, etc.) seems to be moving very slowly, etc.”

In the case of the Mental Health for ABE Professionals group, facilitators Jamie Kreil and Nicki Olalde commented that their participants “expressed wanting to be part of a group that destigmatizes mental health concerns. Others expressed they would like to discuss the cultural taboos that exist around mental health and take what they learn from this group to their individual classes, and integrate it into classroom curricula and routines.”

I co-facilitated the LGBT+/Queer Professionals group with Cara Berger, and we heard from participants that they are sometimes comfortable being out in professional situations (in the classroom or at their site, in other networking situations) but at other times, feel a little uncomfortable sharing details about their identities, pronouns, relationships, and other related information where it would otherwise be very common for straight/cisgender colleagues to talk about themselves in public. It’s important to find community in our field with those who share this experience; this feeling of isolation was mentioned within several of the affinity groups.

The Antiracism Committee was well-attended; facilitators Andrea Echelberger and Madeleine Emanuel shared that “for some people in the group, it’s very hard to talk about racism; some have tried and found it difficult. Some group members have noted (new) blatant racism in their communities and want to know what to do about it.”

Next steps

All affinity groups held discussions about community-building and advocacy work they could do together within MN ABE. Some groups made plans to stay in touch via email or social media and figure out what issues people are feeling inspired to work on; others began planning specific events and projects to support their goals. The Mental Health group is interested in seeking/creating new curricula for ABE learners and in finding resources for teachers. The Antiracism Committee is considering seeking out professional experts to lead future trainings for their group, and showed a particular interest in identifying unconscious bias in their teaching and training. The LGBT+/Queer group is hoping to identify advocacy topics to pursue (and to socialize!) via some virtual happy hours.

Each group has followed up already with members (and recruited more!); some have set an upcoming virtual meeting, others have started conversations via email.


  • Nonnative English Speaking ABE professionals should reach out to Justyna Sparrow ([email protected]).
  • The LGBT+/Queer and Mental Health affinity groups have each started private Facebook groups:
  • BIPOC professionals in ABE are welcome to add their availability to this Doodle poll for a future meeting or contact Yixiu Chen for more information at [email protected].
  • Anyone with interest or questions about joining the Antiracism Committee can email Andrea Echelberger at [email protected] to get information about their next meeting. There is also the Racial Equity in ABE Facebook group, which is not associated with the affinity group but is a great place to start!

Get involved!

Because identities are intersectional, meaning people have many overlapping identities that overlap in different ways, ABE professionals are likely to feel they belong in more than one affinity group. That’s OK! You can choose to participate in more than one group over time, or suggest introducing a new one. Complete this interest form if you’d like to be contacted about future meetings of any of the current affinity groups, if you’d like to get involved in leading one of these groups or to start another affinity group. We would love to see new affinity groups for ABE Professionals in the Disability Community, Age 55+ ABE Professionals, and more!

Again, If you’d like to join, take on leadership or suggest a leader for a current or new affinity group, please complete the interest form or contact [email protected] with further questions. Please follow IamABE on Facebook for updates!

We welcome your thoughts, experiences and ideas to continue making MN adult education a more representative, inclusive and welcoming space for everyone! As our colleagues in the Nonnative English Speaking Professionals in ABE affinity group said, “It helps enormously to know that there are people out there who have the same struggles and to know that we belong.”

Erin Cary, IamABE Co-Founder IamABE