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Issue 7: Lawful Bodies

The Power Of Affinity Spaces

Issue 7: Lawful Bodies

The Power Of Affinity Spaces

August 19, 2020


By Aparna Rajagopal-Durbin | Co-founder of the Avarna Group & PGM ONE

Photo courtesy of AdventurUs Women


Last summer I was invited to the AdventurUs Women’s Bend Escape to learn outdoor and adventure skills from and with other women. Given the long history of women’s spaces not being intersectional and my previous experiences as a woman of color in mostly white spaces, I was hesitant at first. Imagine my relief when I arrived to discover I was not the only chocolate chip in the cookie. Over the course of the weekend, my skepticism gave way to relief, and ultimately, a profound feeling of connectedness with this diverse community that had been built in just three days.

Affinity spaces have served as vital crucibles for communities with marginalized identities to heal, celebrate, collaborate, and mobilize. As a co-founder of the PGM ONE summit, which convenes Black, Indigenous, and People of Color who live, work, or organize in connection with the environment, I’ve seen firsthand the profound impact these spaces have on the psyche. And in the months since the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, I’ve seen virtual gatherings hosted by the disability justice community, conservationists of color, and Indigenous women to have conversations about the disproportionate impact the pandemic is having on black, brown, poor, disabled, and older folks.

So what is the affinity space magic sauce that creates the conditions for people to at once feel relief, connectedness that comes from shared challenges and shared grief, and joyful abandonment, all at once?

I think this sauce has at least the following 10 ingredients:

  1. Safety: We need spaces where we don’t have to code-switch, assimilate, feel tokenized, and face constant microaggressions. This “identity stress” causes real emotional harm.  
  2. Feeling the feels: People with marginalized identities—women, BIPOC folx, queer folx, fat folx, and more—need spaces to just vent and to FEEL THE FEELS: anger, rage, guilt, shame, and more. Emotional release with others who share our identities helps heal our hurts and make more space for us to thrive. 
  3. Healing: We need to be able to build alliances, support groups, and networks with each other to talk about the challenges we face and heal from experiences of oppression and community trauma. Healing happens in so many ways (art, dance, body work, yoga, sports, counseling, therapy, etc.) and affinity groups allow us to connect with others who might heal in similar ways.
  4. Connection: Many of us feel like we’re the “only ones” in our communities, workplaces, or outdoor spaces. Building connections with others like us helps us feel like we’re not the only ones, and makes these spaces that much more welcoming.
  5. Role models and mentors: When we’re swimming in dominant culture, it’s hard to find role models who look like us to help us navigate spaces and places that were not built with us in mind. People with marginalized identities often cite the lack of role models as a barrier to their continuing to be involved in outdoor pursuits and careers. Affinity experiences can connect the emerging leaders of today with these mentors and role models. 
  6. Less intimidation: In outdoor spaces in particular, I feel very intimidated by what I perceive to be cis-white-hetero-patriarchal toxically male misogynistic culture (yes, I used all of those words). Regardless of the fact that my cis white male friends (and partner) don’t believe in patriarchy, the culture of these spaces can enable misogyny and toxic masculinity. That, combined with a perception that “technical” activities like mountain biking or climbing are “masculine,” can make it very difficult to enter these spaces without feeling scared out of your panties. My biggest successes in the outdoors have been around women and people of color because I’ve been able to shed that fear and intimidation.
  7. Exploring our multidimensional selves: There is a tendency to assume that people with a particular identity are part of a homogenous group (i.e. “all Indian women...”). Affinity spaces allow us to explore the other facets of identity we all have that are visible or invisible. This isn’t possible outside an affinity space because we’re often reduced to a single visible identity and aren’t comfortable showing up as our complex selves. I’m not just a woman. I’m a woman of color. And I’m not just a woman of color. I’m a woman of color in her mid-40s. 
  8. Unpacking our own shit: Because in most spaces we’re reduced to a single identity, we never get to explore all of the other shit that our own communities enact upon each other. Take a woman’s space, for example. News flash: Women are not a monolith. And we have to unpack all of the ways we contribute to our own pain and others. Yes, I’m talking internalized sexism, respectability politics and standards of professionalism we have for women, transphobia and the refusal to recognize gender beyond the binary, anti-blackness and not engaging in intersectional work, and toxic masculinity (yes, even women can be toxically masculine). Affinity spaces help us peel back all these layers to expose us as the complicated people we are.
  9. Decentering dominant identities: Affinity spaces allow us to decenter dominant identities. At the last PGM ONE summit, queer feminist writer and activist adrienne maree brown talked about what it would look like to center joy, healing, and power instead of organizing ourselves “from a place of suffering and unhealed shared trauma” by centering whiteness. “If that is where we are locating ourselves and locating our solidarity,” she cautioned, “it's never going to be the right texture to hold us together. There's gotta be a texture that is deeper and more solid and not based in pain because hopefully we heal from the trauma. How do we feel affinity and alliance and solidarity for each other, that's not just about whiteness, right? The moving against whiteness is not enough to give us solidarity. Also an absence of whiteness is not enough to make us a community. Oh, Yeah! In all of those cases we're still centering whiteness SO MUCH.”
  10. Radical imagination: We are in the midst of so many pressing crises—climate change, environmental degradation, a broken system for workers, immigration injustice, housing insecurity, healthcare injustice, a broken criminal justice system, food insecurity, the coronavirus (which is amplifying all the others), and more—that are impacting marginalized communities. People with dominant identities can’t solve their way out of these problems without impacted leadership, which means relinquishing power to those most impacted. Though integrated spaces may support some innovation, they don’t support people with marginalized identities being able to innovate solutions to the barriers we face in the outdoors and conservation, or to those crises we feel the most. Affinity spaces are a venue for people of particular marginalized identities to share stories, discuss common challenges, and innovate solutions to these challenges.

Ok, so maybe I didn’t convince you and you’re still like, “Yeah, but aren’t these spaces exclusive?” Yes, yes they are. And it’s ok because it’s the one party to which folks with dominant identities are not invited. Perhaps a better question is to ask, “How can I support these spaces?” Besides the obvious (help create them with funding and support your marginalized identity friends in going), you could also create an accountability space. Accountability spaces are spaces for people with dominant identities to gather to not only process their own feelings around confronting their own privilege with others, but also to figure out ways to be better allies and accomplices in this work. Yes, white cis hetero thin able-bodied man, we need you too. Dismantling a wall cannot happen when it’s just the oppressed who are tearing down the wall, brick by brick. If you have a wrecking ball, bring that thing over, will ya?

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