Virtual affinity groups are supporting Black students during a pandemic
Mentorship and safe spaces should be prioritized by university administrations, not just the Black students who seek them out.
by Imani Brooks
When I fell into depression, questioning if I was strong enough for law school, it was virtual affinity groups that saved me. Five days after graduating from Emory University, I moved to Washington, D.C. in a full U-Haul complete with my dad and dog in tow. I was looking forward to the next chapter of my life and moved months before classes started in order to adjust to the new city.
I have navigated the last two years with the help of therapy, medication and self care and needed to proactively begin building a support system for matriculating into law school as a Black woman.
Finding black mentors was a natural coping mechanism. My undergraduate experience was largely defined by my work as president of the Black Student Alliance and as president of one of Black Greek Letter Organizations. I learned that being around Black students is a form of self care. But, I wasn’t sure how that would look in “Zoom Law School.” Student organizers at Emory University gave me hope that community amongst Black students is still possible.
I spoke with Ronald Poole II, a 2nd year student at Emory University who is a Comparative Literature and African American Studies double major. While Ronald does not like the term “affinity group” because it doesn’t embrace the multiple ways to be Black within a group, he believes affinity groups should create a space for people with similar interests, backgrounds, and experiences to come together to care about each other.
During COVID-19, Ronald sees student groups as especially important in providing a space for Black people to endure, recreate, and redefine comfort. The virtual setting often emphasizes the disparities between students. Ronald’s African American Studies class, taught by a Black professor, has two Black students, including himself. Remote learning means Black students must bring white students into their place of comfort.
The Coalition of Black Organizers and Clubs (CBOC) at Emory University was formed to build cohesion in the Black community, relying on themselves instead of other organizations. Modeling after Cornell Students for Black Lives, CBOC asks Emory to recognize the racial trauma Black students endure even in a virtual setting. CBOC sent a letter of demands to the administration, which has gained over 1500 signatures from organizations and individuals.
Collectives of Black students can be just as powerful at the graduate school level. 5% of lawyers are Black but I refuse to allow that percentage to scare me. I believe the best way to figure out how to persevere is to listen to the stories of those who come before us.
Daraja Carroll is a third year law student at WCL with an interest in civil rights as well as WCL Black Law Student Association (BLSA) President. Daraja aims to focus on advocacy, raising money and redistributing the wealth while leading BLSA this year. The organization had a successful virtual fundraiser where they raised $3,000 and tabled at the March on Washington on August 28.
During quarantine, Daraja asserts affinity groups are especially important due to COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on the Black community. It is important to have a “home” at school during a time when families and childhood homes are changing. While WCL Black Law Student Association is actively adapting to virtual learning, Black students are not getting the attention they deserve from the university.
The disconnect between the administration and Black students is more evident during the pandemic and virtual setting. When racial tweets were uncovered from student leaders, the administration was slow to respond. It was painful for students to feel ignored in the context of the protests against racial injustices. While the protests were visible on social media, the administration relies solely on students bringing concerns directly to them. This can’t happen if students don’t feel safe in voicing their demands.
WCL BLSA is actively providing space for Black students to verbalize their needs. The executive board used Groupme to get general body members’ opinions on the slow reaction of WCL to craft a letter to the top deans asking for a stronger standard of acceptable conduct for the entire WCl community. Now, the executive board meets with deans on a regular basis and have improved the ways racial bias incidents are reported.
Though I haven’t stepped foot on campus yet, witnessing the advocacy of WCL BLSA on behalf of students solidified my confidence in feeling mentally prepared for virtual law school. If groups like CBOC and BLSA did not exist, Black students would be at a disadvantage during the pandemic on top of the disparate health impacts of COVID-19. Mentorship and safe spaces should be prioritized by university administrations, not just the students who seek them out. Creating a support system in academia is invaluable for Black students. This is even truer during a double pandemic.
As the product of a Black matriarchal household in rural Virginia, Imani Brooks is a traveler, human rights activist, and law student at American University Washington College of Law. She aims to shed light on hidden stories within the Black community with her freelance writing. Her work can be found with Teen Vogue, The Independent UK, MTV Founders, and Splinter News. You can follow Imani at @TheImaniB on Twitter.