The work ahead: Affinity Groups at NNM

by Kathleen St. Louis Caliento, Michelle Hartney, and Puja Singh, NNM parents

Affinity groups are at the heart of Montessori philosophy. Every child is an individual with specific needs, identities, talents, and backgrounds — and so are their parents. And in the spirit of following the child and seeking a parent and school partnership, we work to break down barriers that cause injustice and to equip our staff, faculty, and students with tools to understand and dismantle injustice.

Kathleen St. Louis Caliento; Mocha Montessori Parent

When I think about the affinity groups and the spectrum of diversity, including gender, race, religion, class, etc. — for me, there is strength in that personal experience of understanding when you’re around someone who has already had a similar lived experience. So when I think of a group like Mocha Montessori (being a Black female in a society that values people who don’t typically look like me), I think about what a wonderful community Near North is – and in particular, the Mocha Montessori family in this community.

Beautiful Diversity

Not every Black lived experience is the same, but there’s an understanding of the challenges. You don’t have to face shock or disbelief at your reactions or responses to certain experiences. Many of my Mocha Montessori peers and those in the Black community have faced and experienced similar moments where you have to over-explain a reaction or a response. It can be emotionally taxing.

There is a beautiful diversity within the Mocha family and the Black community at large. As a multiracial family, it’s important that my daughter Mia and my husband can encounter these different Black lived experiences. Growing up, I had a lot in common with friends who were the children of immigrants – Filipino, African, Mexican. We were able to joke about our immigrant parents and experiences like opening margarine or yogurt containers in the fridge to find them full of leftovers. 

While my daughter is biracial, she’s going to be seen by society as a Black girl. So, we want her to be aware and not naive, and also to be celebrated where she feels comfortable.

Intersectionality can be difficult. Challenging but beautiful.

A Community Mentality

At some point, you have to get in where you fit in. I am a Black female married to a white man. What are some of the levels that we’re not even digging into from a multiracial perspective that might be important to explore? Mocha has been incredibly supportive through this navigation, and Evan feels comfortable attending Mocha events without me.

That comfort is so important to me. How close Mia has gotten to some of the other families in Mocha, and our desire to deepen those relationships, too – that makes me smile. I know I could call anyone in that group, and that community would not hesitate to rally. And they have done that in the past.

This community mentality is the reason affinity groups exist: there’s strength in numbers. We recognize our value and the power we have to help shape our school community into a place where we want our kids to be, where they will thrive, grow, and know that their voice matters.

And I think about the work of Dr. King and the work of Malcolm X, trying to appeal to poor white Americans, connecting the dots on how they were facing similar inequities to Black folks. When you help lift all boats, it has incredible benefits not just for you but for others in our community as well. We can deepen the great diversity and richness in our school community when we continue to find more ways to connect intentionally across various identities!

Michelle Hartney; PRIDE Montessori Parent

Affinity groups are important because they provide a space for people with shared identities or interests to come together in community to connect and support each other. The PRIDE Montessori group is brand new this year and will provide space for LGBTQIA+ parents and/or parents of LGBTQIA+ students to meet.

On a personal level, affinity groups are incredibly important to my family because my eight-year-old is non-binary. They first changed pronouns at the age of four, and they were the first openly transgender child in 3-6 at NNM. Mothering a transgender child has provided me a unique parenting experience and allowed me to see, despite the best intentions, just how cis-normative the school has been. This is something I was blind to and had the luxury to ignore while our older cisgender child moved through 3-6. With my second child, I often felt isolated as a mother because of the unique challenges one faces parenting a transgender child. For me, the most difficult part was dealing with the fact that society is not always accepting of gender non-conforming people.

Had there been an affinity group at the time—a community of parents going through the same thing with whom I could share my experience—I would have been fortified, more confident as a parent. My hope in starting this group is that other parents of gender non-conforming kids at NNM will not feel alone, and will draw strength from each other. I also hope that we are able to come together as a group and identify ways the school can make students from the LGBTQIA+ community feel as safe and confident as any student deserves to feel.

More broadly, I believe we have an opportunity to seize the moment and bring positive change to NNM. We have new leadership, a new DEI director, a recently completed equity audit that shows we have a lot of work ahead, and we all witnessed a social uprising the summer before last that we cannot ignore.

The power of affinity groups can help bring that change. Now is the time to dismantle white supremacy at NNM. Now is the time to make NNM a safer and more welcoming place for LGBTQIA+ students, parents, and teachers — and I believe that this affinity group can play an integral role in making this change happen.

Puja Singh, Masala Montessori Parent

Everyday occurrences leave a lingering feeling in my subconscious that I don’t really belong here. Walking down an aisle of dolls at Target with my daughter where not a single doll has her skin tone or remotely looks like her makes me wonder whether negative messages about her identity are being sent to her subconscious. While it is impossible to prevent any of these negative messages from reaching my children, I feel there are avenues I can engage in to ensure that my children receive positive messages about their identity. Masala Montessori, an affinity space for families with children who identify as South Asian, is one such way.