Social Work department wins Diversity Enhancement Award


SUMMARY: "The affinity groups provide a way for the program to recognize and support students who have important perspectives that may be different than the mainstream. I am proud of the faculty in our department who are always looking for ways to meet the needs of our students so that they are better equipped to meet the needs of their future clients." Lisa McGuire, Department Head Social Work

By: Laura Mack '16
Creative Services Student Writer

PHOTO: SW Faculty with award

At the 11th annual JMU Diversity Conference on March 15, the Social Work department was recognized as the Department Winner of the Diversity Enhancement Award Program (DEAP) for its overall commitment to and advancement of underrepresented groups at JMU. Rhonda Zingraff, Associate Dean of the College of Health and Behavioral Studies, nominated the department because of its specific accomplishments with affinity groups on campus, which have furthered departmental efforts to promote diversity and inclusion outside the classroom.

BJ Bryson, professor, brought the concept of affinity groups to JMU, having prior experience with them in her social work career. “I come out of the Women’s Movement - the women of color movement and the battered women’s movement - and we’ve always had affinity groups where you come together and you talk about what it’s like to be you,” Bryson explained. “It’s really for you to come and seek what you need to be more fully you.” At JMU, Bryson spearheaded the first affinity group for students of color, creating a space for them to discuss issues they may feel uncomfortable bringing up in class and to lean on one another for support. 

Two other social work professors, Karen Myers and Laura Trull, more recently organized the LGBTQIAP+ affinity group and the ‘Coexist’ affinity group - for students who do not identify with mainstream Christian values. Affinity groups are largely unstructured. Faculty members post about group meetings on the social work department bulletin board, convene the meeting and cultivate a ”brave space”. All social work students are invited to come and bring others who share identity.  Agenda setting varies in the groups. Myers made an important distinction in explaining the nature of the group and said, “I think that sometimes people hear, oh you do these affinity groups and it’s like this special thing that you do – and it’s not. We’re just trying to create the same space that so many people experience naturally on campus. It just doesn’t occur naturally [for some students], so we sort of create it.” 

Affinity groups are meant to communicate that each and every student’s experience is valid and cherished. “It’s a place where you can say: this world, this campus and your family might be like this, but here in social work, we want you because you’re YOU,” said Trull. “We want you be comfortable here, stay here and be nurtured here.” The meetings, which occur a few times throughout the semester, are immensely impactful for students as they come to realize that they have peers who understand and support them on campus. “We’re writing a paper about this,” Myers said, looking over at Trull,  “and I think it’s very common for students to say in that setting, ‘I thought it was just me’ or ‘I was really feeling alone in this struggle and to hear you look at me and say, yeah I get what you’re saying, is so powerful.’ It’s helpful to be in a group where not everybody has the same experience, but they understand what you’re going through.” 

The relationships built between students in affinity groups often reach beyond the confines of regular group meetings, creating a community of support in navigating discrimination and problems unique to their experiences. When a student in the LGBTQIAP+ affinity group revealed that she was planning to go home and come out to her family, other students exchanged phone numbers and drafted a plan in the event that she would no longer be welcome in her own home. “Once they connect, they don’t really need us,” explained Bryson. “In African American culture, there’s a saying that goes ‘Each one, teach one, reach one.’ That’s the process we use in our group.” 

DEAP winners are recognized for stretching past their primary job functions and putting the extra time and effort into enhancing diversity at JMU. “We started with the student of color group, but then we had to look around and find what else was problematic and through our conversations, what could we do to be helpful,” Bryson explained. “We’re not a department that gives up on each other. We don’t give up on each other in those deep discussions and we question each other. We struggle and we push ourselves.”

Beyond their own department, Trull and Myers expressed how the Diversity Conference demonstrated a campus-wide dedication to diversity. Participants at the conference told Trull that they would need an even bigger space next time to accommodate all the students that attended – a comment that she was both thrilled and proud to hear.  “Students, faculty, community members, and administration have come together because this is important,” said Myers. “We want to be celebrating it through keynote speakers and panels and awards – we really value this aspect of us, and that just felt good.”

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Published: Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Last Updated: Thursday, November 2, 2023

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