I belong

Affinity and identity groups have supported students for decades. Now alumni can benefit, too.

Sandra Guzmán
February 1, 2023

Illustration by Kim Salt

Two decades after her graduation from Exeter, Rhoda Tamakloe ’01 still prizes her Afro-Latinx Exonian Society T-shirt collection. Being a member of ALES played an important role in her days as a student coming of age at the Academy in the late ’90s.

“It was the first time in my life that I was able to find community and people who shared my background,” says Tamakloe, whose father is Nigerian and Ghanaian and whose mother is African American and of Indigenous descent from the Narragansett and Wampanoag of Rhode Island and Massachusetts. “It helped me step into my own.”

Tamakloe cherishes her three years at Exeter, but she acknowledges that she struggled with being seen as a learning prop instead of a peer in certain instances. One unforgettable moment during a history class stands out. “I remember the lights went off and a video came on; it was that scene in Amistad where they are drowning the slaves,” she recalls. “Then the lights came on and the teacher said, ‘Rhoda, how do you feel about this?’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t know, I was never a slave. How do you feel about it?’”

I am working to create sustainable, accessible pathways for Exonians to connect with each other and continue to reimagine how we can work together to leave this world a little better than we found it."
Rhoda Tamakloe ’01

The incident left her confused, hurt and unclear as to what more her 15-year-old self could have added about the murder of human beings by despotic slavers. She was grateful, however, that later that day she could count on classmates in ALES to help her process what happened. “Without that support, I would have carried and swallowed what happened,” she

During her senior year, she adds, she found support in the classroom as well. Black Experience in White America, a course taught by Russell Weatherspoon ’01, ’03, ’08,

’11 (Hon.); P’92, P’95, P’97, P’01, she says, provided an additional safe space to explore the intersection of class and race with her peers.

Now as an elected General Alumni Association (GAA) director and chair of the GAA Alumni Affinity Engagement Committee, Tamakloe is leading efforts to curate identity and affinity spaces like ALES for Exeter alumni. Her focus is on intersectionality.

“I am working to create sustainable, accessible pathways for Exonians to connect with each other and continue to reimagine how we can work together to leave this world a little better than we found it, which is at the heart of the school’s non sibi philosophy,” she says.

On-campus affinity spaces

In educational settings, affinity spaces are meant to create a sense of belonging so students feel affirmed and encouraged and, most important, they can exist freely without the oppressive gaze that regards them as “others.” 

In predominantly white and heteronormative environments, people who are differently abled, LGBTQ+ and from various racial and ethnic backgrounds can often feel invisible and stressed, even if the behavior toward them is unintentional.

“Affinity spaces provide opportunities for people to find cultural reflections and affirmation,” says Stephanie Bramlett, the Academy’s director of Equity and Inclusion. “They are a well-documented key ingredient in how we foster connection and belonging for all at Exeter.”

Bramlett says the Office of Multicultural Affairs currently sponsors two types of identity-based groups: cultural groups and affinity groups. Since these groups are student-driven efforts, numbers fluctuate from year to year. Of this year’s 30 groups, 10 are affinity groups.

Bramlett says that cultural group members come together to learn about and celebrate a particular social or cultural group. They are open to anyone who wants to be in community with others discussing a topic around a particular culture. Examples include ALES, the Exeter Feminist Union and the Gender and Sexuality Alliance.

By comparison, Bramlett says, affinity group members come together because they have a shared social identity and can speak to the unique experience of being a member of the group. “You know you are in the right affinity group,” she explains, if you can “speak to that group’s collective cultural identity and experience from the ‘I’ and ‘we’ perspective.” Examples include La Alianza Latina, Exonians With Disabilities and Different Abilities, and the Association of Low-Income Exonians.

Being in a familiar space with other students who share a particular salient identity is paramount, for some, to being able to thrive here."
Hadley Camilus, associated dean of multicultural affairs

“At the Academy, affinity groups play an integral part in the student experience,” says Associate Dean of Multicultural Affairs Hadley Camilus. “Being in a familiar space with other students who share a particular salient identity is paramount, for some, to being able to thrive here. We don’t prescribe that. The students get a sense of when they need to be around those who feel familiar. It’s important for students to know that others are having similar experiences here, and to learn how to be authentic in a community that doesn’t always allow for that, from their more seasoned peers.”

Academic literature supports the power of affinity groups to increase self-esteem and achievement, and improve mental well-being. Beverly Daniel Tatum, one of the leading authorities on the complexity of identity, says affinity spaces help young people in identity development. In her book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, Tatum writes that if you are growing up as a young person of color in society, part of that experience is to get messages from the wider world about who you are, and responding to them. Tatum, who is also the interim president of Mount Holyoke College and president emerita of Spelman College, says that teenagers start to think about questions of identity in ways that lead them to seek out people who are having similar experiences. It should surprise no one to see young people, particularly in adolescence, gathering in similar groups, she writes. And it’s not just Black children. Asian, Latinx, Native American and white youths do this as well.

Bringing alumni together

Adults can also benefit from affinity groups that help fortify the human spirit. As a member of the GAA’s Board of Directors, Trustee Una Basak ’90 was the founding chair of the Alumni Affinity Engagement Committee. Basak, a Harvard University graduate, says that in 2021 the GAA directors quickly identified three alumni needs: to engage and solicit feedback, to improve communication with young alumni and to create affinity groups. It became very clear, she says, that they needed to respond with some level of programming and safe space creation for alumni to engage with one another. The Alumni Affinity Engagement Committee was formed and focused first on bringing affinity groups together during the 2021 virtual reunion program, a practice that had begun with reunion classes prior to the pandemic.

Basak says she learned a lot organizing these groups, not the least of which was just how difficult it would be to identify BIPOC and LGBTQ+ individuals. In the beginning, the committee relied on word of mouth, she says. The Academy has since updated its directory to allow alumni to self-identify and add race, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation to their profiles.

The committee invited alumni to join affinity breakout sessions for those who identify as Asian, Black, Hispanic/Latinx and LGBTQ+. Although not very well attended, the alumni who participated in the virtual events expressed an enthusiastic desire to keep going.

I am hoping for stories, when brought to light, that are going to create some paths toward a better engagement between alumni and the Academy. And healing."
Una Basak ’90

The excitement motivated Basak, and she worked with Exeter’s Office of Institutional Advancement and Alumni Relations to begin a more robust virtual program for four alumni affinity groups — Asian American Pacific Islander, Black, Hispanic/Latinx and LGBTQ+.  The alumni who gathered hailed from graduating classes as far back as the 1960s, adding to the richness of the conversations and the variety of experiences.

“It was emotional and very valuable to each and every person on the Zoom,” says Basak, who is of South Indian heritage. “Some of the alums have been carrying traumatic stories for years, but in creating these containers to share experiences, we have built a support system that in a way heals and brings back alums who love the Academy but were not as engaged. The engagement is deeper and more meaningful.”

Trustee Paulina Jerez ’91 attended a Latino/x affinity gathering in December and says, “Not only was this program a great opportunity to [get to know alumni], but it provided a space where we could share our stories and common experiences with Exonians of similar backgrounds.”

Basak says that the alumni affinity groups are mirroring the extraordinary work being done through the Office of Multicultural Affairs on behalf of current students. “We did not have that when we were students in the ’90s,” she says. “For example, there was an Asian Society when I was a student, but it was mostly about food, and there is nothing wrong with that. But we are going deeper. ... I am hoping for stories, when brought to light, that are going to create some paths toward a better engagement between alumni and the Academy. And healing.”

How far the Academy has come

Nat Butler ’64 wishes an LGBTQ+ space had existed when he attended the Academy more than 60 years ago. Butler, a newly appointed General Alumni Association director and vice chair of the GAA Alumni Affinity Engagement Committee, wrote an article for the winter 1994 edition of The Exeter Bulletin outlining his initial efforts to connect gay alumni with the Academy and one another. It was a first attempt to build a gay alumni affinity group, and nearly two decades later, Butler is realizing the dream. “I am a dinosaur,” he says, chuckling, “and to see how much progress has happened at the Academy is very exciting.”

Butler attended the Academy when it was a predominantly white male institution. There were two Black students in his class and, he says, the only women he ever saw were faculty wives and food servers, besides the girls who attended occasional dances. It was a time, he recalls vividly, when boys openly made fun of boys for being queer. To this day he flinches when young gays openly embrace the word queer because it caused him so much emotional damage. “The last thing you wanted was to be called that by your classmates or have anyone suspect that you might be homosexual,” he says. “It was a very difficult time to be gay.”

 In the ’60s, same-sex sexual activity was illegal in most states. For Butler, the stress was mostly about keeping his nascent gay identity a secret. He says he lived in constant fear and “was totally petrified that anyone would find out.” He was in his mid-20s before he came out to his father, Jonathan Butler ’35.

As time went on, I remembered how difficult it was to be a gay student at Exeter, and I didn’t want other students to go through what I went through."
Nat Butler ’64

Despite the challenges of the time, Butler excelled at Exeter. He was elected president of his class and president of the Student Council. He graduated from Harvard College and, at the height of the Vietnam War, followed in his father’s footsteps to enlist in the Navy.

Butler’s mother died of breast cancer soon after he turned 11, and his father fell apart. At 14, he arrived at the Academy. In many ways, Butler says, the Exeter community became his extended family. That is why the school is so important to him, he says.

“As time went on, I remembered how difficult it was to be a gay student at Exeter, and I didn’t want other students to go through what I went through,” Butler, now 76, says, tearing up. He gradually let his Academy friends know he was a gay alumnus, and in 1991 he volunteered to return to campus to give a talk.

The first time the topic of homosexuality was openly discussed at Exeter, he says, was in 1987, when a group of alumni spoke at an assembly. Butler’s talk was the second time. His activism and organizing on behalf of LGBTQ+ alumni has not stopped.

After his father died, Butler established a scholarship in his name. He has been happy to learn that some of the scholarships have gone to LGBTQ+ students. In 1994, Butler received the President’s Award “in recognition of his work as a liaison between the Academy and its gay and lesbian alumni/ae.” In 2006, he was presented with the Founders’ Day Award for his exceptional and sustained service to the Academy.

“For years I would send an email to every single alumni class president introducing myself as a gay alumnus and suggesting an event for gay alums,” he says. “Some wrote back saying they don’t have any gay class-mates. But they had to have a conversation with me, and I am happy that at least this issue got on the radar.”

Butler is excited to see how far the Academy has come regarding LGBTQ+ and BIPOC inclusion, and especially to see alumni affinity groups blossom. “The tide is shifting, but it is slow,” he says. “As much as has been done, there is so much more to do. Until we can really be who we are when we come from out of the womb, then we are never going to be comfortable. We develop prejudices at a young age; we pick them up and learn — it’s in the air. And if you are not aware of them, you can’t work on them, so it’s a constant vigil. We may never get to the point where there is no racism or no homophobia, but that does not mean we won’t try.”

He acknowledged he had never imagined that more than six decades after graduating from the Academy, he would be considered an important LGBTQ+ leader. “I don’t consider myself a leader,” he says. “I consider myself being myself, and that is all we can be: ourselves. If I can be a good example for someone else, that is terrific.”


Editor's Note: This article first appeared in the winter 2023 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.