Following the June 2 event hosted by the Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion — “Coming Together to Face Systemic Racism” — that had a whopping 714 participants, students requested smaller, identity-focused spaces where they could share their pain and grievances, call for action and support, find community and create plans to address systemic racism, both interpersonally and at the institutional level. 

Chief Diversity Officer and Vice President for ODEI Mark Brimhall-Vargas and ODEI Program Administrator Lydia Casmier created eight to 10 big meeting spaces out of the original June event that met throughout the summer, Director of Mental Health Education and Racial Justice Educator Joy von Steiger said in an Oct. 16 interview to the Justice. Out of these groups, and using the curriculum Brimhall-Vargas and Casmier created as well as the 2015 Ford Hall syllabus, von Steiger developed a white affinity space for anti-racist trainings

Once students have gone through the white and Black, Indigenous, and People Of Color trainings, and once members have a shared body of knowledge, the BIPOC and white affinity groups will be brought together for cross-racial dialogues. “It doesn’t have to be kumbaya, but white folks in particular have to have done enough work that they’re going to be able to go into the space and not cause harm,” von Steiger said.

This, she explained, is part of the reason why this training takes place over a six week period: so students can “come to a deeper understanding about how whiteness moves” and influences their relationships and perception of life.

Von Steiger previously served as the Director of the Brandeis Counseling Center, and after stepping down from that position, was hired by ODEI to oversee an anti-racist education program. Brimhall-Vargas “hadn’t yet hired somebody to have my corollary role, a person of color, to run the BIPOC spaces,” von Steiger said. “So we rolled out the white affinity spaces knowing that Mark was going to be bringing on someone to do the BIPOC spaces as well,” she added. The white affinity space is currently the only affinity space offered through ODEI; however, von Steiger explained that the office is currently putting the final touches on a BIPOC affinity space that will be headed by Racial Justice Educator and PhD student Lauren Threatte. 

The white affinity space training cycle includes two levels — the first being “White Students Discussing Anti-Racism” and the second being “From Ally to Accomplice: Taking Action in Your Anti-racism Journey.” Each level has three consecutive training sessions that take place over the course of three weeks. Six people have already gone through the first level, and all six individuals have expressed interest in continuing through the levels, von Steiger said. She expects more engagement once there are more meeting times offered for these training sessions; all of these meetings currently take place on Friday afternoons. Students who would like to join this group can email von Steiger at

In the first level, students will define systemic racism, learn about Black history and the roots of mass incarceration, slavery and economic injustice, as well as the link between capitalism and racism. In the second level, students will create a more defined plan on how they can address and fight against systemic racism. Both levels will focus on broader themes as well as Brandeis-specific history and engagement. 

Von Steiger distinguished between the different goals of the white and BIPOC affinity spaces. She explained that the white space is centered more around education and that the BIPOC space is more about healing. “Because there is already a shared understanding,” von Steiger said, “we don’t need to teach them about systematic racism; they live it.”

The trainings are not currently mandatory, and this, von Steiger explains, is a result of “some evidence that would suggest that people forced to do anti-racism education tend to not benefit from it as much as if they were to do it voluntarily.”

“As a department, we are eager to create opportunities for staff and faculty engagement,” she said, although there currently aren’t programming options available specifically for faculty and staff. There was a series of trainings over the summer for faculty, but there was not a substantial number of faculty that engaged in those trainings, according to von Steiger. 

A curriculum advisory board has been created to design the curriculum moving forward, the level two workshops, BIPOC spaces and the curriculum for the cross-racial dialogue. ODEI has pledged to not do anything without student involvement, and one of the main ways the department will do this is through the ODEI Anti-Racism Working Groups, or miniature affinity spaces that are targeted more toward student interests such as clubs and sports. These groups will reflect on the impacts of racism within their own niches and continue the dialogue and engagement from these training sessions.