CU Denver’s Affinity Groups Focus on Creating Strong Sense of Belonging on Campus  
A musical performance at the 2023 Black Student and Faculty Association Dinner.

CU Denver’s Affinity Groups Focus on Creating Strong Sense of Belonging on Campus  

Plus, get involved with the new LGBTQ+ affinity group this spring.

February 27, 2024

At CU Denver, we know that building a community starts with our individual experiences but is strengthened when we find connections between the things that make us unique. And, as a university that aims to be an equity-serving leader in higher education, CU Denver knows that creating a strong sense of belonging and community are critical not only for a good workplace but to best serve our diverse students.  

To support that, the university launched several affinity groups on campus in 2022. Affinity groups are focused on voluntary association based on shared identity, background, interest, allyship, and/or goals. And, this semester, the Office for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) is supporting events and work by the affinity groups with modest budgets and senior-level support to help build a strong sense of community and provide professional development, educational, and leadership opportunities for all members of the campus community. 

“One of our goals is to provide professional and leadership development to see our faculty and staff progress through career ladders, and this is one way to do it,” said Antonio Farias, the Vice Chancellor for DEI. “And in case there is any doubt, membership in affinity groups is open to all CU Denver employees. Our office is providing executive level support, but the groups will create their futures by engaging with faculty and staff across campus to organically create a sense of belonging that aligns with our mission to serve our amazing student body.” 

Sense of Belonging 

Creating a safe place to share similar experiences and build a sense of belonging is what led College of Architecture and Planning Assistant Dean Leo Darnell to volunteer to lead CU Denver’s newest affinity group, called LGBTQ+.  

When he arrived in the Mile High City two decades ago for work and to enroll in the Master of Architecture program at CU Denver, Darnell immediately got involved in the Denver’s LGBTQ+ community, including volunteering at the The Center on Colfax. “There is discrimination and barriers to well-being for many members of the LGBTQ+ community,” Darnell said. “My goal [was] to help build a network where people feel safe to share and express their experiences and challenges.  

He is still committed to that work today. “My hope is together we’ll identify issues and then find resources so we can, over time, create a network for community engagement, a venue for educational opportunities, and support professional growth for our CU Denver LBTQ+ community,” Darnell said.  

To start, Darnell and colleague Lauren Stewart, an internship coordinator for the Experiential Learning Center, have planned a Feb. 27 open house at noon in the CU Denver Building, room 340, and a virtual session on Feb. 28 (email LGBTQAF@ucdenver.edu for more information). “It’s a no-pressure event,” Darnell said. “It’s to let interested faculty and staff know we are here, share what we are thinking, and hear from potential members about what they would like the group to do on campus.” 

Breaking Down Silos 

For Erick Chavez, who co-leads CU Denver’s Latinx affinity group with Assistant Professor of Sociology Edelina Burciaga, his work is all about breaking down silos and helping faculty and staff feel less isolated. 

Chavez, an academic advisor in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, joined the Latinx affinity group because he often hears other colleagues talk about feeling isolated or even missing events because they simply didn’t hear about social and professional opportunities. “Within my office in CLAS, there’s a strong sense of belonging,” Chavez said. “But I don’t see that everywhere. When I heard about this group and met Edelina, I was in.” 

The first official act of the Latinx affinity group was to get CU Denver reinstated in the Colorado Coalition for the Educational Advancement of Latinx (CoCEAL), which brings together education groups dedicated to providing greater access to higher education for all students, with a specific concentration on Latinx students throughout the education pipeline in Colorado. Burciaga said that the statewide group shares best practices to support student success. She added that connections like this are important because they allow us to work with our colleagues internally and to talk to other professionals outside of the university to benefit from collective knowledge. 

The Latinx affinity group is planning several events that will focus on professional development with an opportunity to socialize, so that members get to know each other and the work they are doing across campus. And they will host an event on Wednesday, Mar. 13 , from 4 to 6 p.m. at the CU Denver City Center, where the Hispanic Serving Institution operations team and the Latino Research and Policy Center will provide updates on ongoing activities. Food and non-alcoholic drinks will be provided. 

Creating a Third Space on Campus 

The Asian American Pacific Islander affinity group (AAPIAG) has a long history at CU Denver, and helped shape some of the work that led to the university’s federal AANAPISI status. But even before that, there’s been a growing momentum for AAPI advocacy. This current iteration traces its start to informal lunch meetups among AAPI faculty and staff, said Yang Wang, an assistant professor of art history who has led the affinity group since 2021. 

One of the significant outcomes of the AAPIAG was a Town Hall with leadership in April 2021 to address an AAPI action letter authored by members of the group in the aftermath of the Atlanta spa shootings (where eight people were killed, including six women of Asian descent). “I was asked to take lead by the previous facilitator, Soyon Bueno,” Wang said. “Under her leadership, the group built membership and built some momentum, but it takes a lot of work, a lot of time and effort to sustain the mission. So, when asked, I stepped in to help.” 

The group has already helped bring speakers to campus and helped promote events led by student groups. Wang said that the major focus for this semester is to provide more professional development opportunities that will help retain faculty and staff. “We need to help faculty and staff feel valued through tailored professional development,” she said. “With the Office of DEI’s support this year, we can hopefully boost our capacity to do so.” 

In order to get people engaged, she said there needs to be a sense of belonging, which is something the group has always worked on. “We want to serve faculty and staff and create almost like a third space here on campus, a place that’s not your family or department, where you feel safe and encouraged,” Wang said. “That’s the goal.” 

Building Legacies 

Deneshia Hearon, the assistant director for Undergraduate Outreach and Admission Pathways, has led the Black Faculty and Staff affinity group for several years with a core group of staff volunteers. And, like the other affinity group leaders, she says she accepted the challenge to lead because she realized the need to create a sense of community for Black faculty and staff on campus. 

With so many demands on individuals’ time, she said finding a core group is essential so that we can work together to help create a place for everyone to meet and share. “The Black Faculty and Staff affinity group wouldn’t be what it is without our members,” Hearon said. “I believe when you see people that look like you, due to your cultural background and similar experiences, you can relate to them and it helps to create a sense of belonging. We provide an outlet to discuss common issues or concerns. It’s a safe space that’s comfortable for us to meet and produce solutions.” 

This semester, BFSA is planning meet-and-greet sessions to help members get to know each other and is hosting workshops to enhance professional skills. The group also plans to continue to support the tri-institutional Black Student pre-graduation celebration in May and is already working on plans to participate in Juneteenth celebrations with CU Anschutz. 

The key, Hearon said is to remember the work being done now will benefit generations to come. It is also important to make sure the work and members are visible on campus. That’s why the Black Faculty and Staff affinity group not only sponsors its own events, but you will see members participating in all sorts of events across campus. “We have to help each other,” she said. “That’s how we are going to impact lasting change.” 

Interested in learning more about CU Denver’s efforts to become an equity-serving institution? Click here to read the 2030 Strategic Plan.