Building community and Brave Spaces as a Foundation for DEI work

You can lay a foundation for equitable classrooms by focusing on community building, fostering a sense of belonging, and encouraging “brave spaces” – spaces where students feel comfortable enough to share thoughts candidly, but also work at the margins of their comfort zones, where learning occurs.

From the BELE framework, equitable learning environments are characterized by:

  • An engaging, intellectually rigorous learning environment
  • Physical, emotional, and psychological safety
  • Meaningful and relevant work and classroom discourse
  • Students' cultural, spiritual, and/or ethnic values and practices being acknowledged, honored, and respected
  • Students feeling seen, respected, and cared for by adults and peers
  • Opportunities to set and meet goals, and to learn and recover from failure

These objectives are reached through both course design and classroom management. At the start of the course, and regularly throughout it, carve out time in your lectures to teach listening skills, establish ground rules, go over the concept of intent versus impact, and explain the value of courageous conversations for the process of learning. Consider following a protocol for courageous conversations. Activate diversity, without “tokenizing” students or putting them on the spot to speak for an identity group. Design activities for students to connect to one another and encourage and support intergroup contact. Have students share announcements about events that they want others to know about. Use lots of icebreakers. Persuade students about the value of the space for connecting them to their peers and ask them regularly to reflect on how the course will help them do meaningful work after they leave college. Recognize multiple forms and styles of intellectual and creative work in the class and in your field. Stay abreast of accessibility technologies and practices. Not only do they ensure access, they also signal to all students the value of opening a space where all can participate.

“We want to reimagine what this thing looks like, by recreating educational spaces in a way that says

Come as you are, and be brilliant as you are.”

— Christopher Emdin, Teaching & Being Rachetdemic

CETL regularly offers workshops with tools and resources for teaching. In addition, this 20-minute lecture by equity researcher Paul Gorski offers a useful reminder of the need to supplement practical strategies with an understanding of the deep and subtle ways that structural inequity plays out in education. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has extensive resources for understanding systemic racism

Be aware of some of the barriers to community building, including white supremacy norms, competing narratives about social justice, disinformation, and stereotype threat. And remember that instructors are part of the community. Share your excitement about something in your subject area. Share personal stories. Lifting the veil on your job, your discipline, and its norms can be a powerful inclusivity move and help establish rapport, which has been shown to improve learning outcomes.

Here are some additional resources and tools for creating brave spaces for students:

Understanding impact

It is challenging to untangle intent and impact. When facilitating your course, always be aware of the potential impact of your words and actions and the words and actions of students. This section of the web site has more reading on the topic of impact, with a special focus on microaggressions and micro-invalidations.

Establishing community agreements and ground rules

Fostering a sense of belonging

Often students feel like they don’t belong, and this can impede learning. In your classroom facilitation you can foster a sense of belonging by using students’ names, sharing personal stories about any challenges you faced in your education, ensuring authentic representation in course materials by citing researchers whose identities are underrepresented and/or marginalized in your field, and being attuned to the way jargon and subject lingo function to exclude. Explaining acronyms—and not just those from your subject area—goes a long way to avoid a sense of alienation from higher education.

All, but certainly first-generation students, may benefit from efforts to:

  1. Tell your institution’s history as it relates to historically underrepresented communities
  2. Treat “first” as an asset and not a deficit
  3. Provide proactive and responsive care and support

(AiLun Ku, 2020)

On your syllabus and in class, make networks of care visible, such as providing contact information for the student health and wellness services, or explaining the Dean of Student’s advocacy role. Making the university’s organization and functioning transparent, and contextualizing its history and norms, contributes to revealing any “hidden curriculum” and fostering a climate of inclusion and belonging.

Major obstacles to creating a sense of belonging include:

  • centering whiteness as the norm
  • avoiding the subject of race
  • treating social injustice as extraneous
  • assuming gender inequity is a thing of the past
  • tacitly accepting myths of the “model minority”
  • telling students to work harder without knowing their circumstances
  • minimizing accommodations for students with disabilities

Creating a sense of belonging requires courage and tact, particularly in cases where the instructor’s identity is different from the student’s. If you are an instructor who is Black, Indigenous, of color, female, LGBTQ, or has a disability, an additional challenge may be posed by microaggressions and microinvalidations (as well as more overt challenges to your authority) by students. The Office for Diversity and Inclusion, the Women’s Center, the Rainbow Center, or your department head can be resources in this situation.

In addition to being aware of incidents of religious and racial bigotry on campus and addressing them in class, it helps to reflect on who tends to be underrepresented in your field, or at UConn generally. Just make sure you avoid asking students with minoritized identities to speak for all people of that identity, otherwise known as a tokenistic or tourism approach to diversity. (See intersectionality.) For example, BIPOC students are overrepresented as the first in their families to go to college (Cataldi et al., 2018), but not all are first-generation.

Recognizing students’ identities while not making assumptions is part of the art of teaching. Do your students feel seen and heard? What are the different ways students might feel invisible in your class?

The following resources go into more depth about stereotype threat and impostor syndrome.

Tools for courageous conversations

Please see this area of the web site for tools and methods you can use to encourage and scaffold a brave space.