Building Community and Brave Spaces as a Foundation for Equitable Classrooms

Inequity:  “An unfair distribution of material and non-material access and opportunity resulting in outcome and experience disparities that are predictable by race, socioeconomic status, gender identity, home language, or other dimensions of identity.” (Gorski & Swalwell)

Multi-directional Learning Environments

Equity-minded instructors pay attention to both the experiential and the structural dimensions of inequity. As described by the BELE Network, characteristics of equitable learning environments include:

  • 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 experiential objectives are reached through thoughtful course design and classroom management.

To encourage “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 – it is important to support community building. Instructors might carve out time in 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. Depending on the size of the class, they may follow a protocol for dialogues.

Building trust, or brave spaces, can be as simple as designing activities for students to connect to one another. Use lots of “icebreakers” and create space for students to share announcements about events that they want others to know about. It can be helpful to remind students about the value of the space for connecting them to their peers and to ask them regularly to reflect on how the course will help them do meaningful work after they leave college. Course objectives might explicitly name the development of skills to engage in a brave space.

Engaging students in meaningful discourse requires instructors to activate student voices. Always take into account your objectives for the course and plan ahead for discussions. Make it a point to hear from all students. This must be accomplished without “tokenizing” students or putting them on the spot to speak for an identity group.

Equity-minded instructors avoid superficial enactments of diversity logic. Educators can do more to recognize multiple forms of and approaches to intellectual and creative work in the class and in their discipline. They should regularly update their understanding of accessibility technologies and practices. Not only do such practices ensure access, they also signal to all students the value of opening a space where all can participate, and create a sense of community in the process.

 “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


Positionality: How am I showing up in this space?

The concept of positionality recognizes that identity shows up in all situations, including course design and classroom interaction. Reflecting on your identities, particularly if you are an instructor embodying privileges related to gender, ability, ethnic or racial identity, sexuality, education, or financial security, is a first step to creating brave spaces where students and instructors feel comfortable enough to speak freely, share with openness, and possibly grow their perspectives.

An equally important practice is to learn about the experiences of students with marginalized or oppressed identities. For example, understanding that transgender and gender-nonconforming students experience exclusion that ranges from microaggressions in group work, to invisibility in the way buildings are designed, to, in the wider world, physical attacks, can inform an instructor’s teaching practices.

CETL regularly offers workshops with tools and resources for reflection. In collaboration with the Office for Diversity and Inclusion, CETL staff aim to collect resources and practical tools to assist instructors to identify how positionality differences impact the relational and intellectual work of teaching. Some of these resources point to historical and structural contexts that shape positionality. For example, 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, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has extensive resources for understanding systemic racism. This trenchant open letter on academic ableism by Angel Love Miles, Akemi Nishida, and Anjali J. Forber-Pratt describes aspects of higher education that are seldom recognized because of positionality.

Positionality is another way of describing how social status shapes what we do as teachers. For this reason, equity-minded teachers reflect on their assumptions about the social status of being in the position of “college instructor.” For example, do we perceive learning as unidirectional, with the instructor as the “sage on the stage” dispensing knowledge and defining what knowledge is valuable, or do we perceive learning as multi-directional, and create spaces for students to contribute their observations and connections?

Because positionality is activated by contingent, systemic factors, being a Person of Color at a predominantly or traditionally white institution (PWI/TWI) can be exhausting. Stephen John Quaye, Shamika Karikari, Courtney Rashad Allen, Wilson Kwamogi Okello and Kiaya Demere Carter identified numerous strategies for practicing self-care from racial battle fatigue, and emphasize the need to move from self-care to community care, “so that. . .educators of color are not charged with the sole responsibility of devoting the time and generating the resources necessary for their own care” (126). Students of Color often seek out Faculty and Staff of Color for support in navigating racism, adding to emotional labor.

Understanding impact

It is challenging to untangle intent and impact. When facilitating your course, 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. As a start, you might consider establishing ground rules. Ground rules are sometimes called community agreements, and can be an effective way to support DEI efforts.

Fostering a sense of belonging

Often students feel like they don’t belong, socially or academically, 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 may exclude new learners. Explaining acronyms—and not just those from your subject area—can be a small, but effective practice to help prevent a sense of alienation from higher education.

Behaviors or mindsets that work against student sense of belonging include:

  • mis-gendering or dead-naming a student
  • assuming gender inequity is a thing of the past
  • tacitly accepting myths of the “model minority
  • minimizing accommodations for students with disabilities
  • telling students to work harder without knowing their circumstances
  • making statements that assume normative family structures or systems of support
  • requiring expensive course materials without making much use of them
  • using examples and analogies from a single culture
  • centering European-American history and practices
  • being unclear about academic norms in the discipline or institution which are often unspoken or “hidden”

The practices described above are exacerbated by cultural barriers to community building include white supremacy norms, competing narratives about social justice, misinformation, and structural barriers such as institutional admissions practices that limit diversity.

If you were a first-generation student, UConn’s First Generation UConn initiative offers a placard to post on your office door for students to see. Practices that benefit first-generation students and students with underrepresented identities can benefit all students. Here are some suggestions to keep in mind.

  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
  1. Grow your cultural competence and racial literacy

(AiLun Ku, 2020)

On your syllabus and in class, make networks of care visible, such as explaining the Dean of Student’s advocacy role, linking to technological and other resources, or providing contact information for Student Health and Wellness services. 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.

Instructors’ assumptions about student identities often cause stress. For example, BIPOC students are overrepresented as the first in their families to go to college (Cataldi et al., 2018), but not all BIPOC students are first-generation students. Making assumptions about students may undermine their sense of being seen and heard for who they are. For these reasons, many Black students may not feel welcome in a predominantly and Traditionally White Institution (PWI or TWI) like UConn. The repeated experience of being “the only” can cause cumulative exhaustion. For example, a Black student coming from a predominantly Black college or high school may find herself the only Black student (see also the lone Black student) in a class with mostly white (and/or male) peers and a white instructor. Frequent and continual microaggressions and microinvalidations create an extra emotional and cognitive burden on students who are “the only.”

Instructors can reflect upon how they can continue to engage students who may never feel comfortable in the space. This may require the instructor to allow students options for self-expression when difficult conversations arise (e.g., the option of writing a response rather than sharing aloud). You might include language in the syllabus that recognizes the way identities shape experience, and connecting Black, Indigenous, and other students of color, as well as students of other oppressed or marginalized identities to resources such as the UConn cultural centers or, if your department has them, designated mentors.

Consider reading The Daily Campus regularly to learn about broader contexts in which students are learning at UConn. You might also make a point of asking students what news they have about UConn. In addition to being aware of bias incidents 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. (See intersectionality and racial battle fatigue.)

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? In what ways do the effects of oppression on learning show up in learning environments?

Resources for self-care

Creating brave spaces requires resilience. Maintaining that resilience is an essential part of successful practice as an instructor. The term self-care is used here to highlight the toll that broaching difficult topics takes on the individual. It is not intended to imply that self-care or individualized approaches to self-care such as meditation are superior to community care and institutional support networks. Nor is it intended to individualize the responsibility for what is in essence a highly contextual activity. Both aspects of resilience and healing are critical to making change happen.

If you are an instructor who is Black, Indigenous, of color, a woman, gender non-binary, LGBTQ, and/or living with a disability, an additional challenge may be posed by microaggressions and microinvalidations (as well as more overt challenges to your authority) by students. Just as students with marginalized identities may choose not to lead or engage conversation about topics particular to identities, instructors from marginalized backgrounds may feel unwilling, unequipped, or unable to engage in similar conversations. Obviously it is important to preserve your mental, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing—even if to do so means being unable to facilitate certain conversations. At any point in a discussion, instructors with marginalized identities may wish to divest from conversations that become troubling in relation to their identity markers.

The Office for Diversity and Inclusion, the Women’s Center, the Rainbow Center, or your department head can be resources in this situation. Harvard University maintains an extensive list of Black-led and bilingual resources for mental health, and free guided meditation links.

Instructors who are white or have benefitted from whiteness may find it helpful for their self-care to join or form a white accountability group, and develop their understanding of historical oppression through, for example, UConn’s pop-up courses (U.S. Anti-Black racism; Why the Jews? Confronting Antisemitism; and Confronting Anti-Asian Racism) or curated collections of explainers such as the one maintained by the National Institutes of Health. These resources may also support instructors who grew up in other countries to understand contemporary U.S. contexts and feel more comfortable engaging in antiracist education.

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.


Emdin, Christopher. Teaching & Being Rachetdemic. TEDxBerkeley. Accessed January 26, 2023.

Gorski, Paul and K. Swalwell. Creating Equitable Learning Environments: An Equity Literacy Approach. Webinar presentation. Accessed January 26, 2023.