Brave Spaces

One way in which some instructors aim to create more inclusive classrooms is by describing a classroom as a “Safe Space.” This description implies that danger, risk, or harm will not occur in the classroom. To claim we can create “safe spaces” is therefore misleading and possibly even counterproductive because it promises to protect and exempt people from the very difficulties and challenges that real learning and growth require.

As an alternative, “Brave Spaces” shift away from the concept of safety and emphasize the importance of bravery instead, to help students better understand—and rise to—the challenges of genuine dialogue on diversity and social justice issues. “[U]sing “brave” rather than “safe” not only sets a tone for engagement but also proposes a mode of engagement.” (Cook-Sather, 1) Painful or difficult experiences in “brave spaces” are acknowledged and supported, not avoided or eliminated. “[C]reating brave spaces [can] challenge the implicit and explicit ways in which inclusion and exclusion, affirmation and disenfranchisement, and belonging and alienation play out for people with different identities.” (Cook-Sather, 2).

Here are some suggested principles to help create brave spaces:

Controversy with Civility

Conflict is a natural outcome in a diverse group. Continued engagement through conflict is essential, and such activity strengthens rather than weakens diverse communities.

Own Both Your Intentions and Your Impact

Intentions and impact matter. The impact of our actions is not always congruent with our intentions, and positive or neutral intentions do not trump negative implications.

Challenge by Choice

It is about more than simply affirming challenge by choice as a ground-rule. It is also necessary to actively encourage participants to be aware of what factors influence their decisions about whether to challenge themselves on a given issue. It is important to ask participants to think about what keeps them from challenging themselves. And to encourage participants to be especially attentive to the degree to which their agent group memberships inform their decision about whether and how deeply to engage in a challenging activity or dialogue.


It is essential to spend time discussing respect. To support them in maintaining increased mindfulness of the different ways they can demonstrate respectfulness to one another, ask: How does someone demonstrate respect for you? Delving into this question can reveal various cultural understandings of the term and mitigate participants’ assumptions about what kinds of behaviours are respectful. Discussing ways to firmly and respectfully challenge others and how to respond when being firmly and respectfully challenged is a fruitful investment of time that can prevent students from automatically experiencing and interpreting challenges from others as acts of disrespect.

No Attacks

Have clarifying conversations to describe the differences between a personal attack on an individual and a challenge to an individual’s idea, belief, or statement that makes an individual feel uncomfortable. Pointed challenges are not necessarily attacks, but the uncomfortable experience that may result can sometimes lead to a defensive reaction.


From safe spaces to brave spaces: A new way to frame dialogue around diversity and social justice by Brian Arao and Kristi Clemens (in The Art of Effective Facilitation: Reflections From Social Justice Educators).


Adapted from:

Arao, B. & Clemens, K. (2013). From safe spaces to brave spaces: A new way to frame dialogue around diversity and social justice. In Landreman, L.M. (Ed), The Art of Effective Facilitation: Reflections From Social Justice Educators, pp. 135-150. Stylus Publishing, LLC. Available at

Cook-Sather, A. (2016). Creating Brave Spaces within and through Student-Faculty Pedagogical Partnerships. Teaching and Learning Together in Higher Education, 18. Retrieved from



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Decolonizing the Engineering Curriculum Copyright © 2022 by Pamela Wolf, Ben Harris, Nika Martinussen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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