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How do we really create inclusive spaces for BAME staff and students?

In higher education, we see many statements about providing safe and "inclusive" spaces. Rhianna Garrett asks what this really means for black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) staff and students
This article is more than 1 year old

Rhianna  Garrett is a doctoral researcher and race equity activist at Loughborough University

It’s not uncommon for societies, events, and classrooms to advertise their spaces as “inclusive”. But what exactly is different about these spaces from any other institutional setting?

As predominantly white spaces, universities make efforts to create what are often described as “inclusive and diverse” spaces – specifically for those with what is described as “protected characteristics”.

But it takes more than diversity efforts to create a truly inclusive environment. Just because you “allow” all identities into a space does not necessarily mean those communities feel safe and comfortable within them.

Space is political. It is formed and transformed by those who inhabit the space, and the actions that happen within them. For BAME students, spaces can transform from safe to unsafe spaces with just one racist comment.

This is why it is critical for institutions to examine their inclusive spaces and understand how they feel from the perspective of their BAME communities.

Conscious efforts

In the 1960s, Freedom Schools sprouted from the civil rights movement. They were spaces designed by Black American activists who not only supported the learning and empowerment of the Black community but also enacted practices that aimed to create equitable spaces to enhance their learning through “unorthodox” education strategies such as dance, creative writing, and art.

These spaces represented a conscious effort to implement actionable changes to spaces to increase the feeling of inclusivity. Institutions have a lot to learn from these schools and their conscious ethics of care. This was vital not just as good pedagogy but also for the inhabitants’ sense of belonging to the space.

After a version of a Freedom School was piloted at my own institution, I identified the main issues that arose as the institution attempted to create inclusive spaces and what we did to negotiate them.

Power dynamics

What’s the issue: Institutions have hierarchies, and while it is important to respect titles as signs of effort and work, it is more important to understand how they create power dynamics in a space, especially for BAME students in universities. AdvanceHE data shows that BAME staff members are more likely to be on part-time contracts and less likely to be in higher positions such as senior management. Therefore, these power dynamics can hold the risk of being racialised.

What to do: If you are holding an event, try to avoid using titles such as “senior lecturer” or “professor” where it is needed in presentations, discussions, or activities. By doing this, no matter what stage of one’s academic journey they are on, their contributions are equally valid.

Seating arrangements

What’s the issue: The most typical arrangement of furniture at a university is chairs facing in one direction to the speaker/presenter, creating a one-directional discussion. Why do we do this? Is there a risk of alienating the voices of those in attendance?

What to do: Depending on the event, try putting all the chairs in different configurations so there is not one direct focus in one direction. And no matter the arrangement you choose, try to make sure the facilitators, speakers, and attendees share the same levels. If attendees are sitting in a circle, ensure the speakers and facilitators are also in the circle, or if everyone is sitting on the floor, make sure they are sitting with them!

‘Alternative’ and appropriate spaces

What’s the issue: In conferences, presentations, and events, there can be a lot of information in a short space of time. Some people can find this daunting – for a variety of reasons.

What to do: Depending on the resources available, consider:

· A “quiet room” people can retreat to

· A prayer room/multiple prayer rooms depending on how large the event is

· A creative corner – allow people to draw out their emotions throughout the event

EDUCATE! – Ground rules and respect

What’s the issue: People with different levels of education around race equity and racism are going to be in institutional spaces. This means that sometimes BAME students run the risk of being subjected to ignorant comments, whether intentionally or not.

What to do: Provide anti-racist training to work towards a more equitable space, and you can also create a set of ground rules to ensure mutual respect.

Institutions must understand that simply claiming space is “inclusive” is not always enough. It takes additional labour to make actionable changes to make spaces more inclusive for BAME communities that reduce power dynamics, provide alternative spaces and reduces the risk of racism from entering the space unannounced.

Race equity within an institution is typically described as a “journey” which we will not complete overnight. However, we cannot let this distract from the small acts we can do to make spaces more equitable in the now.

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