Activating Generative Safe Spaces in Academia

Set the scene. Admit our boundaries. Invite active input.

Paricha 'Bomb' D.
6 min readMar 16, 2024

An ivory tower of knowledge, accessible only to the elite few, where grades are Golden Tickets to a Better Life. A battleground for eternal fame, where achievements are immortalized in the pages of prestigious journals and the admission papers to brand-name institutions. A political playground where alliances are forged and the currencies du jour oscillate between positions and fundings.

Welcome to Academia.

Fantastical vibes of academia. Photo by Rita Burza on Unsplash

In my years of post-secondary education and subsequent post as adjunct faculty, I can attest to some of these flavours of dystopian fiction that occur on university campuses. As a student, I saw budget cuts to tutoring programs for foundational STEM courses (supposedly in the name of football), I’ve been called “silly” for asking for help on an (also supposedly) simple problem set, and I’ve been told (behind my back) that I didn’t deserve to get into a particular program.

As faculty, I’ve heard of, unfortunately, power plays and non-collaborations that overtaxed the staffs and overwhelmed the students. I know of at least one person who quit a position because colleagues, rules, and regulations were standing in the way of fulfilling a grant abroad.

Looking back, these stories are rather jarring to me. I enjoyed my undergraduate and graduate education, which led me to see “school” like a sandbox, a physical realm where “students” can intellectually experiment with who we are and what we are passionate about (and yes, this applies to the other “explorations” like relationships, sexuality, alcohol, too). Schools should enable learnings and unlearnings of all kinds, by establishing a bubble wherein (ethical, reasonable) mistakes can be made without (much) real-world consequences.

Now I know that students are not always sheltered from the politics and the budgets and the millions of other factors that affect the faculty and staffs who are — I have to believe — trying their best to make student learning the main priority. I wonder:

How can we actively curate a safe space in academia?

The reason I am reflecting on this idea of school-as-a-safe-space is because of an education project I help implemented three years ago as a part of a partnership between the Thailand Institute of Justice (TIJ) and the UN Development Program (UNDP). When I first started writing this, we were about halfway through the project whose objective is to encourage more people-centered education on social justice at the university level.

We will sing from the hills to any who will listen. Source.

We were building on the experiences, tools, and frameworks we collected since pre-Covid — from teaching design thinking for social justice to undergraduate entrepreneurship students to developing a justice-centered foresight curriculum — and the expertise of the network of both partners to gather academics and practitioners in a knowledge-sharing session. Our vision was to scale up our lessons learned on applying human-centered design to justice issues to as many university educators as will listen, across law and law-adjacent disciplines.

Our team was excited about the idea of building a community of practice around mutual learning and sharing, where professionals walls can come down and competition can take a break. I could not forget what one of the Deans of a university we reached out said to my team during the initial stages of our stakeholder engagements:

Oh, I don’t think it’s going to work with these academics.

I can’t say that I know for sure what they meant or why they said so, but the skepticism from a prominent figure fueled our collective fire (and the opposite of what we ended up experiencing).

The 2-day knowledge-sharing session, titled Justice Innovation for Educators, attracted a community of 50-strong academics who joined in the hopes of (we hope) upskilling themselves and updating their own classes, as well as practitioners in the social and public sector. We set the scene of creating a “space for university professors/lecturers to … exchange ideas … and cross-fertilize innovative impulses”, which led to some profoundly humble sharing and discussion.

As a speaker, I may be biased but as an attendee to the other sessions, I felt like all of us educators were given permission to set aside our instinct to appear ultra capable in public and focused on why we were here in the first place: make our students learning enjoyable and meaningful for life. Given that the event took place entirely online (it was during the Covid era), I noticed that a few speakers verbalized particular vulnerabilities that encouraged sharing and conversations:

I don’t know much about innovation… I am not in academia, and would like to hear your thoughts…

The educators or practitioners then proceeded to share their stories, their particular experience, without presumption of the grand importance of their work. Indeed, the tools and experiences that were shared were very specific to their disciplines, in security studies and urban planning, international relations and public policy. They are free to share their achievements and challenges in equal measure, and others are encouraged to share their opinions on lessons learned from their perspective (or what they would do in their own disciplines).

The upfront admission of the knowledge we lack was, in effect, an invitation to engage with the speaker in an open and safe space for discussion. There needn’t even be an explicit invite to give feedback — because that could’ve shifted the role of the audience from a collaborator to a critic.

But really, Mrs. Hudson knows more than she lets on for sure.

At some point over the two days, the general atmosphere morphed into a kind of peer-to-peer therapy session. The attendees were admitting to the daily and existential challenges of being in academic — like how to create grading criteria when evaluating subjective learning on topics like social justice, or how what, really, are the most effective learning objectives to use as our guide — while others shared that the event was a good forcing mechanism for reflection.

After the event, I followed up with a handful of educators and together we made plans to cross-pollinate our classes via guest lectures — the beginnings, I had hope, of a community-based learning journey for our the organizing partners. It was hard work, if I’m honest, to step from sharing vulnerabilities into a more collaborative professional relationship where we debate how our ideas can support each other’s classes and students. I ended up giving lectures to 3 classes and gained a long-term collaborator in design for sustainable education.

Aside from these initial tangible outcomes, there are longer-term questions about the impact of the session that are left open to debate: Which classes or disciplines have adapted the knowledge? How do we track changes in the educators’ syllabi? How do projects or prompts in their classes incorporate the tools they learned or the topics of justice? Do the students learn something new? As educators we naturally tend to make the best of the present and hope for a better future through our students, so we’ll have to be patient in waiting for some of these changes to take effect.

Years later, having experienced more of academia, I kept thinking back to the potential of safe spaces in education. What it can do to enhance the students’ learnings and even shield them for the messiness of the system. How it can help educators reconnect with the “meaning” of their work again.

Set the scene. Admit our boundaries. Invite active input.

These simple steps are a great starting point to create safe spaces where conversations and debates can pave the way for more empathetic collaborations. And though I learned these lessons from academia, they should hardly be confined to university walls.



Paricha 'Bomb' D.

Socially-conscious design educator and instigator in search of challenges that will help us thrive in the 22nd century.