Getting “Real” about Transformation: The Role of Brave Spaces in Creating Disorientation and Transformation

Sarah Stanlick

 If the ground rules for our interactions with one another become so limiting that authenticity is stifled, will not the disorientation required for transformation also be stifled? Rather than tapping the transformative capacities of SLCE experiences, are we sheltering our students, our community partners, and ourselves from the “real” dynamics that could help us become more open to critical conversation and more empowered to relate with one another authentically?


Societal calls for warnings of potentially distressing content in what we are about to read or view are echoed in the academy in various ways…. Although sometimes driven by legitimate concerns, faculty, staff, and institutional practices too often emerge from paternalistic desires for control over students and communities who are assumed to need protection. The result is that uncomfortable, disquieting experiences remain elusive, hindering deep-dives into disorienting – and thus potentially transformative – opportunities for students, communities, and ourselves….

In the wake of national incidents of violence and community distrust – from Ferguson to Baltimore to Charleston1 – it is more essential than ever to create what Arao and Clemens (2013) call “brave spaces.” Brave spaces are qualitatively distinct from “safe spaces.” With safe spaces, ground rules … are established to … minimize conflict to approximate an ideal of safety. In contrast, brave spaces are environments that invite interactions in which participants … break through polite, surface-level discussions…. [because they] feel able to be honest, candid, self-disclosing, and generally genuine with one another….

If we explicitly design SLCE as a brave space, learners are even more likely to experience disorientation as they wrestle with tensions related to agency, social responsibility, and worldview; coupled with the necessary processing via critical reflection in a brave space, such experience can lead to transformative learning ….. Multi-stakeholder transformative SLCE design can promote disorientation through authentic dialogue and critical reflection among all participants to generate transformative change in individuals, communities, and systems. …

I offer two examples of programming … intentionally designed as a brave space: confronting participants with disorientation, incorporating critical dialogue, nurturing authentic interactions, inviting individuals to try on new understandings and identities, and refusing to shy away from experiences or critical reflections that are challenging, uncomfortable, and transformative.


Arao, B., & Clemens, K. (2013). From safe spaces to brave spaces: A new way to frame dialogue around diversity and social justice. In L. Landreman (Ed.), The art of effective facilitation: Reflections from social justice educators (pp. 135-150). Sterling, VA: Stylus.

SARAH STANLICK is the founding director of Lehigh University’s Center for Community Engagement and a professor of practice in Sociology and Anthropology. She previously taught at Centenary College of New Jersey and was a researcher at Harvard’s Kennedy School, assisting the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power. She has published in journals such as The Social Studies and the Journal of Global Citizenship and Equity Education. Her current interests include inquiry-based teaching and learning, global citizenship, transformative learning, and cultivating learner agency.

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3 thoughts on “Authentic Dialogue/Transformation

  1. "Brave Spaces" Cohort says:

    – Who the “we” are–we need to have a relentless decentering.

    – The importance of institutional leadership investment in creating and prioritizing brave spaces. It requires a real cultural shift. There are not shortcuts, which can bring tension/be perceived as ‘inefficient.’

    – Everyone has their own expectation of what a brave space should/could be.
    How can spaces be both safe and brave (i.e., when we set group guidelines together)? How can we name experiencing discomfort, and yet be brave and acknowledge histories of people being unsafe/still unsafe? There is a personal expense to engaging in brave spaces.

    – How do we ensure these conversations get carried forward? What does follow-up look like?

    Ideas captured during a conversation at the Serving and Learning Together Conference – Lipscomb University – Nashville, TN
    – Robert Robinson
    – pdk hildreth
    – Shannon Taylor
    – Michael Francis
    – Jackie Hansom


  2. Brandon W. Kliewer says:

    IARSLCE 2015 Table discussion group

    Our group surfaced two resources that might help further this conversation.

    1) Butler & Athanasiou – http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/lsereviewofbooks/2013/08/29/book-review-dispossession-the-performative-in-the-political/

    In this book Butler speaks to, how although systems/structure marginalize/victimize, there are real problems when narratives of “victimization” never move from the individual level to collective change efforts. Butler seems to be grappling with how systems/structures really do create focused “victimization.” However, at the same time, Butler calls for a larger political discussion of how individual stories/experiences/feeling of victimization can be leveraged toward social-political-economic movements at a collective level. There is an effort to consider how some accepted practices within traditional identity politics, although hard fought, now actually “inscribe” the revolutionary potential of social movements/justice/collective action within more moderate/traditional confines. We discussed how this line of thinking might provide a theoretical frame to consider how civic learning outcomes, defined at an individual level, might provide a cathartic space of release/voice/recognition, but at the same time limit the potential of critique/radical transformation/ mobilized and coordinated collective action. Our group wanted to invite a larger consideration of the role critical theory has in understanding the ways students/faculty/community consider and think about civic work. Philosophically liberal approaches/assumptions to CES/civic work seems to be the field’s default.

    2) There might be ways to use modifications to the Jarhori’s window to think through some the issues associated with tough conversations that include competing interpretations and levels of political contestation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johari_window


  3. LaShanda Hardin says:

    Gulf South Summit 2016

    Authentic dialogue does not always take place in authorized campus programs. We must prepare students, faculty, staff and community members to engage in difficult conversations by providing them with conflict resolution/facilitation skills. It is important for “brave” spaces to also be “safe” spaces.
    Submitted by:
    Amanda Buberger
    LaShanda Hardin


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