Following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25 and the ensuing protests, Provost Persis Drell sent a message to Stanford staff about some of the steps the university is taking to respond to anti-Black racism and “transform our grief into building a community that is respectful and inclusive.” One of those steps was a pilot program – Brave Spaces – a series of virtual forums to provide staff with a place to openly discuss anti-Black racism, inequality and injustice.

The Brave Spaces virtual forums were designed to provide staff with a place to openly discuss anti-Back racism, inequality and injustice. (Image credit: Dani Aivazian, Leah Chan & John D. Saunders)

Brave Spaces at Stanford was developed by the IDEAL (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access) Engage team, which includes community members from across the university. Its charge is to identify learning and development programs and provide resources to support the goals of the IDEAL initiative, part of Stanford’s Long-Range Vision to create an inclusive, diverse and equitable community.

“The goals for Brave Spaces were to listen, share and learn,” said Marguerite Kunze, associate vice president, Talent Management & Workforce Strategy, who leads the team. “We wanted to begin a dialog on the issue of anti-Black racism and inequality, to share experiences and to thoughtfully reflect on what we are hearing to inform how we move forward. This is a time where we need to stand together in support of our Black colleagues and other underrepresented communities,” Kunze said.

The Brave Spaces pilot launched in early June, offering eight moderated sessions to staff via videoconference.

Feedback from participants

To date, more than 1,700 staff members have participated in Brave Spaces forums. The reaction has been generally positive, with 80 percent of participants giving the program a favorable rating.

“Braves Spaces has been an effective forum for me to learn how others are feeling and reaffirm that my own feelings are widely held, and there is comfort in that,” said Lisa V. Perkins, special programs manager in the Office of Facilities Planning & Management at Stanford University School of Medicine. “It has also been a good place to quickly identify those who can be allies on the journey to effect change. I have been able to connect with several people who I met in Brave Spaces and engage in additional dialogue.”

While participants appreciated the opportunity to have these conversations, many found that the 60-minute sessions didn’t allow enough time to delve thoroughly into the issues. Others voiced their frustration with the current national climate, their desire to see immediate action to eliminate racism and inequality at Stanford, and the rate of progress toward those goals at Stanford.

Three Brave Spaces sessions were held especially for Black staff members.

“As a Black person it was comforting to gather with other Blacks and share experiences of micro-aggressions and outright racism experienced at Stanford, without anyone doubting my story,” Perkins said. “It was somewhat healing to be surrounded by people who fully empathized with and recognized the truth of my words and the sincerity of pain, and wanted to know more – people who did not try to silence me.”

Moderators step up

Approximately 40 staff members from across the campus volunteered to serve as moderators for the forums. Victor Madrigal, ’94, associate director of Alumni & Student Class Outreach for the Stanford Alumni Association, said he was honored to be asked to participate as a moderator.

“Stanford has been my professional community for nearly 25 years and during this time of struggle and reckoning for friends and colleagues across campus, I was pleased to be of service in moderating these conversations,” he said. “Anti-Blackness and racism are national problems that at their core can be tackled within our communities. Piloting the campus-wide dialogues felt like a bold, brave step; the experience as a moderator is helping me reframe my own actions in ways that I hope will have a lasting impact.”

Future plans

In his June 30 message to the Stanford community, President Marc Tessier-Lavigne noted that he had asked leaders in University Human Resources (UHR) to accelerate initiatives they had begun under IDEAL Engage.

Kunze said that Brave Spaces will continue, and that feedback from participants in the pilot program will be incorporated into future sessions.

“Participants are interested in hearing more about the actions we will take to address anti-Black racism, so the discussions in the next series of Brave Spaces sessions for staff will center around developing our plan,” she said.

For instance, UHR will deliver a university-wide training curriculum focused on racism and biases in the culture, in hiring processes and in day-to-day work practices, Kunze said.

“We will provide training for all staff on racism, discrimination, micro-aggressions, inclusiveness, diversity and psychological safety. Managers will receive training separately and be provided with resources on topics such as: how to have difficult conversations, how to deal with discrimination and how to be an ally.”

Advancing racial justice

Brave Spaces is one step toward the university’s broader objectives for advancing racial justice. Tessier-Lavigne recently announced some of Stanford’s plans, including the launch of the Provostial IDEAL Fellows Program, an ambitious plan to support the work of early-career scholars in race and ethnicity; a cluster hire of 10 faculty members who are leaders in the study of the impact of race in America; and the establishment of The Center for Racial Justice at Stanford Law School.

“We need to do more and act with even greater urgency to create an inclusive, accessible, diverse and equitable university for all our members,” said Tessier-Lavigne in his message. “As an institution of higher learning, we have an additional responsibility to ensure that our research and educational endeavors are sufficiently focused on helping society more broadly to evolve beyond the scourge of racism that has been present in our country for far too long.”

For more information on Brave Spaces and other IDEAL Engage initiatives, visit the Cardinal at Work website.