Designing and adapting for community with Intentionally Equitable Hospitality

EquitySocial JusticeCritical PedagogyCommunity BuildingPedagogy of Care (POC)Intentionally Equitable Hospitality
In August 2020, Equity Unbound collaborated with OneHE to curate community building resources for online teaching. We, Maha and Mia, together with Autumn Caines, in our roles as leaders of Equity Unbound and Virtually Connecting, were the lead curators. The resources themselves were a response to multiple global inequities. In the context of the pandemic, community building was more important and urgent than ever, it needed to happen online and few people knew how to do it well. The OneHE-Equity Unbound resources were created and shared with Intentionally Equitable Hospitality (IEH) with the following in mind: anticipating potential inequalities faced by learners and offering adaptations for educators according to their own context. Diverse educators from the Global South and North were involved, so the creation itself was an inclusive process. In this chapter, we start by describing Intentionally Equitable Hospitality (IEH) followed by our experiences of practising it when doing introductory activities, warm-up activities and finally ongoing engagement and Liberating Structures.


Equity Unbound is an equity-focused, open, connected, intercultural learning curriculum we co-founded with Catherine Cronin. In August 2020, Equity Unbound collaborated with OneHE to curate community building resources for online teaching. We, Maha and Mia, together with Autumn Caines, in our roles as leaders of Equity Unbound and Virtually Connecting, were the lead curators. The first resources were published in August 2020 and the collection has continued to expand significantly with contributions from educators around the world. The resources themselves were a response to multiple global inequities. First, many educators worldwide were going to teach fully online for the first time for a full semester starting August/September 2020, but most of them had insufficient experience doing so. Second, educational development staff worldwide were overloaded and some educators did not have access to enough educational development support within their institutions – this project supported both the educators and the educational developers. Third, all of this was happening during a pandemic where students and educators worldwide were experiencing varying levels of trauma and were likely to have high socioemotional needs due to physical or mental illness, uncertainty and the lack of a normal social life due to pandemic lockdowns and safety measures. 

In this context, community building was more important than ever, it needed to happen online and few people knew how to do it well. Moreover, just because "we were all online" did not mean institutions, teachers or students had access to the same resources. And how might a set of “resources” fit into varying cultural and institutional contexts for learning? As an example, the inconsistency of internet connectivity is a reality for many in Egypt regardless of socioeconomic status, and many learners and teachers at American University in Cairo, where Maha works, are non-native speakers of English, learning fully in English. At Kean University, where Mia works, students are diverse in many ways, including socioeconomic, linguistic, race and identity differences which requires more nuanced intentionality when building community in online environments. Creating a resource that was open access would meet an economic professional development need for those who may not have the resources at their institutions. But to be truly open, the curated resources needed to be adaptable to various cultural and resource contexts.

The OneHE-Equity Unbound resources were created and shared with Intentionally Equitable Hospitality (IEH) (Bali et al., 2019) with the following in mind: anticipating potential inequalities faced by learners and offering adaptations for educators according to their own context. Diverse educators from the Global South and North were involved, so the creation itself was an inclusive process. Most resources were contributed from Egypt and the US, but some were also contributed by educators from Kenya, Australia, Lebanon, Iraq, UK and more. Some of the techniques were inspired by educators from the Global South such as Theater of the Oppressed techniques and some of Maha Bali's original activities. Some activities were not originally from the global South, but were contributed by educators from the global South, such as most of the Liberating Structures section.

In this chapter, we start by describing Intentionally Equitable Hospitality (IEH) followed by our experiences of practising it when doing introductory activities, warm-up activities and finally ongoing engagement and Liberating Structures. Readers will be able to view video demos of the activities as contributed on the site, and we will show particular use cases in classes and workshops and how we adapted that activity with IEH. We begin here by making explicit our positionalities and contexts.

Authors’ positionalities

Mia Zamora

I am a professor of both Literature and Writing at Kean University in Union, NJ, a suburb located about 30 minutes outside of New York City in the USA. I am a Filipina-American educated at Hamilton College in NY, and I received both my MA and PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. While in graduate school, I never considered pedagogical practice as the primary focal point for professional and personal growth. My theory-focused work in world literatures has always centred narrative, language and intercultural understanding, and along the way, it has also evolved to include the digital humanities, digital culture and new media composition. Yet, when I began to teach at Kean University, my understanding of “why I do what I do” evolved in particular ways. I have been immersed for 18 years in a university with an unequivocally diverse student body. My students represent every race, age, tribe, culture and creed. Some of my students are also economically disadvantaged, and many work either part or full time in addition to being full time students. The real gift I have received as a teacher/scholar has come from the co-learning and co-creation I have embraced with such a diverse student population. In addition, my role as a faculty mentor to graduate students and junior faculty has been instrumental in refining my understanding of equitable practices and policies for education. I shun academic gatekeeping impulses and continue to aspire to Intentionally Equitable Hospitality (IEH). Each mentoring relationship has taught me something new about what it truly means to learn. As a result, the significance of our lived experiences has become a critical foundation for my designs for equitable learning as well as my own research and scholarly writing.

Maha Bali

I have been a faculty developer at the American University in Cairo (AUC) since 2003. I’m an Egyptian who grew up in Kuwait and have always had a Western education: British schooling, American university (the same university I now work at) and my masters and PhD in the UK. While doing my PhD research, I became acutely aware of the neocolonial location of the bicultural institution that is AUC, and how it educated westernised elites along with students on scholarship. My main role as a faculty developer is to support other faculty members in their teaching by offering workshops, conducting assessments with students and providing one-on-one consultations as needed. During the COVID-19 pandemic, my own institution was well-resourced in terms of technology platforms, but internet infrastructure in Egypt can be choppy even in affluent neighbourhoods. As I plan my classes (for mostly Egyptian students) and workshops (for faculty - a mix of Egyptian, American and international faculty, educated in different places around the world), I am always aware of the possibility of people having choppy internet, and I’m always also aware of how our language of instruction is English even though most of the learners and many of the faculty are not native speakers of the language. I was also very aware during the pandemic that people did not always have large homes that afforded everyone privacy. Moreover, I am acutely aware of how much of the literature on learning and teaching online comes from a Western point of view. My experiences with designing online learning for students in my part of the world had indicated that some so-called “best practices” did not work well in our context.

What is Intentionally Equitable Hospitality (IEH)?

[IEH is] a critical pedagogical approach [that] centers values rather than measurable predetermined outcomes. Intentionally equitable hospitality is not neutral. Rather, it prioritizes the values of social justice while fostering learner/participant agency within the learning space, while never forgetting the ways in which power and oppression work outside of that learning space, and how they influence it ... When we wish to practice IEH, we need to continually renew our intentions to notice oppression and injustice and seek to redress them, to iteratively modify and adapt our practices according to the responses and reactions of participants/learners, particularly those who bring marginalized perspectives. (Bali & Zamora, 2022b, para 5).

In IEH, educators consider themselves hosts but not gatekeepers and view students as co-creators in a learning community (Bali & Zamora, 2022b). IEH recognises the importance of educators applying “generous authority” (Parker, 2018, p. 81) to facilitate conversations that are as equitable as possible despite variable power and hierarchy within any learning space. It is always a process and “aspirational journey, but never an arrival” (Bali & Zamora, 2022b) because as Sara Ahmed writes “Equality is not a credential. Equality is a task. It is what we have to do, because we are not there yet” (Ahmed, 2016, para 28).

IEH can be adopted in various phases of a teaching process (Bali & Zamora, 2022b): 

  1. Pre-design (decisions we make about whom to involve in the design). 
  2. Design (equity considerations in design responding to power differences and inequalities that we anticipate based on previous knowledge). 
  3. Facilitation (responding and adapting in the moment when we realise our design needs tweaking to be more equitable or to counter an inequity or power difference we discover – what adrienne maree brown (2017) calls “intentional adaptation”). 
  4. Beyond the moment (sustaining community and learning from this how to do better in future).

How does IEH manifest in practice?

Since IEH intentionally pays attention to inequalities within a learning space as well as inequalities outside of the learning space that influence the learning space, it needs to address intersectional realities (Bali & Zamora, 2022b). IEH recognises the multi-dimensionality of injustice and oppression such as Fraser’s (2005) framing of social justice as having economic, cultural and political dimensions.

Some students in a learning space face economic barriers, some of which relate directly to technology such as systemic infrastructural issues (inconsistent internet bandwidth in Egypt), or individual differences in access to good quality devices (e.g. some students in Egypt tend to use a mobile or have an older laptop). They can also be related to institutional constraints such as which platform is used or decisions a teacher makes to use a particular platform that privileges students with stronger internet connections. There can also be technical barriers that are not obviously economical such as students’ varying digital literacies, but these can be tied to economic causes based on historical lack of access to devices and technology-related education. There could also be economic barriers unrelated to technology altogether such as when students have household responsibilities influencing their control over their time outside of class time, full-time jobs or responsibilities as breadwinners in the home, or living in a small home with many other people influencing their privacy at home, to give a few examples. In some cases, students may be facing housing and food insecurity. Or their economic disadvantage is significant enough that school is secondary to the urgency of making just enough money to cover pressing bills.

There are also cultural inequalities where a particular activity or its content can be unsuitable or offensive for certain cultures or contexts or reproduces dominant culture while ignoring, misappropriating or misrepresenting marginalised cultures. There can also be linguistic inequality where a particular learning design privileges some groups that are more fluent in a (colonial or culturally dominant) language and disadvantages others. Activities that promote critical debate, for example, tend towards a more antagonistic approach that is seen as masculinist than do activities that promote empathy and dialogue that are considered more feminist and often more comfortable for women and minorities (Belenky et al., 1986/1997).

There are also political/power differences that reproduce inequality or highlight marginality that is permanent or situational/contextual and appears in specific learning activities/experiences. For example, permanent inequalities are often known, reported and can be anticipated such as having a diagnosed physical disability (e.g. visual impairment) or a learning difficulty (e.g. ADHD). This is something institutions usually report to an educator and educators sometimes make well-intentioned decisions without involving the learner or respecting their agency. However, there are ways for educators to be mindful of these disabilities throughout a course by discussing with students their own preferences and needs, rather than assuming on their behalf (see the chapter on Critical Compassionate Learning Design in this volume by Pallitt, Bali & Gachago). If educators do not adjust to addressing these students' needs, they would not experience equitable participation and chances of success. It is also worth noting that learners who have been historically marginalised and not given agency may have internalised their own oppression and could make choices that are not necessarily in their best interests (Walker & Unterhalter, 2007). Therefore, Fraser’s (2005) ideal of “parity of participation”  is complex to apply.

There are other marginalities that may be invisible or irrelevant, except in particular contexts or situations. For example, sexuality or transgender status in a classroom context may not be relevant or disadvantageous unless an activity requires revealing a certain level of personal information to strangers, when students are uncomfortable or unwilling to do so, or the content assumes certain heteronormativity which ideologically oppresses LGBTQI students.

 On top of all these systemic inequalities, there can be differences of personality that can affect a person’s power in a community or group. Certain learning designs privilege shy or reflective students while others privilege extroverted or talkative students; some activities may not account for the possible dominance of certain people, whether due to personality differences or other factors such as race or gender differences in group behaviour. IEH tries to centre the preferences and voices of the most marginalised of learners as much as possible.

When applying this political element of social justices, it is essential to apply it with care “because justice requires the empathy of care in order to generate its principles” (Okin, 1990, as cited in White & Tronto, 2004, p. 427), otherwise it becomes performative and “contractual” (Bali & Zamora, 2022a). Adapting Noddings’ (2012) statement, "In the caring approach, we would prefer to advise: do unto others as they would have done unto them", we suggest that educators “Do unto students as THEY would have done unto THEM” (Bali, 2021; Gachago et al., 2022; Pallitt et al., 2023).

“Intentional adaptation” (brown, 2017) is essential to IEH because “the notion that one model of care will work for everyone is absurd ... humans vary in their abilities to give and receive care” (White & Tronto, 2004, p. 450). One important mindset for facilitation here would be “less prep, more presence” (brown, 2017) as a central praxis within IEH. In our case, this does not imply not preparing, but that however much we prepare, we need to prioritise reading/observing/listening to the room and the people in the room, to be present and to adapt accordingly. Our presence with the people we are facilitating a workshop or class with is more important than what we have prepared. 

Activity design and facilitation

Having mentioned some of the key considerations of IEH, we now turn to how one can apply IEH in practice with some quick examples in Table 1.

Table 1

IEH in practice

Example pedagogical strategyWhich phase of IEH?Which inequalities it addresses
Pre-survey students on technological infrastructure and devices; design activities around their capabilities or lobby the institution to provide minimal technology for allPre-designEconomic/technological
Survey students on comfort with turning cameras on in video conferencing sessions, and avoiding activities that require cameras it if students report discomfort (see resource on video conferencing)Pre-designEconomic (if connectivity or lack of privacy in a small home are the reasons), as well as cultural (also privacy) and related to mental health and personality.Also, addresses political inequalities because it respects students’ choices with regards to cameras.
Anticipate some students might have inconsistent internet and design activities that would work even if some students were dropping out temporarily (see Wild Tea adaptation below)DesignEconomic
Anticipate personality differences among students and plan for a mix of social small group and large group activities as well as quieter, more reflective activities (see Wild Tea and Spiral Journal described below)DesignCultural/personality
When activities need to include everyone's voice, divide students into small groups, and time the contributions of each participant to avoid some people dominating the conversation. But ensure sufficient time for participants to express themselves fully. For example, you may use video of conversation cafe and descriptionDesignPolitical by ensuring equitable participation in terms of time: avoiding domination within student groups.
Cultural, anticipating linguistic inequality
Changing from a breakout room to full class activity using Chatbox because the teacher notices that many students have connectivity issuesFacilitationEconomic/technology
Creating and using a semi- synchronous "third place" for ongoing community building between students and educator such as WhatsApp or Slack (see Third Places video)Beyond the momentEconomic due to low bandwidth interaction.
Can support "parity of participation" (Fraser's 2005) as asynchronous spaces allow everyone to participate without boundaries of time, and some people, especially shy people and minorities can express themselves more comfortably. Also, it allows for some personalities who are more comfortable expressing themselves in writing or in informal spaces.

Part 1: Introductory activities

While we believe community-building is an ongoing process and that trust needs to be developed over time, we also believe that our choice of introductory activities can set the tone for a semester or year.

The alternative CV (ALTCV) as asynchronous introduction (Maha)

There are many different ways of doing introductions synchronously or asynchronously. Asynchronous introductions give learners time to choose what they want to share about themselves and reduce the anxiety of introducing oneself which is heightened in live introductions. The ALTCV is one such approach, originally developed by Mahai Bali, Sarah Honeychurch and Kevin Hodgson in 2016 (now published on Maha's course website), that encourages people to share whatever achievements they feel proud of, not only those normally required on a CV, not in a text-only format but in whatever way they wish. This activity embraces Universal Design for Learning by emphasising student choice in modes of self-expression. It also affords everyone time to look at other people’s introductions carefully and go back to them later to remember things about people throughout the course. This approach embodies IEH in its design because of the agency it affords learners in the how and the what, while also signalling them to “come as they are”. It liberates them from traditional expectations. It also recognises the kind of anxiety that on-the-spot, spontaneous introductions can induce and anticipates how these can feel unsafe for some people. Since it is asynchronous, it becomes accessible to people with varying levels of internet connectivity; because it does not require a particular software, it becomes accessible to people with varying digital literacy skills. In their final reflections, students often comment on how important this activity has been for them because it signals to them early on that they have agency in how they represent themselves in the course.

Story of your name and safety considerations (Maha)

One introductory activity that has been very popular was Patrice Prusko’s Story of your Name activity. Basically, students are invited to share the/a story of their name in small groups. 

As soon as this activity was published and gained popularity on Twitter, a friend privately discussed with us the ways in which such an activity may be “unsafe” for certain students such as those who changed their name to protect themselves from criminals, those who are transgender and those who just do not feel safe sharing very personal information on the first day. IEH entails ensuring the invitation for such an activity allows people time to think before sharing, and the freedom to skip the activity, or adapt it slightly. For example, participants might share the story of an interesting name that is not their own. One adaptation I have made in the design of this activity is to give students the option to either share a story of their name or to share their ALTCV. Another element that can help is to let students know ahead of time that this is an activity we intend to do, so they can prepare what they want to share, and have a choice to share the story of another person’s name, not necessarily their own. See "Safety Considerations" by Kate Bowles.

What kind of animal are you? (Maha)

Kenyan facilitator, Irene Maweu, shared a fun introductory activity where participants respond to the prompt, “What kind of animal would you be?” 

Even during the demo video, Irene talked about how she once did this with a group of people and the men refused to liken themselves to animals. In the moment, she adapted and told them they could say “what kind of car” they would be – IEH in the facilitation phase in response to an unexpected reaction by participants. After this activity was published, Shanali Govender (co-editor of this collection) suggested that using this kind of activity with a post-apartheid South African audience might be considered offensive. Instead, she made other suggestions and her contribution was added into the activity as a cultural consideration. Part of IEH is to recognise that even a diverse group creating together cannot possibly represent or anticipate all cultural and identity factors. Hence, we always welcome suggestions and adaptations and publish them. Culturally sensitive educators, when engaging in activities such as these with new participants, can, in the pre-design phase, seek to understand the cultural and historical contexts of the participants that need to be considered, e.g. by involving people from the target population in their design team. When this is not possible, adapting in the moment of facilitation is key, being flexible to accept that we may have inadvertently offended someone and be ready to shift.

Tour of where you are (Maha)

The “tour of where you are” activity invites students to show, using their device’s camera, the place they are connecting from. 

Even in the video demo, you will see that people can have different reasons for not wanting to turn on the camera and show where they are: internet connectivity, messy home, lack of privacy due to other family members nearby and many more. I have never done the activity this way in my class because I pre-survey my learners on their willingness to use their camera during Zoom classes and they usually say they prefer not to turn it on for various reasons including connectivity, privacy, anxiety and personal discomfort. Thus, I replace this activity with asking them to post a photo of something that reminds them of home or that brought them delight that week. They can either post it on our Slack team or share their screen to show it, whichever is easier for them in the moment. 

Part 2: Warm-ups

To be hospitable in warm-ups, it is important to respond to the needs and preferences of diverse participants by considering the mix of more energising warm-ups (e.g. Wild/Mad Tea) and slower, more reflective warm ups (e.g. Spiral Journal). It is also useful, over multiple engagements, to use a range of writing, speaking, visual and movement warm-ups. Where accessibility differences, whether due to connectivity, physical disability, or learning difficulty, are expected, educators need to design for them, but when they are not anticipated, educators need to be willing to adapt in the moment. Moreover, choosing the appropriate warm up activity for the group you have, the amount of trust you have established and for your purpose/goal is important. For example, activities like Thick Greetings that encourage deeper sharing are more appropriate later in the semester once a group has established some trust. It is important that participants are able to choose among several prompts, so that no one is forced to share something particularly painful or uncomfortable.

Wild/Mad Tea (Maha)

“Mad Tea” is a liberating structure in development, originally named after Alice in Wonderland’s Mad Hatter’s Tea Party and akin to speed dating or professional networking. When Wild/Mad Tea happens in person, people form two concentric circles, with the inner circle facing the outer circle. Participants shift a step or two around each time to meet a different person and answer a different prompt in quick succession. Online, it can be done in several ways. Chatterfall, also called the text waterfall, simply uses the chat for everyone to share their response – this works well and people tend to enjoy it, especially if you do not have time or access to breakout rooms. Although this is quite different from the original activity, it works well in large groups such as conference keynotes. Both of us use Wild/Mad Tea often in those contexts to encourage audience participation. 

The closest to the original activity is to use random break out rooms on Zoom, and recreate them randomly each round, bringing people to the main room to share the prompt, then sending them out again for two minutes or so each round. This is an energising activity that many people enjoy but it can be quite dizzying and disorienting and many people feel the time is too short to actually say anything, especially to a stranger you know nothing about. Moreover, in situations where people have unstable internet connections, a person may find themselves alone in a breakout room while the other drops out or takes longer to arrive. Therefore, in Egypt, where it is common for people to have poor internet connections and get disconnected when moved to breakout rooms, Maha made the following adaptations:

  1. Designing for varying connectivity: Breakout rooms of three so that if one person drops out, the other two will find someone in the room.
  2. Adapting time for connectivity and less fluent speakers: Extend the time from 1-2 minutes to 3-4 minutes because people with slower connections take time to reach the breakout room. Also, less fluent or non-native speakers may need more time to express themselves as they either need more time to think or to formulate their responses. 
  3. Facilitation in the moment: Tell people to come back to the main room if they find themselves alone in the breakout room, and host a “breakout-like” room in the main room. Between rounds, check if people need more time in future rounds.
  4. Type the question/prompt in the chat as well as sharing it on the screen and sharing the slides, because people can still see the chat after they go to the breakout room (in case they did not have a chance to read it on the screen or forgot it).
  5. Consider the audience ahead of time and ensure the questions asked are ones that people would feel comfortable answering quickly and potentially with a stranger.

The name of the activity in the video is “mad tea”, but here we refer to it as “wild/mad tea” and this is because someone sent us an email letting us know that the title “mad tea” could be offensive to people facing mental illness. When we saw this, we emailed several people in the Liberating Structures community and also had a discussion on Twitter where we all made suggestions. We decided to go with Nancy White’s suggestion to use “chatterfall” for the text-based version and Maha Bali’s suggested “wild tea” for the breakout room version. Many of us in the community have continued using the new name. An additional cultural element here is that the Alice in Wonderland context for the name is not as familiar in Egypt, even though people know Alice in Wonderland in a general sense.

Spiral Journal (Mia)

Spiral Journal is also a Liberating Structure in development, one that uses reflective writing with a small amount of sharing. This activity naturally employs IEH because of the way it encourages focus and starts with private, slow reflective thinking before sharing. We have both used it in classes, conferences and workshops. In Spiral Journal, participants look away from the screen and take a piece of paper, create four equal quadrants, then start drawing a tight spiral for several minutes. After that, the facilitator gives them four prompts, one for each quadrant to write on their own. They are then given a minute to underline or circle something that stands out to them, and then a chance to share one thing with another person in a breakout room.

The Spiral Journal shifts the energy in a community setting by offering people a chance to reflect on their own thoughts and centre themselves. As a part of IEH design, this activity intentionally broadens the possibility of authentic student voice since they are invited to write in their preferred language. This deepens a commitment to linguistic justice, while encouraging participants to privately deepen observations into reflections. It also centres writing as an important pathway for knowledge production. Low stakes writing gives everyone a moment to reflect, to “catch up” with their own ideas and sort the meaning of their observations and passing concerns. They are more apt to notice the worth in their own ideas, and when they share with the group their selected highlight, they would have undertaken a synthetic editorial process because they have refined their own thoughts before communicating with others. The sharing part of this process may also serve to refine one’s translation skills. By sharing some aspect of one’s reflection (generated in one’s most instinctive “low stakes” voice), a student is then invited to bridge multiple linguistic or cultural differences in a classroom to have a selected thought conveyed and understood. 

In Mia’s Master’s thesis course, Spiral Journal is used to cultivate self-awareness which is a critical aspect of endurance through the thesis writing process. It is effective to employ at a midway point and again at the close of the thesis writing process, helping students self-assess their own growth.

Building curiosity and trust with small stories: Image Gallery and Surrealist Portraits (Mia)

Small stories make all the difference in building a sense of community. There is secret power in a story. Stories can be a small gift given with purposeful intention. They can provide insight into the life of the storyteller. A small story can also be a bridge between different people’s perspectives. Small story moments can make a big difference in how a sense of community develops, and they make evident how each person has their own unique way of contributing to a community’s overall learning.

Image Gallery (Mia)

The Image Gallery warm-up, adapted from “Four Ideas for Checking In”, can be used early in a course to establish a community culture of sharing stories. With this protocol, small stories will certainly emerge and they will help people get to know each other in an authentic way. Everyone is asked to look at a grid of images such as a fireplace, a cityscape, a mountain terrain or a labyrinth garden. Each learner is asked to choose an image from the gallery and answer the following questions:

Learners can choose which small stories to share. The critical element of IEH design here is participant agency. There is no expectation or prescription. It is the interpretive openness of the prompt – “What do YOU see?” – that generates something unique. The resulting insights become the glue of growing trust and understanding between co-learners. Sometimes the things students see in a set of abstract images reveals very different lived experiences. But it does this in a way that highlights innate wisdoms and reduces stigmatisation. For example, an image of a small plant growing from the crack in concrete suggests a metaphor of hope and resilience for one viewer. But for another student, it is chosen because it is a familiar sight, seen regularly on the way to school. It is understood as a representation of the cracks and the brokenness in the neighbourhood, and also the wild and unexpected things that emerge from what is broken all around. Such powerful yet subtle differences in what is seen are effectively shared through our small stories. Diversity of perspective is showcased with each person’s unique vision of the world. 

As a teacher/facilitator, I am always exhilarated when I see signs of IEH values taking hold. IEH is evident when students intuitively suggest ideas for new forms of co-creation. This occurred when a student asked to return to the Image Gallery protocol towards the end of a course. The special twist on the original protocol was that instead of each student selecting an image and then sharing a personal insight, this time each student would select an image inspired by thinking about another student in the course: “What image in the gallery resonates when thinking about a peer in the course?” In this case, I immediately knew that it would only work as an equitable protocol if each and every student received a “shoutout” from another student. In the class of 20 students, I designated five random groups of four students and asked each group to self-assign who they would select an image for within that small group to ensure that every person was accounted for. Since this remix was conducted in Zoom, I also invited them to send additional “shoutouts” to other students in the chat if they wanted to. These would be “extra” insights in addition to the one “shoutout” they shared with the overall group. I knew that many wanted to share their positive insights with more than just one other student in the class. The result was an exhibition of generosity, insight and complex forms of trust. Students shared things they noticed in and about each other and reminded everyone of knowledge they gained from certain individuals along the way. They paid particular forms of tribute to each other and they made evident how each person has their own unique way of contributing to a community’s overall learning.

Surrealist Portraits (Mia)

The Surrealist Portrait protocol is another IEH design that gives students a moment to consider their own sense of self while also grappling with inequity and disability as I have adapted it for self-portraits rather than portraits of others. The protocol starts out with a brief explanation of surrealism, the 20th century avant-garde movement in art and literature which sought to release the creative potential of the unconscious mind. Students are shown some quick examples of surrealist art. The examples emphasise dream-like scenes, spontaneity, unexpected and illogical juxtapositions and bizarre representations of ordinary objects that are seen in a new way. Then students are invited to draw surrealist self-portraits but they must do this with significant constraints. The instructions for this protocol are: 

  1. Grab a piece of paper and a pen. 
  2. Look at yourself in a mirror, on Zoom, or by using your phone in selfie mode. 
  3. Draw for one minute straight without pause, without lifting the pen from the paper.
  4. Please use only your non-dominant hand. 

The results include a lot of discomfort, a lot of laughter and some healthy self-deprecation – everyone is equally disadvantaged. When asked, “How did this exercise make you feel?” reflections varied. Many talked about the discomfort they experienced and the sense of failure they feel for making something so “ugly”. IEH facilitation becomes key as students can be led to consider the effect of these constraints. With the right follow-up questions, students start to think empathetically about varying experiences of disability and how some people experience other kinds of constraint depending on context and situation. 

Conversation and the resulting small stories lead to a deeper grappling with the question of how self-perception is formed. Self-awareness is a skillset and a key foundation for building an equitable learning environment. Social awareness helps others see the perspectives of others and empathise. The Surrealist Portrait activity is a quick and playful way to help students think about their own self-conception and the way others might see them. In creating unexpected portraits together, a group can realise the significance of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.

Theater of the Oppressed warm-ups

We have both used Theater of the Oppressed techniques in workshops for educators, especially the very quick and energising Opposites protocol which requires participants to learn to perform the "opposite" gesture to the one the facilitator does. 

This physical activity is used to warm up before class, to energise the body or refocus attention during a long class. Although meant to raise consciousness, we would caution that these techniques are not appropriate for all contexts. For example, in Maha’s class, students rarely want to turn their cameras on, thus such an activity would not be particularly effective; using movement activities may be culturally inappropriate in an Egyptian context if people don't know each other. In a situation where people do have their cameras on, or even in a face-to-face context, Theater of the Oppressed techniques may be uncomfortable for those unused to expressing themselves with their bodies, so it may take time to build trust within the group. There is potential for ableism here too - movements should be kept as accessible as possible for people with limited mobility, and participants should be reminded that they can skip the activity if they are uncomfortable or do it with the camera off if they prefer.

Part 3: Ongoing engagement and Liberating Structures

People tend to think community building happens mostly in the first few sessions whereas it needs to continue throughout a course. Liberating Structures are interactive microstructures that can enable equitable, engaged, creative and constructive dialogue. Below we share details of how we use two such structures.

Troika Consulting (Mia)

A liberating structure called Troika Consulting is a powerful exercise to use when building reciprocity between your participants or students and it is useful for quick problem solving. With this activity protocol, an instructor helps to acclimate their students to supporting each other without always turning to an “expert” for solutions. 

In three rounds, one person from a trio acts as a “client” and the other two as “consultants”. First, invite participants to reflect on the consulting question they plan to ask when they are the clients, clarify the challenge and the help needed (1 min). Next, groups have the first “client” share their question (1-2 mins). Afterward, the “consultants” ask “the client” clarifying questions (1-2 mins). Then the “client” turns around with his or her back facing the consultants. Together, “the consultants” generate ideas, suggestions and coaching advice (4-5 mins). The “client” turns around and shares what was most valuable about the experience (1-2 mins). Finally, the group switches roles and they repeat these steps until each member of the group has had a chance to be the “client”.

Students (or any participants) are guided to give and receive practical and imaginative help from each other. Maha uses it in workshops to faculty members, so a trio of faculty give consultations to each other instead of asking members of the Center for Learning and Teaching to help. 

You can use this any time during the semester to encourage students to reflect on challenges they’re facing and benefit from their colleagues’ input. At the beginning of the semester, it could be a challenge related to learning during the previous semester. In the middle of the semester, it can address in-progress work for the class; it can also be applied as a feedback mechanism after a presentation etc. Troika Consulting builds community effectively because it helps people gain insight on issues they face and it unleashes local wisdom from each and everyone involved. It centres the knowledge that already exists amongst the learning community members while highlighting peer support and coaching. Troika Consulting helps people refine the art of asking productive questions, reveals patterns and encourages the growing confidence of each member by tap into everyday solutions as action items. This protocol embraces the universal design for learning tenets by optimising the relevance, value and authenticity of peer wisdom and students’ motivation. It sustains their enthusiasm by having them help each other while making evident all they already know. By helping and advising peers, they realise the worth of their own contributions. 

 When using Troika as a form of ongoing class engagement, I have seen many students grow their confidence in synthesising and supporting others and refine their problem-solving skills in real time. It is very useful in guiding masters’ thesis writers in collaboration as each student grows into an active creative thinker when they are both mentor/editor and problem solver. While the students respectfully problem solve for their peers, they sharpen skills that can later be applied to their own challenges. In short, Troika builds consultancy and empowerment skills and I have watched many writing students become better editors and critical thinkers through this practice of rapid “feedback”. By accentuating the power and potential of co-learning, Troika challenges the assumption that the professor-mentor is the singular authority figure. 

Maha has used Troika in workshops with educators successfully. When constrained by time, she does one round as a demo, rather than the recommended three. Also, when faced with unstable connectivity, Maha uses groups of four because if one person drops off in a group of three, the activity no-longer works. When faced with both cultural unfamiliarity and connectivity challenges, Maha has run the activity fishbowl style in the main room. Three to four students participate in the Troika, while the others observe quietly. Then everyone comments on the advice and adds their own. Maha does this with undergraduate students. The fishbowl version allows the experienced facilitator to remain present which supports the unfamiliar process. 

TRIZ for discussing sexual harassment and gender (Maha)

One semester, while reading some speculative fiction (see posts on Speculative Data Futures, To whom do the streets belong, Would you report? and Karima) about the ways data and digital technologies may be used in the future in the Arab world to combat sexual harassment, I found that students were more interested in discussing sexual harassment itself rather than the digital technologies in the stories they were reading. Based on this and based on students’ feedback on the usefulness of this discussion, I decided to include this more explicitly in future classes especially as my institution was starting to raise awareness of and relaunch its policies on sexual harassment. This was a pre-design and ongoing form of IEH; my future courses were influenced by what I was learning from previous courses and from events on campus.

To be intentionally equitable in hosting such a conversation, I had to first recognise that students are unequally affected by this topic. There may be victims of extreme sexual harassment in my class; there may be some suffering smaller forms of sexual harassment and may be triggered; there may be some well-intentioned students who aren’t sensitive in their use of language around sexual harassment. I needed to recognise that, especially in my culture, women had internalised sexual harassment as sometimes the victim’s fault, that there was ideological oppression preventing girls from reporting to authorities or to parents, that institutional structures may create processes for addressing sexual harassment but these other oppressions prevent them from being used effectively or at all.

To plan for this, I first surveyed students on the choice of topics to cover for the next class and, based on their votes, which indicated that several were interested in discussing this topic, I chose it for the next class. I did not assume that this cohort would be as interested as the previous one in the topic. I let them know ahead of time what we would discuss on the day, so that they could prepare psychologically. I said I would not take attendance, in case someone felt unable to participate in this discussion and they would not have to give me an excuse. Almost all students came.

To hold such a controversial and sensitive discussion in my culture, I designed the conversation in several ways to help ensure equitable and open participation. 

First, I used a liberating structure called TRIZ which starts problem-solving in an upside-down manner. (See a video demo of TRIZ.) Instead of starting by tackling how we would stop sexual harassment at our institution, with TRIZ, we start by tackling an anti-goal. For example, one could ask, “How would we promote/encourage sexual harassment at our institution?” The TRIZ format brings playfulness and creativity and disruption, and promotes equity by the way it turns a problem upside-down and opens up dialogue around a serious challenge without requiring participants to self-disclose.

Second, within the TRIZ format, I used another format (1-4-all, an adaptation of the Liberating Structure 1-2-4-all) where each individual would take time to think on their own before they work in a breakout room with others (it was an online class that time). This ensures people who need more time to think or those whose command of the English language is not as strong have time to formulate their thoughts. 

Third, students had an opportunity to discuss in small groups before joining the large group and were able to put their notes in Google docs (so I could see what is happening across the groups without intruding on them by listening directly in their breakout rooms), where they could post something anonymously even if they did not want to speak up about it. 

Next, students were brought back together in the main room to start unpacking which of the items that might “promote sexual harassment” resembled things that were actually happening on our campus, and we found quite a few! 

Finally, together, we came up with some action items that they individually could do to help combat sexual harassment. We discussed what was within their circles of control and influence as students and student leaders, and what kind of advocacy they might need to adopt with the institution. 

One notable aspect of IEH in this particular context is that some people will be very active verbally and some not. This is one of the topics where I would not call on people who are quiet or reluctant to speak up because they may not feel comfortable doing so. If I felt someone had something useful to say but was quiet, I would message them privately to ask if they would be comfortable speaking up, but I would not call them out publicly. This was also a situation where I would prioritise non-male perspectives in the class. If there were several hands raised or several comments in the chat, I would almost always prioritise the non-male voices first.

Towards the end of class, I would ask students how they felt but also encourage them to let me know privately if anything felt uncomfortable for them or if they feel we could have done this activity somehow better. I could ask “how do you feel after doing this exercise?” and represent ideas as an anonymous word cloud. In this class, we did not take action as a whole class but on other occasions, I could have published a summary of our discussions (anonymised or with student names as they chose) and shared it with administration, for example, or on my blog. Thus, our class becomes not just a site of discussion and exploration but also a site of action in the real world.

Structured Dialogues (Mia)

 A powerful activity which encourages uninterrupted listening is the Structured Dialogues activity, designed and submitted by African American, K-12 educator, Sherri Spelic. I have found this activity very effective in having students practise active and focused forms of listening. Listening is the ability to accurately receive and interpret messages in the communication process. Listening builds trust and it helps reduce misunderstandings. It reduces conflict, both in yourself and with others. Listening encourages empathy and is key to all effective communication. The Structured Dialogues activity asks students to slow down and concentrate on listening as an active and complex skill. 

Students are paired and work through a set of prompts. These prompts are statements which typically begin with “Tell me about …”. They are not questions, but rather openings which encourage the responder to open up and “exhaust” their thoughts on the prompt. The responder is encouraged to say what is essential and then stop, keeping it relatively brief (a minute or two). The listener should not interrupt or interject with related thoughts. When the respondent has completed their thoughts, the listener simply states, “Thank you”. After a series of two or three prompts, the roles are reversed – the listener becomes the respondent, and the respondent takes on active listening. The same prompts are used. Crafting prompts that are more specific to your learning context is an excellent way to facilitate learners’ reflection. Having learners propose/write their own prompts after having practised this protocol a couple of times can be interesting. What I have noticed is that many students find it difficult not to interject their ideas while the respondent is sharing their thoughts. This exercise teaches us to curb that impulse while extending our focus and concentration through active listening rather than branching off into one’s own thinking. Students come to learn that patience is an important part of listening. In addition, they realise that listening can yield more complex insight if that patience and active focus/concentration is employed with discipline.


We hope that by discussing and showcasing a sample of these activities we have helped readers imagine ways to design and facilitate community building activities with IEH, paying close attention to audiences and their cultures and underlying power dynamics in the space. We are reminded that IEH is a journey, a process and never an end goal or achievement. Although all the activities were originally designed with equity in mind, we still needed to continually adapt them. We are also reminded, as Fraser (2005) points out, how an intervention meant to promote social justice for one group of people might put others at a disadvantage or make no difference for them. One key component of IEH is not only to design “for the margins” but “from and with the margins” – not only should educators imagine and anticipate the needs of those at the margins but should also include people from the margins in the design if that is possible. There will always be invisible and unanticipated power dynamics that pre-design and design work cannot predict, but an attitude of “less prep, more presence” and “intentional adaptation” (brown, 2017) is needed to facilitate equitably. Finally, the work of IEH does not end at the close of a live meeting or learning experience – it requires us to continue to communicate and collaborate outside of the key learning moments and to iterate and expand the range of our practices, learning from success as well as mistakes, continuing to go back to our intention to keep trying to make the hospitality we offer as equitable as possible in each context we practise it.


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Maha Bali

American University in Cairo

Maha Bali is Associate Professor of Practice at the Center for Learning and Teaching, American University in Cairo. She has a PhD in Education from the University of Sheffield, UK. She is co-founder of virtuallyconnecting.org (a grassroots movement that challenges academic gatekeeping at conferences) and co-facilitator of Equity Unbound (an equity-focused, open, connected intercultural learning curriculum, which has also branched into academic community activities Continuity with Care, Socially Just Academia, and a collaboration with OneHE: Community-building Resources). She writes and speaks frequently about social justice, critical pedagogy, and open and online education. She blogs regularly at http://blog.mahabali.me and tweets @bali_maha
Mia Zamora

Kean University

Mia Zamora, Ph. D. is Associate Professor of English and Director of the MA in Writing Studies at Kean University in Union, NJ, USA. As a leading voice for the practice of open networked education, she has founded several global learning networks including Equity Unbound (#unboundeq) and Networked Narratives (#netnarr).

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