Making an inclusive ‘unconference’

Many people in minority communities within our universities do not have enough opportunities to be platformed or validated, or to share their lived expertise within our institutions. An ‘unconference’ could cultivate these voices for positive impact


7 Jul 2023
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Diverse group of people around a table

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An “unconference” allows for all the benefits of a conference, such as connection and knowledge sharing, without the formality and high barrier to participation. There is an emphasis on moving away from presentations and the “sage on the stage” format towards more interactive activities with one-to-one conversations and learning through connection.

The inclusive and relaxed nature of this environment is particularly conducive to empowering individuals from equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) backgrounds, who have historically faced marginalisation within higher education settings. Participating in an unconference can serve as a supportive platform, enabling individuals to gain confidence and eventually transition to delivering higher-level professional presentations.

How do you organise an unconference?

The unconference model challenges traditional conceptions of conferences and learning. There is no single, set way of conducting and experiencing an unconference. However, here are our tips for engaging the EDI community through this model:

Have a diverse team

Use student-staff partnerships or other such programmes to ensure a diverse range of staff and students on the initial team. Having these perspectives built-in will already improve your outcomes and connections to the target communities.

Be led by the community

Unconference topics lend themselves to the flexibility of a diverse setting. As your event team might not be aware of the range of EDI initiatives and perspectives at your university, we recommend an expression-of-interest system to gauge community desire for topics and identify presenters. The events team can then use an email list or Facebook pages to contact potential participants. From these responses, the unconference agenda can be shaped around what issues need to be highlighted and what learning experiences could most benefit attendees. Quieter voices in the community might not be as accustomed to being a representative, so don’t be afraid tap on shoulders and offer additional support to encourage these individuals to share their ideas.

Allow diverse ways of presenting and participating

When engaging with the diversity community, needs and ways of expression can vary wildly. By providing freedom in how participants express themselves, you can create a vibrant and authentic event that includes people who participate differently. For example, poster presentations can offer a structured approach while reducing the stress of memorising an oral presentation or speaking to a large group. Others might prefer to submit an artwork that represents their work without their being present, run a drama activity or yarning circle, or join a human library. This allows for those with, for example, anxiety, certain disabilities or cultural needs to share their ideas and experiences in a way that suits them, while also allowing participants rich and varied ways to engage and learn.

Focus on the practical, not the negative

Sometimes EDI efforts can become bogged down in the problems rather than solutions or productive ways to engage with these activities. Your event should focus on the “What can you do?” in order to make the event as impactful as possible. Ensure that you offer spaces for the diverse community to connect as mentors, team members or friends.

Meanwhile, make sure that the important conversations are happening with the right people in the room. Strongly suggesting to allies that they attend to learn what they can do will help them to improve their practice and create an overall safer environment without restricting these conversations to the communities directly involved. For example, if lecturers can learn more about the experience of their students directly, this can give them greater perspectives in improving their inclusive practice. If your university has an ally network or disability collective, people can be encouraged to join and support their initiatives.

Be a safe space

Ensuring that the physical space for the event is accessible to everyone in the community is key. When planning the event structure, allow for accommodations such as captioning for those who are D/deaf, hard of hearing or ESL speakers. Your university may have Zoom or other programmes that allow this free. Another example is creating temporary low-sensory quiet zones to allow attendees to stay in the unconference. Going beyond physical considerations, your events team should also consider the emotional well-being of all participants. When creating the event agenda, allocate time for introducing ground rules for attendee participation to encourage and reaffirm that this is a safe space and that bad faith agitation will not be tolerated.

Don’t let learning finish with the unconference

Don’t allow the learning to end there! Due to the flexible nature of an unconference, allow creative ways to continue the learning. For example, collate interviews with attendees about topics such as “What did you learn?” or You Can’t Ask That-style questions that can be circulated later. Student groups might like to share zines (see below) that showcase their art that expresses their identity, or have activities that have built in takeaways, such as colouring.

UQ Minorities in Media Society presents Criss-Cross Zine Launch May 17 2023


Another way is to make sure that the diverse people who give their time to make the unconference are given profiles and are contactable afterwards. This not only gives them something they can share to position themselves as experts about their identities, but allows for more connections and opportunities among participants. In our case, we are going to create a booklet that showcases our participants (like this) and include contact information in the materials for the day and follow-up email.

By following this guide, we encourage you to create a productive and welcoming unconference!

Joanne Walmsley is a bachelor of international studies student, and Brooke Szücs is a research assistant in the TC Beirne School of Law and School of Business, both at the University of Queensland. This article was produced as part of a student-staff partnership.

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