Running Safer Sessions

In the spirit of creating positive outcomes from negative circumstances, the Black Trowel Collective has collaboratively produced a set of guidance for running safer sessions, whether they are online or in person. The text is as below, and we have also created pdfs and jpgs for broader distribution.

We think of these materials as suggestions. Please grow, adapt and re-purpose them.

Running Safer Sessions

The goal of running a conference session or panel is to share new and exciting research in a community of like-minded scholars. Usually this happens with no fireworks (unless it’s a session about fireworks!), but sometimes colleagues or others use the platforms afforded them in conference contexts—especially extended, discursive discussion periods—to engage in personal attacks, harassment or to erase the voices of others. As session or panel organiser, part of your job is to protect your panellists and encourage a healthy and respectful conversation.

Every situation will call for different techniques but here are some that you can prepare in advance:

Share the ground rules: at the start of the session, explain how the discussion will work to the audience. Be clear how you choose who gets to speak and why you will cut someone off. Tell people what their time limits will be – your speakers have time limits, the audience gets them too! Make sure that the parameters of acceptable behaviour are explicit. If you’re using progressive stack tell your audience and explain why.

Give your audience time to process: sometimes aggressive questions can be subverted just by giving your audience 5 minutes to talk to each other before they start talking to the panel. Before you start a discussion session, suggest all audience members share a question with their neighbour to get it peer reviewed. (

Interrupt and rephrase: If a comment-not-a-question is derailing your discussion or veering overly personal, intervene! Mute or interrupt the speaker, explain their time limit and rephrase any element of their comment that was acceptable into a better question for your panel. If there was no point, thank them for their contribution and move on.

Support your panellists: Tell people when they’re being inappropriate and ask them to stop. Check in with your panellists and make sure they’re ok – tell them it’s fine if they need to leave the stage or shut their video off, etc. Do not just gloss over harassment or inappropriate behaviour, it encourages other harassers and makes it harder for victims to speak up.

Keep records: Make a note of the name, time and person in the moment. Talk with your panellists after the event and ask how they want to proceed. If they want to make a complaint, help them find the right person and use your written records (as well as session recordings, downloaded chat logs, etc.) to substantiate their accounts.

Audience interaction

Even if you’re not the one running things you can intervene if there’s a problem. It can be hard to step up when you witness harassment – perhaps you think someone else will take care of it or that you might be putting yourself in danger. However, taking action is important and can derail harassment before it escalates. Here are some basic dos and don’ts:


Speak up! If you feel safe, you can say something to distract the harasser and make clear you disagree with them. Harassers assume silence is agreement, and that gives them strength. 

Communicate with the victim! Make eye contact, speak to them, ask if you can film, and if you feel safe place your body between them and their harasser. 

Ask other bystanders for help! Engage the people around you to protect the victim. Be specific in what you ask: can you come stand with me? Can you film this please? Can you open that door so we can leave? These direct questions help to overcome “bystander effect,” which is when multiple witnesses fail to act.


Escalate the situation! You’re trying to help the victim not make things worse.

Call the police! Before bringing in authorities, check what the victim wants you to do – BIPOC, queer, and gender diverse people are often the target of police violence, even if the police were called to protect them.

The Southern Poverty Law Center describes this as the “Five Ds” of bystander intervention: “Direct (directly addressing the incident); Distract (using distraction to stop the incident); Delegate (asking for help from a third party); Delay (taking action after the fact); and Document (recording the incident).” 

In a conference situation this might mean:

  • Speaking up to interrupt a hostile questioner or intervening to address their question yourself rather than letting it sit on the shoulders of a marginalized colleague.
  • Putting yourself between younger colleagues/women/femmes and known harassers at parties, cocktails, mixers, etc.
  • Interrupting a webinar Q/A to ask that specific individuals be muted or kicked out for inappropriate questions, contributions to the chat, etc.
  • Recording harassment – photos, videos or downloaded chat logs – so that they can be provided to organisers after the fact and used to support complaints.

How to: Progressive stack

Progressive stack is a discussion moderating technique designed to give marginalised people more chances to speak and be heard. The idea is to call on marginalised audience members before majority audience members – and to ask the audience to respect this approach by holding back questions if more marginalised colleagues have not had a chance to speak. In this case, marginalised audience members may be BIPOC, queer, gender non-conforming, People with disabilities, women, students, and junior scholars or any mix of these.

  1. Explain the process you’ll take, ask your audience for their assistance and cooperation.
  2. As people volunteer to speak, keep a list and instead of calling first-come-first serve, do your best to preferentially invite marginalised members of the audience to speak first.
  3. Trust but verify. It’s not always obvious on the surface how or why someone is marginalised, so you should assume best intentions even as you’re aware there might be transgressions. Don’t be afraid to intervene if an audience member disrupts the process.

Guidance produced by the Black Trowel Collective: