Challenging topics and self-care at feminist unconferences

AdaCamp was a two-day unconference dedicated to increasing women’s participation in open technology and culture. This page is part of the AdaCamp Toolkit, which helps you take AdaCamp’s tools and practices and apply them to your own event. You can re-use the text of this page under the Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike license with credit to the AdaCamp Toolkit.

AdaCamp hosted discussions on a wide range of feminist topics, and some sessions involved sensitive and upsetting topics such as discrimination and abuse. We learned over time that some attendees at AdaCamp felt safe enough that they misjudged the level of support the event could provide them in sharing and processing trauma.

This page provides some strategies for organizers to use to lower the risk of people being upset or hurt at your event, and some strategies to share with participants about how to manage their own risk of being upset or hurt.

For organizers: lowering the risk of people being upset by your sessions

For organizers of unconferences hosting feminist discussion like AdaCamp:

  • Consider in advance which topics have a higher risk of being upsetting. Sessions that explicitly revolve around abuse and discrimination are an obvious one, but at AdaCamp we found that the other major type of session that people expressed hurt in were sessions related to employment and career paths, as people recognized and explored how their workplaces had hurt them in the past. Employment-related sessions also have the risk of people making disclosures that will get back to their employer.
  • Ask your attendees to begin suggesting topics well in advance of your unconference. As suggestions come in, begin identifying sessions that have a higher potential to be upsetting and think in advance about if and how you’ll schedule them.
  • Allow some down time in your schedule: limited number of sessions, long meal breaks, lots of time to move between rooms and some time in the mornings and evenings that people could spend by themselves or outside the event environment.
  • When scheduling sessions, provide plenty of less potentially upsetting sessions — eg shared creation or skill teaching sessions — whenever a more difficult one is being scheduled; ie avoid scheduling “harassment hour” where all the sessions are about harassment.
  • When scheduling sessions, you’ll often be tempted to have two similar sessions in a row (eg “knitting” followed by “crocheting”), so that people can stay in the same room. Avoid this with more intense topics. Space the related sessions out in time, eg, on different days of the event.
  • When scheduling sessions about more intense topics, consider having them be about activism rather than experience-sharing. One model AdaCamp used several times was to have a session on the first day about “what is the problem?” and the session on the second day about “what action are we going to take towards combatting this problem?”
  • Explicitly advise attendees both in advance of the event and at the opening of the event that some topics that may be discussed may be upsetting and that they should prepare for this and think about strategies for self care. The rest of this page has some ways you can communicate this.
  • Ask session organizers to consider if their sessions risk upsetting people, and if so, check in with everyone at the start of the session about what structure they want (eg sharing experiences, or planning activism), remind attendees about the rule of mobility, and provide any specific warnings they think are needed.
  • Provide a quiet room at your event.

Sample guidelines on challenging topics and self-care for attendees

Based on our experiences, this is a guide to explaining to attendees of your event the boundaries around discussing trauma. These should be distributed before the event, so that attendees can talk about it with their care team if they need to.

EVENT is a feminist event and some sessions may be upsetting to some participants. Here are some guidelines on self-care and maintaining appropriate boundaries at EVENT.


EVENT uses the unconference rule of mobility: if you aren’t participating in a session, or no longer want to participate, you can and should go elsewhere to a session where you can contribute.

Besides making the conference more engaging for everyone, the rule of mobility is a care strategy:

  • you can leave a session at any time, for any reason or no reason, and you do not need to apologize or explain why
  • you should not stay in a session only to please other people (eg, because it’s a small session, or because you are the expert, or because you were especially invited, or because you proposed it)
  • you should not ask any other attendee to remain in a session
  • you should not draw attention to someone leaving a session
  • you should not ask any other attendee why they left a session, either then or later

Consider your own emotional well-being when choosing which sessions to attend, and especially when proposing sessions.

[If you are providing a quiet room: If you need to be somewhere without social interaction, we provide a Quiet Room at LOCATION where you can be at any time during the event.]

Consider allowing some processing or self-care time at the end of each day of the event and when you get home after it.

If you are worried about being triggered or upset at EVENT, talk to a mental health professional before EVENT about other self-care strategies that work for you, and backup plans for crisis situations.

If you unexpectedly need professional care during EVENT, please see our Emergency and medical contact list. Reception and conference staff can help you contact these services.


At a feminist event, you might want to discuss intimate, sensitive or distressing topics. But please keep in mind two basic principles of disclosure:

First, no one at EVENT is equipped to be your therapist. No one is professionally bound to confidentiality and no one is paid to support you through a traumatic disclosure or an acute reaction. Additionally, most other attendees are not trained to support you without hurting themselves in doing so. Please don’t process trauma in sessions, and seek professional care if you need help with acute distress.

Second, other attendees at EVENT may be your past, present or future friends, lovers, or partners. They may also be or work for your future employers. Please take care with your personal disclosures. You can apply the “dinner party rule”: if you wouldn’t disclose something to friendly strangers over a meal, think carefully before deciding to disclose it at EVENT.

If you feel that another EVENT attendee is inappropriately relying on other attendees for emotional or mental health support, please contact CONTACT.

Emergency and medical contacts to provide to attendees

From Geek Feminism wiki, Conference booklet template, used under Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike:

Emergency: [phone number]

Nearest emergency room:
[Name, address, phone number, URL]

Building security: [phone number or other contact info]

Sexual assault crisis hotline: [phone number]

Mental health crisis hotline: [phone number]

Other medical care [health clinic without an appointment]:
[Name, address, phone number, URL]

Nearest pharmacy:
[Name, address, phone number, URL]