Empowering Change: Advancing Research on Women, Disability, and Inclusion

Aleksandra Traykova’s experience being a member of the MILIEU team

Right in the heart of Sofia, a handful of members of the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences (IPS-BAS) have been pioneering a transformative academic initiative for three years now. With a resolute focus on women, disability, and inclusion, the EU-funded international project MILIEU is unlocking, fostering, and sustaining excellent research through an intensive multilayered programme featuring academic conferences and lectures, summer schools, exchange visits at foreign institutions, and an intense yet fun training schedule for researchers, students and administrative staff.

This visionary project, which is now coming to an end, managed not only to elevate the research reputation of IPS-BAS, but also to drive excellence in a widening landscape of academic exploration within Bulgaria by infusing it with innovative perspectives that contribute to a deeper understanding of the complexities surrounding gender and disability studies. The most surprising part? All of this (YES, all) was initiated by two (YES, two) former fellow students, who gradually attracted the support of like-minded researchers during the initial stages of the project. This post is about their dream, how they made it come true, and how I became a member of their team.

If a decade ago someone had told little student me that one day I would be part of something so exciting, I probably would have laughed. The career trajectory I had imagined for myself was mostly predictable, linear, monotonous and dominated by intellectual rigour rather than social engagement, innovation or creativity. However, my dedication to the feminist cause meant that I would eventually come across Lyuba and Shaban as my fellow expert committee members alongside whom I worked on a gender equality plan, and my deep interest in medical humanities meant that they would notice me, as they needed a teammate with that exact type of background to develop a training course on disability and social inclusion as part of MILIEU’s ambitious programme. I officially joined their project almost one year in, back in early 2022, and we have been inseparable ever since.

Was it written in the stars? Most likely not. Did it feel that way? Definitely, at least for me, because I landed my dream job AND made terrific friends. But don’t just take my word for it, check the MILIEU website to learn more about our academic adventures. Here is a brief outline of what our dream team has been up to so far:

1) The core objective of MILIEU, right from the very start, has always been to create a dynamic research environment that places women, disability, and inclusion at the forefront. In order to achieve it, my coworkers (and later – friends) have been fostering collaboration with our partners from Italy and Spain, breaking down disciplinary silos and encouraging multilayered research approaches in these critical areas from day one. Together we were able to negotiate an agreement within the broader framework of the Erasmus programme, designed to exchange academic and administrative staff between IPS-BAS and our partner institution Universidad Complutense de Madrid, with the explicit goal of both promoting gender equality policies and enriching the academic discourse on women, disability, and inclusion. We plan on doing the same with UniGe.

2) In addition to fostering exchange and collaboration opportunities, the MILIEU project has always placed a strong emphasis on research enhancement. By providing resources, support, and a platform for interdisciplinary dialogue, we have been empowering researchers to push the boundaries of knowledge in the crucial fields of gender and disability, and facilitating the sharing of best practices, methodologies, and insights, thus creating a vibrant intellectual community that transcends geographical boundaries. A key aspect of our mission was the commitment to driving excellence within the broader academic landscape of Bulgaria through multiple conferences, lecture series, online training courses, and summer schools for young researchers.

Apart from promoting the core goals of our project, all of these initiatives have also enabled us to position our host institution as a hub for cutting-edge research in women, disability, and inclusion in Bulgaria and the EU. Just like MILIEU, IPS-BAS seeks to contribute to the national – and international – discourse and address pressing societal challenges. Through partnerships with local and foreign institutions, community engagement initiatives, and the dissemination of research findings, MILIEU and the Institute have been working together on fostering a strong culture of inclusion and understanding.

As the project unfolded, our team began to envision not only advancing our own research capabilities and reputation, but also catalyzing a broader shift in academic paradigms within Bulgaria. By unlocking the potential of research in women, disability, and inclusion, MILIEU has been sowing the seeds for lasting change, ensuring that these critical areas receive the attention and expertise they deserve. In doing so, our project – as well as its supportive host IPS-BAS – is poised to make a lasting impact, fostering a more inclusive and equitable society through the power of research and knowledge dissemination. Now imagine how much more we would have achieved if we’d been given ten years instead of three!