Anti Oppression Training for All Staff, Add Ethnic/Gender Studies Classes
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Dear Members of the Art Center College of Design Community;
The Council on Diversity & Inclusion, Faculty, Staff, & Administration:
First, I would like to name that I acknowledge and feel a great deal of compassion for the efforts and attempts made toward the work of strengthening our community at this school and beyond, through teaching and artistic practice. Also, I would like to say that I appreciate the unique ways that each of us experience the world and hold open space for the fact that each of our identities are complex. Motivated by a deep investment in this and the health of our communities, I feel that it is time to address some pressing issues at our school in a direct, transparent, and ultimately, very loving way.
I would like to begin with a few straightforward facts: I began attending Art Center College of Design in the Fall of 2010 as an undergraduate student in the Fine Art Department and I will be graduating this coming Fall, 2013. During these three years in fulltime attendance, I have been assigned many hundreds, if not thousands of pages of required reading as a part of my coursework. Of those many pages, only a handful of these pieces of critical theory, art history, or cultural criticism have been authored by people of color or focused on cultural perspectives from people of color.* And of the many hundreds of art works I have been shown during lectures, I can recall from memory which of them were created by people of color and I only need my two hands to count them. Thus far, I have earned one hundred and seventeen credits at this school. One hundred and eleven of those credits have been earned in classes taught by white teachers. That means that in three years of fulltime attendance, over 94% of class content has been taught by white people and most of them men. This means that (save for the exception of two classes in three years) with a course load that requires that I spend an average of 20 to 30 hours per week in the classroom, I hear predominantly male white people in positions of authority speaking, almost exclusively; They are explaining texts and theoretical concepts that are authored by other white people, almost exclusively. And I am looking at art works that are crafted almost exclusively by other white people.
You may not see immediately why this is so significant but the most recent incidences in the news, namely the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of a Black young man, Travon Martin are underscored severely by the gravity of these facts. No matter where your opinion may land regarding the trial itself, you cannot successfully argue against the fact that this situation has brought to light how urgent and critical it is that individuals, communities, and places of learning engage directly with the historical and contemporary impacts of racism in the United States.
It is obvious that the hand that pulled the trigger that killed Trayvon Martin belonged to George Zimmerman. However, this did not happen in isolation. It happened in a culture. It happened in an environment. And it has also become another point in a long history of similar occurrences in which people of color, namely Black people have been targeted and harmed or killed as a result of fatal discrimination. I reflect on this situation’s location within a larger cultural context in order to highlight the ways that the cultural environment can work to either promote or challenge and dismantle racism and prejudice. It is a collective mindset that allows something like this to happen. And I bring this up in order to emphasize that cultural institutions like Art Center College of Design have a unique responsibility to understand their impact on the creation of these mindsets and cultural environments.
Whether consciously intended or not, the list of facts I have mentioned send a very clear message about who has the power to determine which ideas and artworks, and social experiences are culturally relevant and worth listening to. And because these facts illuminate a privileging of white voices, white scholarship, and white artists at this school it is only logical that this would communicate that the institution believes that the voices and minds of predominantly male white people are most important; while the absence and invisibility of people of color, whether consciously intended or not reveals the message that they do not matter.
I have centered racism and white privilege as a dominant aspect of this problem but more broadly speaking, this issue is about power and the way that it operates within this institution. All forms of oppression are expressions of a desire for power by domination and all are inextricably linked. I have spoken with many students about their experiences at this school when it comes to racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression within the classroom and in interacting with faculty and staff. Often, words used to describe these experiences include: sadness, despair, frustration, invisibility, anger, and hopelessness. One student recently shared how they approached a white male faculty member about their concerns that the teacher mistreated them because of racial bias. The conversation ended with their belief that there was nothing they could do and they just had to move on. And others whom have had very similar experiences simply opted to drop out of the program altogether. Many times over I have heard accounts about the mistreatment of students by faculty, aggressive and humiliating behaviors making it impossible to learn in a healthy environment. As for myself, I have had multiple experiences in which aggressive sexist behavior was allowed to play out in the classroom and carry over into other spaces, left unaddressed by faculty, the perpetrator allowed to continue in the program without consequence. And similarly, instances of domestic violence have occurred on campus, the events going unaddressed by administration, their happening rendered invisible, sending a message of disregard for the safety of vulnerable bodies on our campus. It is time to address this directly and through structural changes to the institution.
While it is understood that intensive efforts are being made to recruit a more diverse student body. For many reasons, this work must reach far beyond diverse representation as a solution for addressing these inequities. Having an increased number of students, staff, or faculty whom identify as members of historically marginalized groups present on our campus does not ensure that the educational experience at Art Center College of Design is socially equitable. This does it ensure that less bias, discrimination, or damaging behaviors are occurring. It is not the exclusive responsibility of members of historically marginalized groups to represent diverse cultural and historical narratives simply by being here. Rather, it is the responsibility of the structure of the school at large to include these narratives in the curricular, extra curricular, and administrative structures of the institution in order to set the cultural tone and send the message that these perspectives are important; that a truly inclusive education is important.
As well, it is clear that this school is interested in addressing the obvious inequities both within and without the institution, as is evident by the creation of the Council on Diversity & Inclusion and the construction of academic tracks like Design Matters and Art Matters. These are important gestures that indicate critical steps toward progress. However, in order for them to transcend the limitations of mere gesture, these efforts must be supplemented with concrete school wide curricular changes and an assertive actions toward better preparing faculty and staff for engaging with these issues.
As the curriculum stands right now, students are not offered academic or studio classes that explicitly survey the definitions and impacts of racism, sexism, inequitable power dynamics, and other forms of oppression directly. Save for rare exceptions and special seminars, there are no classes offered on a regular basis as a part of foundational cultural education that deal with ethnic studies, LGBTQ studies, women’s studies, or art histories apart from dominant Western European narratives. And Introduction to Modernism, taught as a foundational course for all students, situates the development of Western Modernism and Western art history as the dominant art historical narrative against which all others are measured. And ultimately, the absence of counter narrative in relationship with Modernism in this education leads to unawareness of social impacts made by artists and designers. This unawareness is directly linked to the preservation of a cultural situation in which something like the death of Trayvon Martin can occur.
Right now, Art Center College of Design has an opportunity to lead by example, illuminating how educational institutions in the areas of art and design can become catalytic spaces where change occurs not only through the things that we make but also through the ways that we learn and build community. We have an opportunity to grow gestures of progress into concrete actions. And these actions are urgently needed, in order to address the needs of students and in order to prepare artists and designers for their role in the world as the makers of culture.
In light of the aforementioned issues, endorsers of this initiative make the following demands:
1. Immediate Faculty & Staff Training: Immediate steps must be taken toward initiating mandatory teacher and staff training dealing with power, privilege, and diversity in the classroom, across all departments. This comprehensive training must address the ways that all forms of oppression and power relationships impact the campus and classroom culture as well as the quality of life and learning experiences for students.
Time Frame: The initial training should occur within the duration of the Fall 2013 Term for all current faculty and staff and become a mandatory component of orientation for all faculty and staff hired hereafter.
2. Equitable Representation of Art, Cultural, & Historical Narratives: Art Center College of Design must begin building an ethnic studies, gender and women’s studies, and LGBTQ studies department, likened to those found at most major public and private institutions of higher education. The administrative and faculty entities responsible for constructing the curriculum at our school must make a public commitment to an ongoing development of this work.
As a first step toward this, Art Center College of Design must offer a mandatory foundational class to all students that runs concurrently with Introduction to Modernism. This class must deal directly with Modernism/Post Modernism’s relationships to Western colonialism, and the subsequent political/social consequences of such. This includes the impacts of Colonialism, Post, and Neo Colonialism (as it developed concurrently with Modernism/Post Modernism) made upon communities of color, First Nation (indigenous) communities, women, LGBTQ identified people, and differently abled peoples, a critical study of contemporary institutionalized forms of racism, sexism, homophobia and the like, as well as a survey of critical responses from historically marginalized groups that have and continue to rise up in the form of counter cultural art movements.
Time Frame: Initial steps toward implementing this class must be taken within the duration of the Fall 2013 Term and a pilot iteration of the class must be offered as early as the Spring 2014 Term and no later than the Fall 2014 Term.
Note: If a sufficient response to these demands is not made by the decision making bodies of the school, including concrete action taken toward making these structural changes by the second week of this coming Fall term, the next step of this initiative will be the production of a series of art and image interventions designed to make highly visible and public personal narratives from students exposing how racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of oppression manifest on this campus, in the classroom, in our curriculum, in the spaces we share.
It is my sincere hope that as an act of love, care, and commitment to the principles of diversity and inclusion that the faculty, staff, and administration at this school take this very seriously and communicate this regard through concrete and expeditious action. Again, in light of the most recent illumination of the presence of racism in this country, it is critical moment in which collaboration between students, faculty, and administration at Art Center College of Design can demonstrate the important role that cultural and educational institutions play in creating a dynamic equitable culture, working toward freedom from all forms of oppression.
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