RISD campus in Providence, Rhode Island

Rhode Island School of Design  president Rosanne Somerson has announced a series of initiatives to address the racism that has “pervaded systems and structures at RISD for decades”, following pressure from students and staff.

Somerson revealed the school’s plan to tackle racism in an open letter sent to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) community, following a call for the school to do more for social equity and inclusion amid racial unrest in the US.

“As the leader of RISD, I take responsibility”

“Over recent weeks BIPOC [black, Indigenous and people of colour] students, faculty, staff and alumni have voiced outrage about RISD’s multiple racist issues centered around deeply embedded practices and structures as well as how white voices and Western perspectives dominate our curricula,” Somerson wrote.

“Unfortunately, these issues are not new; they have pervaded systems and structures at RISD for decades, largely unchanged,” she added. “As the leader of RISD, I take responsibility for having allowed a culture to continue to exist that does not fully live up to our values.”

RISD, a private art and design school in Providence, created its anti-racist plan in response to issues highlighted by the student-led RISD Anti-Racism Coalition (risdARC) and a group of BIPOC faculty members.

“We are committing to a new set of actions to inspire a better RISD”

The letter highlights four key aims: cultivating an ever-more diverse community; expanding and diversifying curriculum and pedagogy; implementing research on issues of social equity and inclusion in art and design; and embedding anti-racist and anti-discriminatory infrastructures.

RISD president Rosanne Somerson. Portrait by Cary Wolinsky
RISD president Rosanne Somerson penned an open letter in which she took responsibility for allowing systemic racism to continue

“Today we are committing to a new set of actions to inspire a better RISD – a RISD where students, faculty and staff of all races, ethnicities and cultures are supported, nourished and honored without the impediments of systemic racism,” Somerson said.

RISD plans to create a created a faculty-led Social Equity and Inclusion (SEI) committee that will spearhead change.

RISD to improve the diversity of school body

Ambitions include expanding the diversity of the school body by cluster-hiring 10 new faculty members that specialise in issues of race and decoloniality in the arts and design, and increasing the number of students of colour.

Changes will also be made to the school curriculum, such as requiring students to take courses on issues related to social equity and inclusion, engaging the non-Eurocentric world and developing courses on systemic inequity.

The school also plans to bring in a new interdisciplinary course focused on decoloniality and race in art and design by fall 2021 and hire two SEI research and teaching fellows.

Other aims include repatriating work in RISD Museum “with problematic histories” and using the majority of its budget to acquire works by underrepresented artists. The school has also created an Office of Discrimination Reporting.

RISD anti-racist initiatives follow others in architecture and design

Somerson’s plan for RISD comes amid a greater focus on racial inequality in architecture and design, sparked by the death of George Floyd in police custody in May this year.

Members of the industry have established a number of initiatives in the aftermath to address and improve racial equality in the profession. Examples include a Google Docs spreadsheet listing black-owned studios  and anti-racism design conference Where are the Black Designers? .

Somerson, who has been president of the design school since 2015, recently discussed the ways RISD had reinvented itself in the wake of coronavirus during in New York gallery Friedman Benda’s Design in Dialogue interviews that Dezeen published for VDF as part of Virtual Design Festival . She said the pandemic was “the biggest challenge we’ve faced in our entire history as an institution”.

Read on for the full letter from Somerson:


Dear RISD Community,

Over recent weeks BIPOC students, faculty, staff and alumni have voiced outrage about RISD’s multiple racist issues centered around deeply embedded practices and structures as well as how white voices and Western perspectives dominate our curricula. Unfortunately, these issues are not new; they have pervaded systems and structures at RISD for decades, largely unchanged.

Artists and designers are vital contributors to local and global communities, and as such it is our responsibility to be fully committed to building more democratic and equitable practices. Those practices must first be amended in our own institution. As the leader of RISD, I take responsibility for having allowed a culture to continue to exist that does not fully live up to our values.

This plan is a commitment to action, and its initiatives are in response to the student-led RISD Anti-Racism Coalition (risdARC) and the group of BIPOC faculty that has been working passionately to instigate much- needed change at RISD. Together, their demands have deeply informed our planning.

Today we are committing to a new set of actions to inspire a better RISD – a RISD where students, faculty and staff of all races, ethnicities and cultures are supported, nourished and honored without the impediments of systemic racism. RISD must reflect the complexity of the world and demonstrate the critical role of artists and designers in advancing change.

Each action outlined here will lead us on a progessive path forward. Yet this set of initiatives is just a beginning. We must and will take many more steps to fundamentally advance change. To that end, I am fully empowering Senior Advisor to the President and Associate Provost Matthew Shenoda with additional, meaningful authority to oversee this transformation. We will work closely together in partnership with Provost Kent Kleinman, the deans, the full Cabinet and our faculty, students and staff to ensure that SEI’s work impacts every aspect of RISD.

We repeatedly heard from our community that the most definitive transformation we could make would be to increase the diversity of our faculty and that of their scholarship and pedagogy. I am pleased to announce that through the support of one of the largest gifts in our history, RISD will launch a cluster-hire initiative – the hiring of multiple scholars based on shared, interdisciplinary scholarship and research interests. This will bring 10 new faculty members to RISD in academic year 2021/22 with expertise in issues of race and decoloniality in the arts and design. This initiative will launch a fundamental transformation toward diversifying and expanding our curricula. Additional details regarding the gift and the cluster hire will be announced soon.

We are committed to consequential, scaled change. Evolving our college, museum and community is not just about eliminating racism; it is about being proactively anti-racist. These next steps for moving RISD forward are just that: critical next commitments. They should not and cannot be viewed as a simple checklist with a near-term endpoint. In the past few weeks we have heard from numerous voices that make clear the complexity and interrelationships of these issues. These will require ongoing, full-on efforts to make substantive, meaningful and durable change. This is the beginning of that change.

Sincerely,
Rosanne Somerson

Top photo is courtesy of RISD.

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