Black Designers: Forward in Action (Part III)
A look at where we’ve been, where we find ourselves in the present moment—and the brilliant Black designers carrying us into the future.
Editor’s Note: In 1987, Cheryl D. Holmes-Miller wrote the seminal “Black Designers: Missing in Action” for PRINT. In 2016, we commissioned her to write a follow-up, “Black Designers: Still Missing in Action?” Now, she completes her trilogy in a four-part final volume exploring the subject from its many angles as she passes the baton to the next generation of designers.
Dedicated to Dorothy E. Hayes
Part III: Miseducation
“If you’re lucky enough to earn a living from your art, you’re probably white.”
How’s that for a striking headline?
As the 2014 Washington Post article by Roberto A. Ferdman detailed:
Nearly four out of every five people who make a living in the arts in this country are white. … The lack of diversity is … even more pronounced for those with art school degrees—more than 80 percent of people with undergraduate art school degrees are white, according to the analysis. And it’s most severe among art school graduates who go on to make it (or, at the very least, a living) in the art world—more than 83 percent of working artists with an art school degree are white. …
11 out of the 15 most expensive universities in the country are art schools, according to The Wall Street Journal. Art schools, as it happens, are also anything but a bridge to gainful employment in the art world: Only one out of every 10 art school graduates goes on to earn his or her living as an artist. So spending, say, $120,000 on an art education is often more of an extended luxury than an investment in an adolescent’s future. It’s of little coincidence that most other top liberal arts institutions have much larger minority presences (at Ivy League schools, for instance, the percentage of the study body that is white ranges from about 41 to 58%).
In spite of all that, Black creatives continue to venture down this road. I surely did.
“Well, if that’s what you want to do, just be the best,” Poppa encouraged me, in the face of the odds.
It’s so uncanny how 50 years of advocacy has taken me full circle around a cycle of history, from an iconic era of protest to this current season. The new national climate has brought assertive young voices to the forefront of the discussion; these design students are protesting and demanding their academic institutions take aggressive anti-racist steps to counter white supremacy in design education as well as practice. Mounting on social media and elsewhere are countless Black, Brown and non-Black ally student unions insisting—demanding—institutional overhauls by any means necessary. (What is a good historical cycle of protest without a student uprising?) “Decolonize!” is the powerful rallying cry.
Students at the Rhode Island School of Design are among the most organized and insistent with their demands. Instagram posts tell the tale: “Institutionally Racist Hiring Practices at RISD”; “Demands of Institutional Change.” The posts link to a RISD Anti-Racism Coalition (risdARC) site containing entries of signed protest statements and a list of demands for the school’s administration.
As the collective explained in their first Instagram post:
The Rhode Island School of Design perpetuates systemic racism and anti-Blackness through the willful omission, inaction, and the violent erasure of Black, Indigenous, and POC within our community. While this call for institutional change centers [on] the eradication of anti-Blackness, these demands must be understood in relation to global systems of oppression marginalizing other ethnic and racial groups and [their] intersection with and in relation to gender and sexuality and disability.
On June 16, the coalition held a summit titled “RISD & Race Forum 2020.” Led by Jada Akoto and Sarah Alvarez, the forum confronted racism experienced in the RISD community, and the lack of support the school provides BIPOC students. Voice after voice bravely spoke their truths.
While researching for this article series, I discovered The Room of Silence—a 2016 documentary co-produced by Olivia Stephens, Utē Petit and Chantal Feitosa, directed by Eloise Sherrid and organizing efforts by the student group Black Artists and Designers—about the challenges faced by students of color at art schools. I started touring colleges the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and actually entered RISD in September 1970—right after, I learned in my research, a March 1970 student protest letter. I was one of the first students of the RISD minority recruitment initiative, and our arrival was a response to the student body’s list of demands—of exactly the same nature as 2020’s. I completely resonated with what I was seeing online from today’s students; I was one of them, and we are one in our experiences.
In my previous PRINT articles (1987 and 2016), I presented RISD data updates. Now I was forced to ultimately conclude that while statistics had improved, nothing had really changed since I stepped onto campus.
To try to get in touch with my feelings, I called my 1970 classmate Betty Gillis-Robinson. Her words reminded me of what we experienced during our time at the school: “I felt unwelcome and disconnected from the mainstream of campus life and the ongoing activities enjoyed by white students,” she recounted. “I was unable to receive the mentoring and foundation that I saw other students receive from faculty during the years I attended RISD.” The more things change, the more they stay the same. Around the conference table we go again.
In 1987, Dorothy Ford was the coordinator of RISD’s Minority Affairs Department. As she reported at the time, “There are 49 minority students out of a total of 1,800 studying at RISD. That constitutes 2% of the entire student population. Many Blacks don’t complete the graphic design course of study because of a feeling of isolation. These students may feel that they’re not truly accepted into the program, and not getting the support of faculty members or the head of the department can contribute to a feeling of rejection.”
I circled back to RISD once more. Ford had retired and I found Matthew Shenoda, the first-ever vice president of Social Equity and Inclusion, at the helm. He reported that out of 2,500 students in 2019, 94 were Black. The total BIPOC community of LatinX, mixed-race, Black, Native American and unspecified backgrounds represents 494 students, which doesn’t include the Asian population of 397 students. According to RISD data, the total BIPOC community at the school in 2019 encompasses 19% of the student population, of which 3.8% is Black.
“In order to address the fundamental educational and experiential issues that so many of our students have expressed, particularly our BIPOC students, clear focus needs to be placed on the curriculum and pedagogies,” Shenoda detailed. “That shift happens at the faculty level. So in the case of RISD and the work we are doing through the Center for Social Equity & Inclusion, we are interested not only in bringing on new faculty with particular expertise on issues of race, de-coloniality, and non-European practices, but we are also trying to build a space through various workshops and initiatives where the relational work of anti-racism can become an active part of faculty, student and staff life. What is at stake is not the attempt to ‘fix a problem’ but rather to change a culture, and while much of that work is both institutional and systemic, it also requires deep personal commitments on behalf of the campus community in an effort to examine each [of] our respective positions as they relate to the larger power structures we wish to transform.”
Jada Akoto of RISD & Race echoed my classmate Gillis-Robinson, 50 years hence.
“I have never felt supported by RISD as an institution when speaking of race and social inequity,” she said. “BIPOC student demands for change often are swept under rug, invalidating our experience.
“risdARC has presented a long list of demands to RISD administration, but it can all be summed up as such: We demand that RISD reckons with its role as a beneficiary of white supremacy. As a wealthy cultural institution within the United States, RISD cannot exist without exploiting the labor and lives of Black and Brown people in this country and around the world. We want reparations and an intense restructuring of its intra-institution and inter-institution racial dynamics.”
The words of Frederick Douglass come to mind: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
Soon enough, RISD President Rosanne Somerson responded:
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 [Editor’s Note: which you can read here] 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.
Somerson then hands the reins to Shenoda: “I am fully empowering Senior Advisor to the President and Associate Provost Matthew Shenoda with additional, meaningful authority to oversee this transformation.”
As The Boston Globe subsequently detailed, “Responding to activism, RISD is hiring faculty, boosting diversity, returning looted artifacts. … It’s one of the most comprehensive attempts by a U.S. college to address racial diversity and equity.”
Action and activism work.
And finally: Don’t ever hesitate to look beyond the usual schools. Pierre Bowins is an assistant professor in studio arts at University of Maryland, Eastern Shore, who holds a master’s in graphic design from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a BFA from The Maryland Institute College of Art. He said Historically Black Colleges and Universities, of which there are more than 100 in the U.S., are often not encouraged and are sometimes suggested to be second-rate—and that’s anything but the case.
“While there are advantages and disadvantages to any institution of higher learning, the under-represented historically Black colleges and universities are an exceptional option for pursuing a career in graphic design.”
Stay tuned to PRINT for the final volume of “Black Designers: Forward in Action” next Thursday. If you missed the earlier installments, catch up on Part I (“Where Are the Black Designers, They Asked?”) and Part II (“Being Part of the Club”).
Cheryl D. Holmes-Miller holds a master of science in communications design from the Pratt Institute, and a BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art, with foundational studies held at the Rhode Island School of Design. Her former business, Cheryl D. Miller Design Inc., serviced corporate communications to a Fortune 500 clientele. She has won countless awards from institutions and organizations including AIGA, The Art Directors Club, Desi Awards, Peabody Awards, Crystal Awards, the CEBA Award and more.
She further holds a Master of Divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary, and attributes her design systematic liberation theology to being exposed to the liberation theories of Cornel West, James H. Cone, James Washington, Delores S. Williams and Katie Cannon.
For a guided tour of her portfolio, click here.
Holmes-Miller says she didn’t start working with PRINT 35 years ago when her first article was published—she started five decades ago as PRINT published Dorothy Jackson’s piece “The Black Experience in Graphic Design” featuring Dorothy E. Hayes in 1968. For a look at how PRINT became the first industry magazine to approach design and critical real-world issues in its editorial coverage, read Steven Heller’s piece “The Politics of PRINT,” published on the occasion of the magazine’s 75th anniversary.