Massachusetts College of Art and Design is one of the country's oldest art colleges and the only publicly funded independent art school in the country. With undergraduate and graduate programs spanning fine arts, design, media and arts education, the college is a predominantly White institution, with 34% of students in 2021 identifying as Asian, Black/African American, Hispanic/Latino, Native American and multiracial.
The institution recognizes the need to become more "student ready." Students typically bear much of the burden to be "college ready. " MassArt shifts the paradigm, examining resources and reshaping practices to be prepared to serve every student who enrolls. This necessity is born out by the data. As just one example, of full-time, first-time, degree-seeking African American students (2017-2019), 76% returned after their first year vs. 88% of their White peers.
Justice, equity, diversion and inclusion (JEDI) are one of MassArt's five priority areas in its five-year strategic plan, and it established its Office of Justice, Equity, and Transformation (JET) to foster, guide and lead work to cultivate systemic equity. JET works towards the transformation of campus culture with senior leadership and departments across the college to align work towards JEDI principals.
As part of this work towards creating a more "student ready" culture, we partnered with the JET Office and two academic departments to redesign the departmental experiences to center students of color. We engaged each departmental deeply to codesign new experiences that would foster belonging for students.
The experience included one-on-one interviews with students and alumni of color to understand in a safe and intimate environment current (and recent past) experiences, codesign sessions with the entire community, working sessions with faculty and staff, and ongoing alignment with the JET team.
Key areas of impact emerged for redesign in both departments. These included the curriculum, critique, resources and relationships, and conversations about race. Through the codesign process, we worked with students to redesign each of these areas to create belonging for BIPOC students.
Both departments have since shared the work with incoming classes and pursued shifts to their practices, from changing how they approach hiring to curricular transformations to integrating information about college resources into classes.
"I wasn't encouraged to express or bring in aspects of my culture into my work because I was under the notion that all my projects and design explorations had to fit the framework of white supremacy." — MassArt Alumni
"I have been teaching at MassArt for [many] years. I love this place, feel grateful every day for my colleagues, and I treasure our hard-working students. But I have some growing to do if I'm going to serve all of our students equally well." — MassArt Faculty Member at the end of the project
"Our assigned readings and viewings are REALLY broad and different now (I love them). Last semester, I made it a goal to show designers and typographers from around the world, and have learned so much…It's become our new way of working." — MassArt Faculty Member a semester after the project
As we designed this project, we were mindful of the following principles. First, we sought to de-centering our team as designers, instead creating a reciprocal process for working with the communities of these two departments. We sought to question the foundations of the work to pursue alternative definitions of what "good" means and to redefine success. We were systems-focused in seeking solutions that create the conditions, tools and structures in which individuals can thrive. And we looked for opportunities to redistribute power, both in the process and in the outcomes.
These principles came to life in the three major activities in our program.
- Interviews with BIPOC students and alumni were important to framing the work. These were conducted one-on-one, using trauma-informed protocols and interview practices. We wanted to create safe and intimate spaces for BIPOC students to share their past and current harms without fear of repercussion. We also wanted to be able to frame the community-wide codesign activities in ways that were focused on known issues – without making BIPOC students feel they needed to do the work in the room to represent or educate others on these issues. One-on-one interviews allowed our team to elevate themes and to bring them into codesign spaces.
- Coaching and partnership with faculty and staff, alongside the JET Dean, was focused on elevating what we were learning from students and on framing the scale of the change needed for departmental teams.
Much of this work ended up focused on departmental readiness and building a framework that the JET team could use to support colleagues across the institution. The work to address structural and systemic racism raises issues that can touch deeply upon each person's own sense of identity, mental models of the world, history of teaching, and professional practice. Readiness to tackle this varied across the teams we collaborated with, notable across three key variables.
Openness refers to the willingness of the team and of individuals to be vulnerable in talking about race and racism.
Shared expertise refers to teams' view of their own expertise and that of their students. A greater readiness for change meant that a team valued the experiences and expertise of their students, and believed that their students' experiences, perspectives, and work could instruct the department faculty and staff.
Together, a team's openness and view of shared expertise form a set of mindsets towards departmental disruption, largely focused on how much the team was able to contemplate shifts in power, practice and perspective.
- Codesign sessions with the departmental communities were the heart of the generative work. Logistically, these sessions were held during class time to ensure equitable access (this was no small commitment from the departments). Students were given the opportunity to work in identity-based affinity groups – or in open groups – so that they could approach the work from a shared lens, if desired.
Codesign focused first on creating a shared vision for the department, understanding attributes students sought in their experiences with the department. As we moved into additional codesign sessions, students focused on key areas of impact and imagining scenarios for change. After each codesign session, materials were shared back with the community for input, correction or editing before moving forward in the process.
Each departmental community defined a unique vision. For the sake of space and storytelling, we'll bring just one to life here.
The co-design work surfaced a vision for a department that first reduced harm for students of color by creating an experience that offers diversity, representation, inclusion, support and flexibility. But this was just the baseline.
The vision also recognized that harm reduction is only the start of the work to be done. It highlighted the need to create a departmental experience that enables BIPOC students to know they belong and can fully participate. This vision enables BIPOC students to show up as their whole selves by creating an experience that offers:
Understanding & comfortable experiences: creating an environment that allows students to show up authentically and develop meaningful, supportive relationships with their faculty and peers.
Opportunities for growth & engagement: creating opportunities for students to gain firsthand experience with working designers and exposure to different models of professional practice.
Student agency & self-efficacy: encouraging students to self-direct and make their own decisions around their work, enabling a deeper sense of self as a designer and facilitating exploration for their future practice.
Create exploration & self-expression: providing freedom to express oneself openly and create work that aligns with and embraces that self-expression.
Outcomes: Levers for change
To move towards this vision of both reducing harm and creating belonging, four key levers surfaced. Again, these were nuanced between the two departments but we share one here.
Curriculum refers primarily to the work and readings that students are exposed to as models of creative work, and the projects and assignments that students are given. BIPOC students didn't see themselves in the curriculum. Models of work, practice, and techniques didn't reflect the breadth of cultures and experiences of BIPOC students and they didn't feel that department faculty and staff were equipped or authentically driven to center the work of BIPOC designers or non-Modernist methods.
While the simple response was "more"—more inclusion, more voices, more representation—we identified nuances that provide ways to make this representation meaningful and authentic. Together, we outlined a direction where there is belonging for BIPOC students in the curriculum, largely reliant on a shift to decenter the presumption of a White audience.
BIPOC designers, work, writers and practices are included in ways that normalize their perspectives. Their work is explored as exemplars of the design skill or method being discussed, not as identity-driven one-offs. Projects hold BIPOC experiences naturally, not as special populations or unique audience types but as users of all the design work that projects ask students to create.
CritiqueBIPOC students said they didn't consistently receive the substantive, integrated feedback critical to their learning and development. They are faced with a lack of response when sharing work related to issues of culture or identity, or responses that focus only on the technical aspects of their work. Students feel they have to compensate by educating peers on the issues their work deals with—or that they need to compromise their identities to do work that fits the mold and saves them this labor.
They described critique ideally as a space of generosity, where a collective spirit of reciprocity is experienced.
Together we designed a departmental scope and sequence focused on students developing the skills to enable this vision. This scope and sequence is grounded in equitable practices and are designed to ensure that students of color receive meaningful critique to further their learning and move their work forward. It provides multiple avenues for students to build skills and to nurture the critical community of the department, finding opportunities to practice this generosity of perspectives.
Faculty and staff are focused on guiding critiques that provide students with substantive feedback on their concept and are enabled with tools for when discussion doesn't organically take off.
Resources and relationshipsThis refers to the connections to people and resources that help students get through college. These may include friendships, mentoring, extracurricular activities, counseling, advisory, career planning, and more. The current system is built to support folks who already have persistence, confidence, and other favorable conditions to seek out the resources they need. When students don't feel enfranchised in their college experience, they may be significantly less inclined to signal for help and receive support. We found BIPOC students to be self-sourcing their coping mechanisms and they described finding a support network within the department as a fluke. Together we sharred a structural approach to relationships and supports that puts the responsibility on the department—not the student—to ensure that students have the resources and relationships needed to thrive across four areas:
- Social emotional wellness: Students' health and wellbeing is stable so they can focus on their learning. - Mentorship: Every student has a person they trust within the department. - Professional practice: Every student has a goal and plan for themselves after graduation. - Peer relationships: Every student is connected with peers they feel known by.
Supports integrated into class time and class work mean that they are normalized as resources that all students might desire or benefit from. Behind-the-scenes department structures offer ways for the faculty and staff team to stay aligned. For example, routine meetings ensure that each student has "their person" and that the team is flagging any students who may need extra support. The department has a toolkit of resources and a shared understanding of when and how to deploy them. These structures ensure that students are being matched with resources and also that staff are supported in their work to nurture student well-being.
Conversations about raceConversations about race are open, learning, engaged dialogues about issues of race, ethnicity, culture, and identity. While these conversations have the potential to become normalized parts of the classroom, they currently feel charged and challenging because of their rarity and because of the roles that BIPOC students can be asked to take in these discussions.
BIPOC students don't feel that the department sets up safe spaces in the classroom in which to engage in conversations about work, themes, or personal behaviors that engage race or ethnicity, whether in ways that are provocative, probing, or problematic.
Substantive work is not done to engage in topics that students feel are timely and important, missing opportunities to deepen their work and thinking. Faculty often feel unprepared to navigate and lead these conversations. This means that issues are left unaddressed or that BIPOC students feel the obligation and burden is theirs to manage these discussions.
A department-wide model for engaging in conversations about race means that each member of the community is normed to expectations for discourse. The departmental community understands that conversations about topics that may be uncomfortable to some are part of learning and are important to all members of the community being seen and heard. Faculty and staff prepare students for this type of dialogue through practice.
Students are able to explore topics beyond the context of their or their classmates' work, in order to familiarize themselves with modes of discussion and with the feelings that can come from having challenging conversations. Faculty and staff prepare themselves to navigate these conversations in the classroom. The departmental team reflects regularly and collectively to anticipate topics that may emerge in class, to prepare together for ways that they can guide and facilitate these discussions, and to make changes to structures or practices that contribute to embedded racist behaviors.