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RISD students, faculty members gather to decry campus racism

Demonstrators demand faculty sensitivity training, curricular reform, Market Square slavery memorial

A large crowd of Rhode Island School of Design students and faculty members dressed in black braved the unseasonably cold April weather at Market Square Wednesday afternoon to join RISD student and demonstration organizer Tony Petit in chanting, “I am not your token!”

The demonstration, Not Your Token, was organized by members of Black Artists and Designers, a student group at RISD, to protest the lack of recognition, education and discussion with regard to race, sexuality and class both academically and socially at RISD.

The demonstration was organized to coincide with RISD’s accreditation week. The accreditation board, comprised of artists and designers independent from RISD, recommended six years ago that the school address social issues, specifically race and class, to a deeper extent, wrote Flannery McDonnell, a demonstrator, in an email to The Herald.

“I am not tired because of the 33 meetings I have had with administration, not tired because of studio or my work-study job to pay for supplies. I am tired of reminding myself that I deserve to be here,” said Chantal Feitosa, an organizer of the event.

Petit and Feitosa kicked off Not Your Token by reading out a list of demands that over 40 faculty members and students presented to the RISD administration March 30. The demands include requests for curricular change and a diversity action plan committed to increasing the number of faculty members of color and visiting artists of color. The protestors also demanded that a memorial to slavery be erected in Market Square, which once played host to a bustling slave market, in order to acknowledge the legacy of slavery on RISD’s campus.

“This shit is personal for some of us,” said Rebecca Cumberbatch, a demonstrator, explaining that her last name was given to her family by the white owners who enslaved them.

“As I walk through Market Square, I can feel the footsteps of my ancestors beneath mine,” Petit said. “Why is no one talking about this?”

Petit also highlighted RISD’s neglect of East Asian, South Asian, African, South American and Native American artistic styles.

“This summer, I took my first class with an Asian-American professor in three years,” said Michelle Zhuang. Zhuang added that during pre-registration, she was often advised by peers to avoid certain professors for their racist and sexist views. In order to be seen as more than a cash cow or quota filler, people of color have to be the “most utmostly respected” in their field, she added.

The protestors’ full list of 10 demands has been presented to students, faculty members and administrators along with a short, student-made film, “The Room of Silence.” At the time of the protest, the film was being shown to full-time faculty members in Chace Center across the street from Market Square.

The film documents the experiences of marginalized students on campus. “The Room of Silence” is the term students use to describe the silence that greets work relating to race and sexuality at RISD. Olivia Stephens, a coordinator of Not Your Token, told The Herald that when she presented a project idea centering on black skin to a faculty member, she was told to “tone down the content.”

“When people produce art about their identities, they’re really putting themselves out there,” said Sabrina Clark, a demonstrator. “At least talk about my craftsmanship. Let’s talk about why my piece makes you uncomfortable,” she added, explaining that the lack of feedback on her work harms her growth as an artist.

RISD student Eloise Sherrid, the filmmaker behind “The Room of Silence,” told The Herald that while the film included some suggestions from students for improvement, the point of the video was to gather marginalized student voices and perspectives to help the administration “do its job.”

“We’re not looking for Band-Aid fixes for a car accident,” Sherrid said, emphasizing that addressing the concerns raised in the “The Room of Silence” and at the protest would require widespread reform on the part of the administration. “Firing one faculty member or something is not enough.”

One of the demands provided concrete suggestions on how to better faculty awareness of issues of diversity and inclusion. It asks that “faculty members undergo adequate, regular and thorough cultural and identity-based sensitivity training upon being hired as well as after contract renewals on a basis of one, three or five years.”

“Professor have unions,” Feitosa told The Herald, saying that this unionization makes it difficult to mandate sensitivity training. The authors of the list of demands envision a system whereby renewal of faculty contracts will take into account participation in sensitivity training as well as student feedback, Feitosa added.

After giving students of color and LGBTQ students a space to have their voices heard, coordinators opened the floor to allies to discuss their roles in the fight for greater diversity and accountability on the RISD campus. McDonnell pointed out that in discussions on racial privilege and injustice, she is often “praised for critical thinking” while her friend and classmate Malaika Temba is accused of “playing the race card.”

During this segment on allyship, some faculty members from the meeting across the street approached the shivering protestors and invited them to continue their conversation indoors.

Claudia Ford, a lecturer at RISD, urged demonstrators to be hopeful about change.

But students expressed doubts.

“I am afraid that we will just call this an important moment in history and move on,” Zhuang said.

“It’s not on the students anymore. We’re on the same … page,” Cumberbatch said to faculty members at the conclusion of the event. Her statement was received with a standing ovation. 

The faculty members present at the event reported progress on two of the listed demands. Jayson Musson, an African-American artist, will be speaking at RISD as a visiting artist. The Department of History, Philosophy and the Social Sciences also recently hired two women of color to teach at the school.

Stephens said that faculty responses to the demands have been mixed. While liberal arts and foundational faculty have been supportive, certain faculty have also asked members of BAAD to “do more” to merit their attention, she said.

Members of the accreditation board met with coordinators Monday night and were “receptive to their ideas,” Feitosa said. She hopes that the board will make its recommendations with regard to diversity public, she added.

The leaders of BAAD plan to host a similar teach-in at Market Square next week for faculty, Stephens said. Coordinators also plan to meet with the RISD provost and president, who was present at the protest, to discuss their demands tomorrow, Stephens added.



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