In this American year of racial reckoning — which, however wrenching, has a kind of at-last feel to it, as if, just perhaps, when we fully come to grips with it, we can finally move forward — no aspects of our habits and prejudices are off-limits.
Everything deserves a look.
Pretending we have, half a century on from the biggest wins of the civil rights movement, created an equal society isn’t just delusional — it’s like a deep neurosis. Plus it’s plain pathetic.
Higher education, however much it deserves some of the criticisms constantly lobbed at it, is actually very good at introspection. That’s what its scholars made their bones at: analyzing something obscure, or even grand, and showing how it works. Charting the good and the bad in it.
At Pasadena’s ArtCenter, one of the nation’s leading design colleges, the administration is well aware that the school has never been any good at attracting Black students. (No design school is particularly good at it.) You can say that the reasons are complex, but you can also look at the numbers. Around 2% of ArtCenter’s students are African American, whereas around 6% of Californians are, and over 14% of Americans are.
That’s not a good look. It’s bad for American design. It’s bad for American art.
One thing ArtCenter has going for it is a former institutional boss who is an African-American success story. Pasadena entrepreneur Robert Davidson is the school’s board chairman emeritus. Born in Memphis, schooled at the historically Black Morehouse College and with an MBA from the University of Chicago, Davidson was a corporate consultant and record industry executive until he founded his own paint and lacquer business in Los Angeles.
This fall’s series of Change Lab shows, ArtCenter’s podcast featuring “conversations on transformation and creativity,” is entirely focused on amplifying Black American voices.
In the first episode, college President Lorne Buchman talks with Davidson.
“We’re at a watershed moment, I believe, in what is happening in our country,” Davidson says. “I lived through the Jim Crow of the ‘50s, the civil rights movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s, but this is different. This movement is being led by young people, people of all backgrounds. … These young people today are saying, ‘Enough is enough. We want to live in a different type of world.’ This is a time of change.”
The series also features podcast interviews with a fashion photographer, an African-American studies professor and the co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Global Network, Elle Hearns. Buchman says the series is “about how we can become better allies, both individually and institutionally.”
Buchman is working from home these days rather than from his offices in the Linda Vista hills or the South Raymond Avenue campus. I asked him on the phone the other day about how the school grapples with its student diversity issues.
“We have and need a lot of community engagement,” he said. “We have pipeline programs for middle school students to get their attention at an early time, so that they have a way in, they can see that this is a possibility. We have a Center for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. And we know it’s one thing to recruit, another thing to create an opportunity for Black students to thrive here.”
It’s not an easy time to be running a college, this quarantine year. Yes, “these days have been trying and difficult and there’s a lot of emotion and a lot of heat around our lives right now,” Buchman said.
“But these conversations bring nuance and clarity and perspective in a way that honors the questions we are trying to address as a society.”
You can find Change Lab for free in all the podcast stores.
Wednesday at random:
Writing as I do for Wednesdays and Sundays, that means next Tuesday as I bang this out I will have no idea who has won the presidency. Talk about scary … Buchman has a book coming out next year from Thames & Hudson about the creative process tentatively titled “Make to Know,” a perfect motto for the maker movement … A lot of other important stuff is on Tuesday’s ballot. In Pasadena I find it disheartening that instead of talking about crucial local issues, the mayoral race is, if you believe the glossy mailers, about a Sister City visit.
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