Listen to the interview here. Below is the full transcript.
Leo Smith: Um…. Okay, welcome to Freeradio SAIC, it’s great to have you both, um today we’re speaking with two of the organizers at the center of SAIC’s newest activist organization, SAIC Solidarity This is the first in a new series of interviews, co-sponsored by Freeradio and F Newsmagazine. Thank you both for being our first guests in the series! It’s great to have you.
Nadia: Thank you, Leo.
LS: Um, could you guys introduce yourselves to our listeners?
Nadia: Hi, I’m Nadia Frierson, um, I am in my 5th year, going into my 5th year, in the Fiber and Materials Studies Department, um… what else? I think that’s it.
Nicholas: I’m Nicholas Zepeda, uh, I’m going into my 4th year, uh, I’m mostly in the Painting and Drawing Department, uh and I worked in Admissions for around three years.
LS: Great! Um, so, why don’t we start where this started for you both. Um, so, when did this organization begin?
Nicholas: Yeah, we had started originally because Nadia and I are, um, it’s called Student Ambassador Coordinators in the Admissions office, um–so basically we’re some of the people that give tours, and that’s about it. But, what had happened was, we had gotten an email from our supervisor, um, that was pretty similar to maybe other emails that other people got from their work-study supervisor, that was just like “Protests are happening! Here are some generic resources, and weird photos of things.” Um. And immediately we were just kind of like, “This is kind of weird,” um, so, originally, I was like in a different group chat, that we were talking about just like the email being kind of awkward, um, but Nadia then uh texted me, and was like, “This is really weird, like, I think I’m gonna send an email about it,” and I was like, “I was also gonna send one. Let’s just write a big one.” Uh, and then, so we got together, and we wrote this email, and it went to our supervisor, that was basically like, just saying that like, emailing your students about racism is not enough to say that you’re like, doing something about it. Um. And then… What happened next? So, we send the first email, um, and then we get in that first email, we write, like, “Please don’t apologize about the email, like, just kind of do better. Um, apologies are just the same thing as the other email in terms of how performative they are.” So, in response, of course, they sent an apology to us. It was maybe about like a paragraph long, it was completely standard. Um, and then Nadia and I were like, freaking out, we were like, “No fucking way, they just sent an apology, we just said, like 3 times in the thing,” so, we ended up sending another, longer email, that was about 5 pages long in our shared document, that kind of like pinpointed a lot of the weirder things that happened in the admissions process. So, Nadia and I have both worked in Admissions for a long time. Nadia worked, I think for about 4 years now, Nadia?
Nicholas: Yeah. So we had a bit more experience in terms of like, the technical side behind how the admissions process looked like, so, we pointed out a little bit more about that. But also about like, different things that have happened in the office, based off of our experience that were kinda weird. And then we ended up having a larger meeting that had, like, all of the admission student workers, and some of the higher-ups that worked in admissions, and we just kind of used that time to talk a bit more explicitly about stuff. The response that we got from the higher ups in admissions was very kind of… I guess it was dismissive, like–something that happens a lot at SAIC is when you ask for very specific answers to something, you don’t get it. So, we were introduced with like this very generic kind of like, public-facing like presentation about like diversity, and “What SAIC Admissions is doing!” And then, they mentioned a couple programs that me and Nadia were directly kind of supposed to be the people that were benefiting off of that, and we immediately were like, “Nope. We can’t, because all this shit is not working. You guys are fucking up. We really just need people to listen to us, and have actual things that they’re going to be doing in response to them.” So, that meeting ended up being about like 4 hours long.
Nadia: Yeah, and then, I’ll just add to that, the topic of the meeting was specific to white supremacy still being like a residual, like, damage that like kind of is, is wide–not kind of, it is widespread across SAIC, but more specifically, we were kind of starting in the Admissions office, just because like, that’s where we had rapport, it’s where we had made connections, but we also, Nicholas and I are both, like, technically like a supervisorial role, so we figured that it would hold more merit if we started in the admissions office and kind of worked our way out. Going into it, we didn’t anticipate that this would become a campus-wide thing. But we started, you know, thinking about other instances, talking to other people, getting feedback from like, other students, and it became very apparent that this is not just an admissions issue, this is not just an SAIC issue, this is an issue of institutionalization and indoctrination of Black and POC students.
LS: So tell me, like, just give me an idea of the time between when you posted the anonymous survey and when you finished drafting that letter. How, like, how long was the survey up for, and how many responses did you get in that survey?
Nadia: Um, I would say… I’d say June 24th, we created the survey. We started drafting the letter. We were anticipating trying to finish by Friday, the 15th, but we were like, “You know what? Actually, we should send this on Monday, people on PTO [Paid Time Off], we want people to see it, but also, we want to be able to add as much stuff as possible based on the Google Form. So, probably between the 24th and the 25th, the Google Form was out for the first day. And then, on the 26th, we essentially drafted all of the things that we could think of off the top of our head, all the things that we had experienced–and not “We” meaning the other student workers, not just me and Nicholas, and then after that, we were like, “Okay, let’s go through all these Google Forms.” I think by that time we had had like 112, or something like that, 115.
Nadia: …By the time that we sent the letter. And based on those responses that we had gotten in the first 2 days, we decided to pull things that tied in to our arguments. But also, we got context about more specific things that had to do with international issues, as well as more specific issues between departments. Because, obviously we’re not in every department–there are going to be some more specific things that we are no privy to, and also just don’t know is going on. So, the Google Form really helped with compiling the rest of the letter, and just kind of like, getting an idea of like, “Oh! This is what other people are going through, so this also speaks to our argument, because we’re also going through these things, and we’re all going through it together,” — but we’re also all supposed to just like, be complacent, sweep it under the rug, act like it’s not that big of a deal. So yeah, I think that’s probably how the Google Form like kind of worked its way into the creation of the letter.
LS: Mhm. Um, could you tell me a little bit about like, some of those specific departmental uh issues that you learned about through this survey?
Nicholas: Oh, yeah. Um. There was a ton about the Fashion Department. There was a lot of stuff that had to do with kind of like, administrative complaints. A lot of things about, um–there’s a certain process that happens, in for example, like, the Title IX situation, where they have this kind of zero-discrimination [racism] policy, but it takes repeated complaints from students to have anything happen. And even when it comes to the process of making those kind of complaints, the office is really dismissive. And that was something that was confirmed a lot by almost every response that we had.
Nadia: I think the overwhelming majority of complaints that we were receiving were specific to, like, a lack of representation, that had a lot of layers rooted in the Fashion Department, a lot of layers rooted in Art History. Both are two departments that inherently that project like systems of white supremacy, and perpetuate those cycles. Such as, like, under-representation of like body size, colorism issues, as well as tokenizing a lot of their Black students, like, in the department. So, those were things that came up. Which were not surprising to us, but they gave us more specific clarity regarding how these issues fit in to our argument. And then for Art History, just that there are literally like 4% of the classes are centered—are not centered around Western or white studies. But every other course is. And then the fact that there are like, no faculty of color, but there’s also no [full-time] Black faculty. So, those were some things that came up as well as like weird power dynamics within the classroom, regarding race issues, directly related to the Art History Department.
LS: So… When you set out to um, write a letter, was it originally going to be two letters, one for faculty and staff, and one for students, or did it kind of like, you had so many things that you wanted to cover that it divided into two?
Nadia: I would say that we… we’d anticipated writing two separate letters from the beginning, because we — our idea going into it was “If we can get a whole bunch of white women at the school who are staff to also back us up, because race is all based on perception, they’re going to perceive this a lot better than if just a group of students were to bring this information.” So, essentially, we were like, hey, we should get a whole bunch of white people together, and make this shit happen. So, they started writing their letter first, and we were reading their letter, and we were like, “Okay, this is like, very, very, very correct, and politically correct, but we’re going to, we’re going to do the opposite, we’re going to send an honest letter, that has some voice in it.” But also, that includes all the voices of the students as well. And not that it’s necessarily centered around like, us specifically, because this isn’t for us, this is for the students that are either 16:09 going to be in school, or coming into school, the kids to come, so we wanted to frame it that way.
LS: Mhm. So, what happened once the letters were up on the website? How have–uh, signatures just started coming in?
Nadia: Signatures started coming in in the, I guess one thing that kind of was a positive blindside was that other students and other faculty were kind of like invigorated, in a way, and started writing their own letters, that added more specificity — I can never say that word — but, to the letters, the letter that we sent. So, ours was kind of like a base, and then I feel like, from that, we were being reached out to by different faculty, different students, different staff, who were like, “Hey, what can I do? What more can I articulate? Is there anything I can expand upon?” which I think was beautiful but also, it was kind of like an affirmation that, okay, other people are actually trying to do stuff, that’s actionable, and we’re throwing this performative allyship out the door, and we’re actually going to hit the ground running, ready to go–but more importantly, being candid, and being honest, I think, was something that we’re kind of experiencing right now, whereas before, everything was conversations behind closed doors, or swept under the rug, or just dismissed, or people would just actively tread through SAIC complacently.
LS: Mhm. I like what you said about like, no more, like this wasn’t a space for like, performative um, solidarity and that this is a space a space about, like, actions that you want to see happen, and that you want to take. Can you tell me a little bit about some of those action items? Like, some of the demands in the letters, or some of the things that people were adding when they added their signatures?
Nadia: Um, Nicholas? I’ve talked a lot, I don’t want to keep taking up space for you to talk.
Nicholas: That’s ok. I can talk, um… One of the, the big positions that, at the time of drafting the letter that we didn’t know about so much was the ombudsperson’s roles. So, the ombudsperson is essentially somebody who is employed in an institution to correct any sort of maladministration. That’s like the dictionary definition, you can also Google. But basically, the role of the ombudsperson is to basically kind of be, like, more of a personable person who’s in power, so, if something’s going wrong, if you feel like a faculty that you’re talking to is being racist, and Title IX isn’t working with you to have a conversation with that person, you can go to the ombudsperson to have them to go talk to them personally. The ombudsperson isn’t hired by, like, Elissa Tenny or the president of any kind of department that you work in. They’re hired by the greater institution, so, in this case, it would be the Art Institute of Chicago. As it stands right now, there’s not really any kind of avenue for students and faculty to talk together in like, a formal environment, so our kind of solution for that was the ombudsperson. The more that we’ve been kind of, like, talking with different departments, they keep kind of confirming that the ombudsperson is somebody that’s really necessary, but it has to be something that is a service available to students institution-wide. So, our solution to that is kind of changing as we still talk with people. I think, as it stands, right now, is we really need the ombudsperson to be somebody that works with both prospective and current students. So, we want at least one that’s like, specific to admissions, and with that mentorship program, but we’ve been opened up a little bit to have more of them scattered around SAIC, specifically in places where we feel that like, administration isn’t helping, or working as closely with students as they kind of say that they are. Um, so that’s the one thing that I think has grown the most from our current list of demands. Um… the Art History thing, Nadia, can you pick up on that?
Nadia: Oh, yeah. I would say the Art History Department, you know, is a very productive conversation with them, we’ve had a series of conversations, a series of emails in which they are really, really fighting to engage in more critical conversations surrounding race, surrounding equity, but also, creating avenues in which they can not be dismissive of other cultures, but also, figuring out ways that they can bring in more Black faculty in a way that isn’t patronizing, but also — and I mean “patronizing” as like, “We did a diversity hire!” — in a way that’s healthy. And then, also, creating space, like making space to actually listen to students, because something that they pointed out was that the course evaluations are not, you know, productive. They are almost problematic. Most students don’t do them, unless they have had a problem or they just feel like they have something to say. But where there can be a space where the Art History faculty, the students, and the department chair can engage in like an open panel discussion–kind of like a year in review or a semester in review. Taking complaints, taking some like critical feedback, but all ultimately creating a space where people can be productive together without being dismissive of people’s perspectives. And then, the fashion department, that was a group of students who reached out to us, and that was almost–it was really great, we were like “Oh my gosh, this document, it’s amazing,” — it’s talking about colorism, it’s talking about fatphobia, it’s talking about the improper ventilation systems, vise versa, lack of resources, the tokenization of Black students for the, for the, to award more merit or more “visual diversity” for the Fashion Department, and touching on those more specifically, because I can only talk about them in a general sense, because I’m not a part of the Fashion Department, so it’s more so based on like, what I’ve heard from other students. But this really 26:05 hit the nail on the head. It was unfortunate that some fashion faculty, basically, requested that the students take out about a page and a half of their letter.
Nadia: Just to dilute the information, dilute the argument. But, in which they were like, “Nope, we’re not gonna do that.” Because this would be literally perpetuating white supremacy all over again. Cause you’re trying to dilute someone’s voice in order to make it more palatable to the masses, to the administration. So those were kind of the more specific things that came out of getting in correspondence with other faculty, other departments. The Contemporary Practice Department, super, super productive. I know that they’re working on integrating more collective knowledge about Chicago, and more specific to desegregation, and kind of just really making sure that people understand, like, the reasons that we are here, the reasons that we are in places of privilege. And then, also, creating a lot of sacrifice and accountability on the faculty’s behalf, in order to reallocate funds to provide more resources for the first-year program. Such as supplies, such as like creating more field trips that are taking you to places that aren’t just on the North Side, because that’s pretty much what Contemporary Practices does. So, kind of things like that.
Nicholas: Yeah, those, uh, the courses surrounding Chicago segregation was something that was, I think, in our first committee, our first meetings, I think, slightly miscommunicated a little bit. I remember some of the feedback that we got when we first proposed it was “I dunno how we’re gonna fit the Chicago classes with the Academic Spine!” And, the thing that we really kind of wanted to get out there was, like, no, like, you can’t separate these courses, they have to be conversations that you’re having with, like– okay. So, if you’re going to say that the Academic Spine is a curriculum that prepares you for a professional career in Chicago, you can’t say that these concepts around segregation in Chicago are not things that—
Nadia: Well, it’s almost, it’s almost saying that it’s irrelevant. Or it’s not adjacent, it’s not a part of the conversation, it’s almost removing the identity and the history of Chicago from the actual education process. That the spine is quote-unquote “supposed” to create. But I think the conversations that we had with the faculty one-on-one, was productive because it gave us an insight on how this could actually fit into the curriculum. Because when you talk to admin, they’re not the people who are creating syllabi, they’re not the people who are having these conversations, they’re just pushing policies. … Which, I feel like, is the reason why in the past SAIC has perpetuated performative allyship. Because it’s in ways that they’re just, like, outward-facing, but are not thinking about the internal struggles, or the internal realities that people are facing. It just generalizes the idea of “diversity,” the idea of — the idea of creating curriculum that’s supposed to prepare you, but it’s only preparing you for, like, a white lens. It’s not preparing you to deal with other people outside of the institutional standard, essentially. So, the context that the professors were giving us, about how this could actually be integrated into a curriculum was really helpful, because it’s like, we have the ideas, but it’s not, like, our job to create the solution. We can voice the concerns, we can do the demands, but, I mean, at the end of the day, they’re getting paid to create the curriculum, to create syllabi, so let’s converse on what topics should be integrated, and they, basically, were like, “Here’s how we can do it. This is actually really easy, this isn’t something that’s hard, and we need to do better,” which I felt was a very positive reaction to us being like “Hey, you need to add some more, and do better, with what you’re teaching your students!” More specifically, what you’re teaching your first-year students, because most of those people are 18, and very young, very impressionable, and very vulnerable.
LS: That’s great. Do you think that that’s something that they’re working on for this fall? Or does it seem like it’s gonna take a longer time than that?
Nadia: it actually doesn’t seem like it’s gonna take that long. I think they — it’s all up to, I mean, kind of like, what goes down with Covid and vise versa, and just kind of how things are gonna be — um, I’m gonna mute myself, cause my dog is barking.
LS: Mm. Um, so, it sounds like you guys have been in a lot of meetings uh since this website went up.
Nicholas: Yeah, I know — more towards the beginning of this process, we would stay up until like, 5 AM every day, and then be back up at like 10 for our next Zoom meeting, and then do that all over again… more recently, we’ve been trying to, like, slow down a little bit. Um, I know I’ve been going to sleep a little bit earlier. I think a lot of the conversations that we’re having with, you know, people in power, it’s very easy to get very kind of intense about things, just cause we are kind of to an extent kind of personally affected by a lot of this stuff. So, I think for us, it’s just been very important for us to be like, “Okay, we need to make sure we get our eight hours, so that when we go into this important conversation, we make sure that we get all of our points across, and don’t just kind of start yelling at people. I know that me, personally, I get very frustrated with a lot of the responses that we get, but um… but I think, what’s really important for us is just to make sure that like, you know what, it was so hard to make this list of demands, and so many people like, really responded to it. Our job, right now, is just to kind of make sure that those things happen, and to not get in the way of them as much.
LS: Mhm. Are there any other meetings that uh you’ve been in that you can tell us about? That you find maybe encouraging–or maybe, very not encouraging?
Nadia: Do you, Nicholas, want to talk about that meeting that was not encouraging? But not mention… their name?
Nicholas: So, we’ve had, a combination of both super productive meetings, and also not at all productive meetings. I think this is just something you can expect when you go into any institution. But, one of the more recent ones that we had, it was with someone who called the meeting to talk with us specifically because they had seen the website, and they were so, like, inspired by what we’re talking about. And then, we get to the meeting, and we have our staff delegates, we have student delegates there. We all kind of lined up to this meeting, because we were kind of excited for it. So, we were talking to this person, and we listed off one of our newer demands, and immediately, they just started to shut us down, and be like, “Well, how many people have you talked to? How many faculty have you talked to? Why are you bringing this up to me?” And then, at one point, I brought up — I was like, “Have you read the letters yet?” And they had not!
Nicholas: And we were just kind of like, so intensely like, offended. Like, everybody else that we had talked to up to this point had, at the very least, you know, read the letters, and, you know, came into the meeting and was like, “Okay, like, these are the points that overlap with us, how do you want to talk about it…”
Nadia: And, I would also add that this person at least spoke to … was very on the defense. And also, almost like begging for allyship without even doing the legwork, and was like, “Well, can you just tell me, and then I’ll just figure out what I need to do?” And we were like…
Nadia: well, that’s the issue, is that SAIC constantly wants their Black and brown students to do the internal legwork for them, to explain to them, to teach them when we’re paying for you all to teach us. So… it was almost like–not almost, it was, like, a very, like non-productive meeting. Just because, when we were like, “Oh, so you did you read the letter?” They were like, “Uh…. well…” And then we were like, “Did you read it?” and they were like, “No.” And we were like, “Okay! Well, I don’t know what we’re going to talk about, then… Because, I mean, we don’t know what context you have, and obviously, there is none.” So then, following up later with like, just making the conversation being centered around, like, “Well, I am a white ally… So you should just like, think of me as a white ally.” And we were like, “Yeah, but, it — you can’t just sign up. There’s not a list to sign up to be a white ally.” You have to actually, like, be able to admit that you as a white ally, your existence, your job, vise versa, is inherently oppressive of the people that you’re surrounding yourself with.
Mhm. Um, so, shifting gears back to your sort of general goals, what are the goals that you have for the fall semester? What do you want to have worked out by the end of this summer?
Nadia: I think the things that we really wanted to — that we wanted to get done for the summer, at least, were getting emergency funding, which is something that SAIC is apparently doing now; creating the ombudsman position, that was definitely something that we were looking for; and then, what else did we really, really want done… We wanted to figure out some sort of way to lower the tuition costs, or create additional credits for students to have accessibility online. The additional issue — we wanted to get the Martin Berger thing taken care of, but that obviously was not something that was going to be as easy as it seems. … what else did we have on the list, Nicholas?
Nicholas: Yeah, I think we really wanted to establish some form of communication across different departments? Whether it be through the ombudsperson or just kind of like a formal kind of, you know, putting students on different advisory boards. That was something we really wanted to have done.
Nadia: And, I think, also creating more — like, changing the admissions process. Because a lot of the rules, the logistics in the admissions process are directly oppressive to Black and brown communities. And more specifically, oppressive to, like, lower socioeconomic communities, too. So that was something that we were working in combination with the staff counselors to get the ball rolling on. They have been working more closely, because like, they directly can like, voice these concerns and like change these, I guess these rules and systems. So, creating an interview process, for the admissions process, rather than it just being based on your portfolio, or who you know, and what grades you have, and test scores, because test scores are inherently problematic. We were thinking that, you know, if it is an art school, it would be more important that your interview also be at the forefront of the application process as well. Which is something that can be achieved virtually or in person. And then, also, making sure that there was a COVID expert, that was at the top of our demands, and they have just hired one, so… And then, getting, like, confronting the administration on their dismissiveness towards the Black Student Union group, because they have completely ignored them, have not responded to them, and allocating more space. And then, one thing that is actually going to be changed like, almost immediately is getting the Columbus Drive building renamed. And that name we said that it would only be appropriate to change the name if NASA [Native American Student Association] was at the forefront of that decision-making, so NASA has come up with a new name for the Columbus Drive Building, and… so yeah.
LS: Mhm. That’s great about the Columbus Drive Building, I didn’t know that was in the works. That’s good to hear.
Nadia: Mhm! Yeah… So that should be taken care of in the next couple of weeks.
LS: Cool. Um… Okay, that’s great. Um, we covered admissions process, which I was actually going to ask about next, so, I guess that pretty much wraps up all of my questions for you guys today. Um, do you have any final words for the SAIC community members listening? Both students and faculty or staff? Or ex-employees?
Nicholas: I think that the one thing that we’ve really learned kind of going through this process is that no matter where you look, nobody is happy about the way that this is run.
Nadia: Umm…… I think I would just say… I would just say that this is all a game. And just try to remember what side of the game you want to be on when this is all over. Or all resolved. I think that’s what I would say. Um, yeah. I think that’s all.
LS: Great. Well thank you very much for speaking with us, and best of luck with your work and your upcoming many, many Zoom meetings, um, and I hope to speak with you guys, and I hope that we can speak with you guys again sometime in the fall.
Nadia: Okay. Thank you Leo, for taking the time.