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Anti Racism Committee: Political theater or true commitment to DEI?

The slow work of addressing harm lies in interconnected struggles of part-time faculty and students who seek reform

By Featured, SAIC

Illustration by Shina Kang

In 2020, SAIC Solidarity and Black Futures wrote letters outlining desired structural changes for SAIC.

That year, police violence became the tipping point in a culmination of events that showed how structural inequality has shaped American life, including how policies in housing, policing, education, and healthcare have shaped the outcomes of Black lives. 

To address the issues raised by the groups an Anti-Racism Committee was formed at SAIC that year which went to work on several key issues that included: hiring a more diverse staff,  renaming of the 280 Building (then the Columbus building), improved financial aid for students of color, the development of an ombudsperson, and an affinity space for Black, Indigenous, and people of color. 

When the demands were first made, the political landscape was one in which organized efforts like Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (referred to as DEI) committees were a popular response to the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests. Eager to quell unrest, politicians and institutions alike performed solidarity, with scenes such as Democratic senators in kente cloth stoles kneeling as they announced police reform. This theater is typical in American politics that often offers a good show, but rarely does anything to fix problems in society. 

However, the approach to DEI by the Anti Racism Committee addressed structural issues that were not flashy theater, but slow work. The committee and its numerous subcommittees began working within the departments of SAIC to implement permanent changes to the school that address issues around student labor, student mental health, and financial aid. 

Four years later, the national state of DEI efforts is drastically different. 

There are prominent, DEI-related stressors on higher education across the United States, and it’s showing. At the end of 2023, amid student protests on college campuses regarding the Palestinian genocide, universities like Harvard, MIT, and UPenn fired their presidents in response to congressional inquiries regarding political speech on college campuses. The Supreme Court outlawed affirmative action and race-based admissions decisions in June of 2023. Many DEI initiatives that were popular four years ago have begun to recede. 

At most universities, DEI responses to structural issues are largely shouldered by BIPOC staff, who are often untenured or temporarily employed. SAIC is not immune: 71% of faculty members at SAIC are White, while 7.6% are Black; the remainder is made up of Latino, Asian, and Native American faculty members. 

In a statement, the Art Institute of Chicago Workers United union explained that they are working towards reaching a contract to specifically support faculty and staff who are BIPOC, disabled, and / or LGBTQI+. The statement described the ways that these educators perform un-recognized and unpaid work as mentors for students and beyond.

“We’re fighting for a contract that recognizes and compensates faculty for this work — to retain them, promote them, and enshrine their contributions to our community,” the statement said.

The potential increase in BIPOC staff who have secure employment at SAIC could lead to changes in pedagogy. Many white professors have been trained to approach art from a Western canon. Often, when race is not being completely avoided in the classroom, professors trained in the Western cannon tend to present history by overwhelming their students with facts without interpretation and insight from BIPOC professors trained in different epistemological modes. Educators who are trained in different epistemological modes tend to include not just facts in the form of dates and numbers but also social and emotional experience which is factual. To increase the number of works by BIPOC artists and thinkers in the curriculum, without changing both the pedagogical approach to teaching and the experts in the room leading the discussion is a recipe for alienation.  

Even with so few BIPOC faculty at SAIC, the quiet structural changes that began in 2020 have slowly crept into the school environment. According to the SAIC’s website, the school has hired an ombudsperson who is active in their role as of Fall 2023; the BIPOC space, the Cultural Oasis, was established in 2021, has active programming, and is used by BIPOC students; and while the 280 Building was not renamed Three Fires, as suggested by Indigenous students, the racist nomenclature of the building’s past is not actively in use. 

The Anti-Racism Committee has waned since 2020, with one of its leaders, Delinda Collier, becoming the permanent dean of graduate studies. On February 15, SAIC announced the appointment of a new president Jiseon Lee Isbara, from Otis College of Art, whose background holds promise in terms of furthering the DEI changes that began in 2020. 

The increase in a diverse student population must be met with the interconnected struggle of part-time professors and non-tenured professors whose union negotiation is stalled. This struggle is interconnected because upon graduation, BIPOC students will face a hiring landscape that doesn’t value them as professionals as much as they valued them as students. 

Without a diverse teaching faculty whose needs are met, SAIC will repeat failures in educational approaches to DEI that are rampant in American schools and colleges today. When an academic institution integrates BIPOC students without integrating BIPOC faculty, the cycle of harm that has been playing out in American education since desegregation will repeat itself. A diverse BIPOC student body whose instructors do not reflect them, whose pedagogy does not prepare them, and whose epistemologies do not come from their cultures will inevitably experience the harms of assimilation and appropriation characteristic of American life. 

Whether or not SAIC has participated in DEI theater or true structural change that improves the lives of BIPOC students and faculty remains to be seen. Improvement depends on the institution’s long-term commitment to these structural changes. 

Sometimes racist acts are not always blatant. Without secure employment for BIPOC, disabled, and LGBTQI+ professionals— which includes full benefits packages, and opportunities to advance their careers— SAIC is not addressing a key element of the Black Futures demands. SAIC’s inability to address this harm is a reflection of which lives are important and valuable to them. At least for F Newsmagazine, that is racism, plain and simple.

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