RISD Activism

Not Your Token graphic

In 2020, RISD Anti-Racism Coalition (risdARC) members demanded that RISD’s history of activism and documentation of Black- and BIPOC-led movements be accessible online through the presentation of a collection of archival materials. These items, which originated from students, RISD staff and the institutional record of their respective moments, are shared in response, providing additional insights into RISD’s complex and multifaceted history as a learning institution.

Rediscovering activism through RISD’s archives

Barry Gaither Black Artists lecture posterWhile the history of RISD as an institution goes back to 1877, formal organization of the archives began in the early 1990s. The collection, documentation and preservation of records and artifacts provide background on the history and development of RISD programs, policies and procedures as well as the unique contributions of individuals and organizations associated with the school and museum.

RISD remains deeply committed to social justice and equity and has created an ongoing record of accountability to commitments publicly announced by President Somerson on July 15, 2020, which build upon our 2017 Social Equity and Inclusion (SEI) Plan.

The ongoing digitization and documentation of RISD’s archival materials offers a unique opportunity to amplify untold stories and bring unsung advocates within the community to the forefront for a broader audience to experience. Unearthing these archival materials is long overdue and a foundational step in fully illustrating the breadth of activism over many decades directed to RISD administration and in response to local and national social justice movements.

RISD Student Tuition Rate Protest

Whether visible in public or behind closed doors, activists take direct action to reject what contemporary society deems acceptable. They show us what is fractured and in need of repair and provide guidance on the steps needed to enact meaningful, non-performative change.

This collection of imagery, video documentation, newspaper articles and more serves as a powerful reminder of what is possible when individuals come together in a way that is unapologetic, radical, inclusive, transparent and transformative in the pursuit of justice. These unrecognized and unseen narratives illustrate a clear path forward informed by leaders and changemakers now and in the past, and reflect the spirit of community, equity and empathy embedded in RISD’s learning environment.

As part of the ongoing archival mapping of activism’s impact, this webpage will serve as a living resource. New content will be added annually, including documentation of relevant institutional changes made during each decade.



Content warning: language, racism, violence
Posters, pop-up public art, produced videos, information sessions and lists of public demands show a direct responded to the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement and racial and social equity protests rising up throughout the US and across the globe. There is acknowledgement of current systems within art, education and community that perpetuate white supremacy.


Content warning: racism, sexism, violence, language
BIPOC students identify lacking cultural competency around creative approaches, content and placement of work. The divisive presidential election in the midst of documented xenophobia, racism, classism and sexism sparks conversation and organizing around anti-fascism and the role of art in response to our political climate. Global warming and environmental sustainability are topics of concern within the community.


Content warning: sexual assault, violence, language
An open letter questions safety on campus in response to student harassment. Protests take place in opposition to US military action and wars on Iraq and Afghanistan. Creative posters, newspapers and articles are published in response to xenophobia and Islamophobia in the wake of 9/11.


Content warning: sexual assault, violence, racism
Police brutality, sexual health and safety on campus are addressed in a variety of independently published mixed-media newspapers.


Content warning: homophobia, discrimination
RISD community protests Rhode Island’s AIDS health protocols as discriminatory. Demonstrations, distributed policy posters and on-campus panels dissect the fear and homophobia surrounding the media’s presentation of the health crisis.


Content warning: language
Visual posters detail student-led opportunities to organize and educate on issues of climate and ecological justice. 


Content warning: violence, racism, language
Campus demonstrations, petition letters and activism posters/artwork directly protest US involvement in the Vietnam War. Zines, posters and newspaper clips discuss the value of Black art in relation to ongoing civil and human rights violations experienced during this era.

This is the first step

Throughout RISD’s nearly 145-year history, students, educators, administrative staff and community members have used their voices and creative contributions to challenge the status quo and demand systemic change. More recently, student-led movements like Not Your Token and Room of Silence accelerated and strengthened the evolving SEI Action Plan, and student voices continue to help guide this work. What we know is that the more these moments are preserved and made accessible to the RISD community and the public, the more that conversations related to achieving equity can evolve.

Starting in the fall of 2021, a new fully-funded graduate research assistantship will support ongoing research and discovery to document past activism at RISD The graduate student in this role will also work with student groups—formal and informal—to archive efforts in the present, with their work reflected in the continued growth of the archive on these pages.

Thank you to the risdARC student leaders who continue to use their voices and influence to demand specific institutional changes in response to the ever-evolving SEI landscape. RISD is proud to have had the opportunity to collaborate with Aya Alghanmeh 21 IL, Felicita Devlin 21 TX, Jaleel Porcha 24 PH/SC, and Joshua Coverdale 22 FAV/BArch 23 , in the presentation of these materials. For interested students, there are dozens of active organizations including risdARC that can support you in further exploring life at RISD and ongoing leadership opportunities.