Decolonizing Pedagogies at RISD

Graffiti intervention by Bolivian anarcha-feminist collective Mujeres Creando

“This seminar was one of the most positive experiences I've had since joining the staff at RISD 25 years ago,” says Gina Borromeo, chief curator at the RISD Museum. “The content of the course dovetailed with the kind of work we’re currently focusing on at the museum, such as deaccessioning the Benin Head of a King and putting the mummy back in his coffin.”

“The content of the course dovetailed with the kind of work we’re currently focusing on at the RISD Museum.”

Chief Curator Gina Borromeo

Borromeo was one of 11 curators, librarians and faculty members from across the institution who participated last fall in Pedagogies for Dissent and Resistance, an intensive Decolonial Teaching in Action seminar offered through RISD’s Teaching and Learning Lab. The program is part of an initiative launched in 2017 to create a more racially just, equitable and inclusive RISD—one that President Rosanne Somerson committed to expanding last summer in response to BIPOC student and faculty calls for action.

Infographic by Pan Africanist author and historian W.E.B. DuBois
Infographic by Pan-Africanist author/historian W.E.B. Du Bois meticulously illustrating Black education, employment and literacy data

Associate Professors Paula Gaetano-Adi and Avishek Ganguly, who teach respectively in the Experimental and Foundation Studies and Liberal Arts divisions, developed the seminar and led sessions in spring and fall 2020. They describe it as “a reading community committed to a sustained intellectual engagement,” rather than a quick fix or definitive map to decolonizing the pedagogy at RISD.

“Paula and I are in no position to tell colleagues in other disciplines what to do,” Ganguly explains. “Instead, our goal was to offer historical and theoretical frameworks around the concepts of decolonization and decoloniality with the expectation that they might filter into the participants’ practices and teaching.” Gaetano-Adi and Ganguly have now made the course syllabus available online at their website and are also working on a book on the topic.

"There is a hunger for these conversations at RISD, an essential need to come together."

Associate Professor Paula Gaetano-Adi

The class met online weekly throughout the fall semester to discuss the dense and demanding readings they’d prepared and how the ideas might apply to their work as teachers. “We covered a wide range of material,” Borromeo notes, “including African-American writings, feminist writings and Indigenous writings, and took turns leading the discussions. It was like being a grad student again, an opportunity that I relished!”

Graffiti quoting late poet, Audre Lorde: "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house."
Graffiti quoting late poet Audre Lorde, whose seminal writings were discussed in the class.

“One of the first readings—Decolonization is not a metaphor, by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang—questions the very premise of ‘decolonizing’ academic pursuits,” Gaetano-Adi notes. The authors posit that decolonization is not about improving society or “decentering settler perspectives” but rather repatriating Indigenous land and life, full stop. The seminar, which also includes readings by Franz Fanon, W.E.B. Du Bois, Sylvia Winter, Paulo Freire and Linda Tuhiwai Smith among many others, compels participants to question long-held ideas and assumptions about knowledge and practice.

To quote the meticulous course syllabus, the objective is to “engage in critical dialogue that challenges the continuing dominance of Eurocentric thought and Western universalisms by analyzing epistemologies, ethics and politics anchored in the experiences of peoples who actively resist colonialism, capitalism, structural racism and heteropatriarchy.”

Work by Columbian-American anthropologist, Arturo Escobar
olumbian-American anthropologist Arturo Escobar investigates how established notions of what is real and attainable preclude the emergence of radically alternative visions of the future.

“There is a hunger for these conversations at RISD, an essential need to come together,” Gaetano-Adi says. “We’re beginning to question the fundamental building blocks of our institutions, practices and ways of thinking, which is what makes this work so difficult.”

Seminar participant Lu Heintz 01 SC, who teaches in RISD’s Experimental and Foundation Studies division, says that the movement to decolonize academia “must not only redress how oppressive forces have impacted knowledge systems and the telling of history, but also recognize and dismantle how these forces persistently inform current, lived experiences on college campuses.” She believes that any move to enrich the experiences of BIPOC students at RISD must include the creation of a physical gathering space on campus, which would serve as “a home for BIPOC students and a place to forge interdisciplinary ties and a sense of belonging.”

Christopher Columbus statue covered in red paint, with "stop celebrating genocide" sign
The city of Providence removed a longstanding statue of Christopher Columbus last June after years of protest, vandalism and discussion.

Heintz notes that it is important not to substitute “statements of intent for daily work, action and care,” citing Declarations of Whiteness, an assigned reading by Australian scholar Sara Ahmed that struck a chord with her. “The piece digs into the habit white people have of stating their own whiteness and admitting how race informs structural inequity without ever doing much about it,” she explains.

“Like most art and design schools, RISD started doing this work fairly recently,” Ganguly adds. “And these are not problems that can be solved in a one-day workshop or a two-day diversity training. That’s why we appreciate the time and resources the Center for Social Equity and Inclusion under Associate Provost for SEI Matthew Shenoda has committed to this work.”

Simone Solondz

Read more about RISD’s record of accountability to SEI commitments.

January 13, 2021

Related Stories

Director John W. Smith announces deaccession of Head of a King (Oba) and plans to bring needed focus to Native American art and design via New Americas Research Initiative.

SEI Research Fellow Christopher Roberts examines Providence’s historical connections to slavery and colonialism and their impact on the present day.