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Celebrating Founders Day

Celebrating Founders Day

The RISD community wraps up a month-long series of events honoring Helen Adelia Rowe Metcalf.

Small paper cutout of Helen Metcalf's head held up in front of RISD buildings

In a playful take on Flat Stanley of children's literature, members of the community were encouraged to share photographs of Flat Helen around campus and around the world.

As Women’s History Month draws to a close, so too does the wide-ranging series of coast-to-coast community service events and virtual gatherings celebrating Founders Day at RISD. From California beach cleanups to a curator-led talk at the RISD Museum to a tour of RISD’s storied archives, the spirit of founding mother Helen Adelia Rowe Metcalf shined brightly throughout the month of March.

“RISD has come a long way since its founding in 1877, and we have much to look forward to as we emerge from one of the most difficult years in our history,” says President Rosanne Somerson. “As so many assumptions have been challenged, the work of creative practitioners has become more essential than ever before.”

Alumni clad in Founders Day t-shirts clean up a California beach.
The Alumni Club of San Francisco organized a beach cleanup in honor of Founders Day. photo by Jennifer Hale 93 PH

Community members celebrated such work by artists and designers who started at RISD via two powerful panel discussions organized by the Alumni Association: RISD Serves on Wednesday, March 17 and Alumni Founders on Monday, March 22. “These will be my last events for RISD before I retire at the end of the month,” says longtime Executive Director of Alumni & Family Relations Christina Hartley 74 IL/P 09, “and I’m absolutely honored to conclude my tenure hosting panels featuring these alumni.”

The RISD Serves panel was led by Lina Sergie Attar MArch 01, founder of the Karam Foundation for Syrian refugees, who invited participants to join the newly formed RISD Serves committee. “It’s all about bringing together people who want to use their design backgrounds to change the world for the better,” she explains. 

Photo of Lina Sergei Attar
Karam Foundation founder Lina Sergei Attar MArch 01 led a panel discussion about using design skills to advance social justice.

Social justice champions Stacey Ascher 07 IL, creative and brand strategy leader at the Child Mind Institute, a national nonprofit dedicated to children struggling with mental health issues; Max Frieder 12 PT, co-founder of Artolution, a New York-based nonprofit working in global crisis zones; and Jonsara Ruth 92 ID, co-founder of the Healthy Materials Lab at Parsons School of Design in NYC, went on to exchange ideas and encourage those listening to use their talents for good. 

“It’s a challenging time for funding, but the need for art at the forefront of crisis response is greater than ever.” 

Artolution co-founder Max Frieder 12 PT

“All of the humanitarian sectors have been hit hard by COVID,” says Frieder, whose organization’s efforts to build community in Bangladeshi refugee camps and elsewhere were recently featured in The New York Times. “It’s a challenging time for funding, but the need for art at the forefront of crisis response is greater than ever.” 

Dreadlocked and colorfully dressed Max Frieder helps kids in a refugee camp paint a mural.
Max Frieder 12 PT and his colleagues at Artolution use art to reach children traumatized by humanitarian crises.

Ascher points out one of the pandemic’s few silver linings: that it “brought mental health issues to the forefront and allowed people to start talking about them more openly.” And Ruth offers this in response to an audience question about the role of RISD students in changing public policy: “Government policies change very slowly, which is frustrating. The RISD way to make change is to question everything, escalate awareness and reimagine the fundamental way things are done.”

"The RISD way to make change is to question everything, escalate awareness and reimagine the fundamental way things are done.”

Jonsara Ruth 92 ID, Healthy Materials Lab

The next discussion in the series highlighted women who are carrying on Metcalf’s entrepreneurial spirit by running their own businesses. Led by FAVOR founder Rene Payne 83 GD, the straight-talking panel included Sarah Durham 92 IL, founder of nonprofit-supporting Big Duck and Advomatic; furniture maker and Penland School of Craft teacher Annie Evelyn 99 FD/MFA 07, who co-founded Crafting the Future in order to address the lack of racial and ethnic diversity in the fields of art and design; and rising interior design star Keita Turner 91 AP, founder of Keita Turner Design and Livvy & Neva.  

A smiling Sarah Durham wearing chunky glasses.
Native New Yorker Sarah Durham 92 IL says she got started as an entrepreneur when she was young and fearless.

“I have definitely faced biases as a businesswoman, but I’ve also benefited from huge privileges,” says Durham, a native New Yorker who got started as an entrepreneur 20-plus years ago when she was “young, brave and had no mortgage.” Turner began forging her own path a bit later, after working in the fashion industry for 10 years, and Evelyn made her nonprofit debut only recently, in 2019. “That’s when I decided to stop complaining about the state of the world and start doing something to change it,” she recalls. Crafting the Future has now raised enough funds to send 34 students of color to Penland School of Craft this year.  

Keita Turner in a beautiful dress and setting
Interior designer Keita Turner 91 AP grew bored with the cyclical nature of the fashion industry.

Does it take a certain personality type to succeed in business? “You have to be part crazy,” says Turner with a laugh, “and you cannot be afraid of risk.” Durham seconds that assessment, adding, “You have to believe in your own voice, believe that you have something to say.” And Evelyn responds to the question of success by harking back to childhood, when making art was solely about expressing oneself.  

“It’s hard when you see other people getting awards and feel like your work is unacknowledged,” she says. “But that’s not why you’re making work, and it doesn’t matter. Focus on your next personal success instead.”

Simone Solondz

Listen to the recorded panel discussions and learn more about the entire Founders Day series at

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