Saturday, January 2, 2010

Fighting fire with fire

Not only is it a new year, it's a new decade. While I must admit that I am ecstatic that this is the first in many years that I am not in school pursuing a degree, I felt a need to post this note as a final bookend to my eight years of fighting (for the right!) to formulate my own educational experience while at Harvard.

In October, Quilian Riano and I gave a lecture at Cornell called 'Dispatch from GSD: design as social activism,' sharing our experiences with the student group Social Change and Activism (SoCA) at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD). And just before Christmas I agreed to be an advisor to the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) chapter at the University of Ghana, Legon; we had a fascinating conversation about how students can most effectively advance their own interests within an administration that can at times seem deaf to students' voices. In instances like these, students who *are* still in school have asked for more information about how we challenged the administration to prioritize *our agenda* alongside what *they* considered important: in my case that meant to balance starchitecture, techno-formalism and what I like to call 'fancy-pants design' (hyper-expensive art museums and grossly unrealistic 'visionary' urban design proposals) with a commitment to community design, diversity and the social dimensions of design. Here is my take on the problem and countermeasures that worked for me.

Problem =

Universities, typically, are conservative institutions. I do not mean in terms of politics. What I mean is that the conventions that most tertiary institutions adopt are designed to ensure that the school will protect (the sanctity of) the 'academy': the mechanics that govern how the school operates seek to guarantee that the school will last for generations. You may say, 'Well that means the school needs to change in order to survive.' Sure, that is true. But (most) schools are designed to change very slowly. Universities have a (near-)infinite time horizon, whereas students are only students for ~4 years.

What that translates to for the student or student group that wants their school to better align with their own interests, ways of working or perspective on the world is that the school as an institution is built to resist you.

Countermeasures =

1) Win respect -- In my experience, professors are arrogant. They are the enlightened ones that students pay to receive the light of truth. As a student, by default, the faculty are unlikely to respect you let alone consider input from you. (To be fair, they are also jaded; you would be too if you taught the same thing to different students, year after year). If you want faculty or the administration of your school to listen to you, the best step you can take is to earn their respect. Take your coursework seriously. Listen before you talk. Respect your teachers or they will never respect you. Challenge them openly when you disagree--after you take the time to put your thoughts in order--and offer alternatives.

2) Build counter-institutions -- As I said above, if a single student raises an objection, (maybe) a professor or administrator will listen to them. But unless there are potential legal implications, they are unlikely to act in response to that objection. If a group of students raise an objection, they are even more likely to have the administration listen. But they are not necessarily any more likely to generate a response from the administration. That is because in both cases, the institution-apparatus knows--even if only unconsciously--that in a few short years, those students will graduate (or leave) and so will the objections. But (most) institutions will pay more attention when they recognize that they are facing a counter-institution, an organization that may last longer than the tenure of a single student, a group that may be able to sustain resistance for a period that begins to approach the infinite time-horizon of the Institution itself. The longer the counter-institution is likely to last, the more the institution will pay attention. This is the reason why companies instinctively seek to subvert unions.

3) Write memos -- Once students organize into collective bodies and reach consensus about how to structure that organization over time, the true groundwork is laid to fight fire with fire. In my opinion, the single-most powerful action that students can take is to write memos. I understand that this may seem underwhelming or even flat-out wrong. Maybe this shows the world that my generation and the even newer generations now live in... While I was at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, a group of GSD students became increasingly alarmed by not only the limited diversity at the school (at first glance, the student body is overwhelmingly international--which it is--but there are essentially no black, Hispanic or Native American students from the United States) but also the lack of any legible commitment by the administration to address the problem.

I remember discussing this with older black alumni from the GSD who said we should organize protests, or a sit-in, something loud and noisy that would panic the school into taking action. Instead, we began a years-long process of working with and for the administration on the problem. After years of writing memos (plus attending meetings and organizing lectures and symposia) the school's attitude on diversity has improved remarkably. The admissions office now aggressively recruits nation-wide and works with alumni to cast a wide net for potential minority applicants. The school funds a student-led Saturday school and summer design program for under-represented minority high school students, GSD student attendance at annual conferences of the National Organization of Minority Architects, and the new(ish) Dean Mohsen Mostafavi has set-up a Dean's Advisory Committee on Diversity to which he seems genuinely dedicated. If students want a seat at the table, demanding it by yelling in a loud voice is not always the most productive strategy. Write memos instead--that is how institutions work: memos can be circulated and archived; memos are non-confrontational and cooperative; memos are constructive. I am in the camp that says, work *within* the system: that is how you fight fire with fire.

4) Recognize your power -- I always tell students, 'Don't be brainwashed.' The University will tell you that they have all the power, and the student body does not. That, however, is bogus. In private institutions, it is the cash money of collective tuition fees that make the school's budget function. In the case of public institutions, the express mandate of the entire system is to serve the students, preparing the next generation; the student body does not exist to serve the school. That does not mean you should abuse your power--that is how you become irrelevant. Rather, it means refuse to be discounted or dismissed.

In 2005, as a group of us began to explore what SoCA could mean as a student organization--how we could best advance issues of social responsibility and diversity at the GSD--Laura Crescimano and another student John Taylor said: have an open dialogue with students on the subject--and then write a memo. Laura gave me a copy of a memo she and Women in Design had written to the administration (see below) and I used that as a model. Since then, thanks to Laura C., I now always tell students--'Write memos!'--and students say--'What are you talking about?'--so I have uploaded a cross-section of memos that myself and other students wrote to the administration at the Harvard Graduate School of Design between 2005 and 2008. Not because I think they are exceptional, but because I have always found precedents helpful... If you are a student trying to challenge your school to be more open-minded, scan the PDFs linked below to see examples of how we tried to formalize our voices as students and fight fire with fire.

(above) Agenda for Open Dialogue on Social Responsibility, which evolved into SoCA's 4-year plan


Kwadwo Osseo-Asare said...

Ayekoo; waye ade!

Yaz said...

This is a brilliant post Dk! It makes me reflect on... mobility and the adherence to places.

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