Pursuing Progress, Recognizing Disparity: Reflecting on our Shared Diversity
Dear Cooper Union:
With the focus on Black History Month in February and now on Women’s History Month in March, it feels particularly important to reaffirm our ongoing commitment to ensuring that Cooper acts and feels like an equitable institution. The work of equity, of justice, is continuous, and it’s critical that we sustain our attention and our efforts far beyond the important observances of formal recognition and celebration.
In fact, most everywhere I looked during Black History Month, I saw incredible stories and shared histories of iconic Black lives and everyday people. I also saw stories about the disparity, inequity, and injustice that impact Black lives – disparity in the higher rates of serious COVID-19 illness and deaths and access to vaccines to battle the pandemic; inequity around labor issues like paid sick time and a stagnant national minimum wage that stand in the way of progress toward breaking the cycle of poverty in many communities of color; and the injustice of Ahmaud Arbery’s mother and Breonna Taylor’s mother having to mark a year’s time since a son and daughter were killed. This week, as jury selection continues for the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged in the death of George Floyd, another test for justice begins.
Steps forward. Steps back. We need more collective steps forward – many more.
At Cooper, we celebrated and paid tribute to Black alumni and luminaries who have been part of our community as part of Black History Month and, this month, we lift up the voices and stories of women. More importantly, though, we continue the ongoing examination of our own systems and structures to make deliberate progress and improvements toward a Cooper Union that is an equitable, inclusive, and just institution for all – not only during a particular month of the year or because tragic loss focuses the nation’s attention on the matter at a particular moment in time. The work and the intention must be active and present every day. When we fall short or make mistakes – and we will, given the enormity of our task and commitment – we remain committed to acknowledging and addressing the missteps, fostering accountability and understanding, and growing as part of the learning process.
Below is a look at how, across The Cooper Union, we are connecting to take steps forward. We must carry that work into this month, next month, and the many months beyond together.
Anti-Racism & Equity Work Continues in Academic Programs
In the School of Architecture, the Anti-Racism Task Force formed this summer is furthering the work of its published Manifesto and Call to Action. On Saturday, Feb. 27, as part of Cooper’s ongoing effort to decolonize curriculum and advance anti-racist pedagogies, Architecture faculty, staff, and students as well as student organizers and educators from around the country participated in an Anti-Racism in Thesis Workshop. The workshop explored how the Thesis curriculum can be advanced to work against the discipline’s historic biases and issues of racial, colonial, and patriarchal power dynamics.
In the School of Art, two anti-racism forums are planned this spring, organized in collaboration with the Art Student Council, the Black Student Union, and the Cooper Climate Coalition. On March 12, a student-led forum used Achille Mbembe's text "Decolonizing Knowledge and the Question of the Archive" as a launching point and held a mock crit after watching "Rage Against the Machine x The Ummah Chroma – Killing in Thy Name." Next month, a faculty-led forum on April 16 will open with a discussion of Kemi Adeyemi's April 13 IDS lecture, "Ordinary Energy," which seeks to advance Black queer lives as ordinary and not sensationalized as portrayed in academic thought and popular culture. Register for 4/13 IDS lecture. Register for the 4/16 forum.
In the School of Engineering, a commitment to listening and learning through a series of town halls and virtual gatherings with guest speakers continued in earnest throughout the fall. You can see a summary here. Engineering will host its next town hall on Wednesday, March 31, during which participants will revisit together the Summary of Findings and Recommendations prepared by Cooper’s Diversity and Inclusion Task Force in 2018 to discuss progress made and consider additional initiatives to continue the work.
In the Humanities and Social Sciences, Associate Dean Nada Ayad continues to work with the Office of Student Affairs, the Black Student Union, the Cooper Climate Coalition, and several students and faculty to further the dialogue and learning around intersectional justice, which began this summer as a reading group during first-year orientation sessions. On March 4, the Intersectional Justice series presented “Environmental Reproductive Food Justice: Native Communities Reclaiming Traditional Foods.” The program featured Elizabeth Hoover, associate professor in the Environmental Science Policy and Management department at the University of California Berkeley, whose work focuses on food sovereignty and environmental justice for Native communities. Additionally, the Race and Climate Reading Group began meeting again last week; you can find the full meeting schedule and reading list here.
Additionally, in Admissions, Vice President of Enrollment Mark Campbell has been convening an Enrollment Area Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion to examine the way Cooper’s admissions process and enrollment services efforts can be delivered in ways that recognize and accommodate the needs of diverse populations and enhance students’ experience.
Elevating Diverse Voices, Perspectives & History
Across Cooper – from public programs to alumni events to our Intra-Disciplinary Seminar Series – a host of diverse perspectives are being amplified and celebrated. I’m including links here to programs just passed as well as upcoming opportunities for you to view exhibitions and register for programs.
In late February, a panel of curators and art historians gathered virtually to discuss the legacy of artist, curator, art historian, and educator David Driskell, a pivotal force in bringing awareness to Black artists. The discussion at Cooper was timed to the publication of “David Driskell: Icons of Nature and History” and the first posthumous traveling survey of Driskell’s work.
An exhibition currently on display in the West-facing windows of the Foundation Building pays tribute to Pullman Porters. From their earliest days as the lowest-paid, hardest-working employees of George Pullman’s luxury train travel company to their role in organizing the first Black labor union and setting the stage for the Civil Rights Movement, the Pullman Porters legacy is one of resilience and progress. You can view the exhibition online here along with excerpted remarks from a 1960 speech given at Cooper by Roy Wilkins, executive director of the NAACP, which formed at a conference held in the Great Hall in 1909.
Cooper’s social media pages also highlight alumni from all backgrounds and walks of life on an ongoing basis; here are links to a few recent posts:
- Nithi Subbaian EE’20 ME’21, engineering alumna and graduate student who co-founded Impactful, an online community where young engineers connect with job opportunities in tech for social good.
- Dannielle Bowman A’11, a visual artist and photographer, 2020 winner of the Aperture Portfolio Prize, and contributor in 2019 to The New York Times Magazine’s “The 1619 Project” whose recent work aims to map Black American histories that have remained mostly unspoken and connect them to her own family’s history.
- Awol Erizku A’10, painter, photographer, sculptor, and filmmaker whose recent project was the cover shoot of U.S. National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman for Time magazine and a Public Art Fund installation at bus shelters across NYC.
- Maria Yoon A’94, producer, director, and artist on her performance art project, “Maria the Korean Bride,” which explores what marriage and love mean in America.
- Ashley Bryan A’46, author and illustrator of more than 50 children’s books who has sought to intentionally fill the void of Black representation in children’s literature; he is the 2021 recipient of the Augustus Saint-Gaudens Award, which is presented annually to a graduate(s) of Cooper’s School of Art.
- Samuel Scottron 1878, an inventor who held multiple patents and an activist who wrote often on race relations for Black news publications of his day.
Be sure to follow Cooper on Instagram and Twitter for more.
Of course, the Intra-Disciplinary Seminar (IDS) public lecture series is always a tremendous source of powerful, thought-provoking programming through the lens of wide-ranging, diverse perspectives and presenters, and the spring schedule is continuing that important tradition. Recent programs featured A. Naomi Paik, author of “Bans, Walls, Raids, Sanctuary: Understanding U.S. Immigration for the 21st Century”; Yomaira C. Figueroa-Vásquez, educator and author, on decolonizing diasporas; Candice Hopkins, curator and author, on “Monuments and the Wounds of History”; and Navina Khanna, educator, community organizer, and policy advocate, on “Reclaiming Relationships, Rooting in Resilience.” Upcoming programs include:
- April 10: Malcom Ferdinand, civil and environmental engineer and researcher in the fields of political ecology and environmental humanities, on “Facing the Colonial Toxicity of the World: The Case of the French Caribbean.” Register here.
- April 13: Kemi Adeyemi, educator and author, on “Ordinary Energy” and the Black queer experience. Register here.
- May 8: Nadia Yala Kisukidi, educator and researcher, on “Black Fires: A Philosophy of African Independences.” Register here.
Progress emerges on the other side of many individual steps forward, steps that build upon success and that course correct for setbacks along the way. There is evidence that our collective steps forward continue; and there is evidence that we still have work to do – not only during designated months, but every day. Our world heritage is rich because we are more than the individual, more than one race or culture, more than one expression of gender or sexuality, more than one perspective. I am proud to be in this critically important work alongside each of you.