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Diversifying Design: Parsons Launches Black Studies Conference



Funmibi Atanda-Owo

Parsons senior Funmibi Atanda-Owo sees "Black Studies in Art and Design
Education" as a great first step.

After four years at Parsons, Design and Management senior Funmibi Atanda-Owo has seen the university make strides in creating a community for African-American students like herself.

Still, she admits, there is more work to be done.

“Diverse students need to feel welcome here,” Atanda-Owo says. “The community needs to be stronger and tighter. When my group, Students of the African Diaspora, was established last year, I was happiest for freshman who’ll be able to rely on it for four years.”

That insight explains why she is delighted to be one of the speakers at the upcoming conference, “Black Studies in Art and Design Education: Past Gains, Present Resistance, Future Challenges” on March 26 and 27. Atanda-Owo will share experiences from her years at Parsons—what the opportunities and challenges have been, what the curriculum and social landscape are like, and what changes she advises Parsons implement to foster an inclusive environment in which all students can excel.

Organized by professors Coco Fusco and Yvonne Watson, “Black Studies in Art and Design Education” will address the fact that Black communities continue to be a marginal presence in art and design schools worldwide, even though Black artists and designers are on the cutting edge of contemporary culture.

In addition to Atanda-Owo, participants include artists Pepón Osorio and Damon Rich as well as Parsons professors Bill Gaskins and Leslie Hewitt; industrial designers Stephen Burks, Noel Mayo, and Parsons professor Tony Whitfield; and scholars Mabel Wilson, Craig Wilkins, Leslie King-Hammond, Jennifer Gonzalez, and Susan Cahan.

“The artists, designers, and scholars we have brought together for this conference share a commitment to finding ways of making Black Studies part of every student's education,” said Fusco. Fusco feels that Parsons is the ideal institution to address these critical issues, due to its location in a university with a longstanding commitment to social justice and in a city with one of the largest urban Black populations in the country.

Recognizing that it could be a leader in increasing opportunities for art and design education, Parsons established the Pre-College Scholars Program in 1997. Parsons Scholars, as the program is known, provides full tuition for New York City public school students to attend pre-college preparation programs at Parsons. The majority of these scholars come from groups underrepresented in art and design, including 40 percent who are African-American. In 2007, Parsons launched a diversity initiative with three related objectives: increase the numbers of diverse students, faculty, and staff; create a learning environment where diverse perspectives thrive; and achieve institutional change through policies and procedures that recognize the need to increase representation in the art and design community.

Change comes slowly, but Funmibi Atanda-Owo has already been inspired. Although she will graduate in a few months, this Maryland native hopes to remain in New York where she can guide future generations of Parsons students and create professional connections to advance the careers of diverse students in art and design.

“We still have a lot of work to do,” says Funmibi. “I’m looking forward to next year when I can come back as an alumna and help new students get more comfortable and find a community. This conference is a great first step.”

“Black Studies in Art and Design Education” will take place at the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Auditorium at the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center at Parsons, 66 Fifth Avenue, New York City. It is free and open to the public. For more information visit the conference website.




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