“Design, at a very basic level, is a course of action one takes to change existing situations into preferred ones,” says Salem Tsegaye when asked the purpose of design. Tsegaye attributes her expansive definition of design to her Master of Arts in Design Studies from Parsons. She arrived at The New School with extensive experience in nonprofit work, cultural anthropology, and community dynamics. But even with a fulfilling career, she wanted to deepen her understanding of the relationship between culture, art, and design and continue her studies at a university where she was free — even encouraged — to blur disciplinary boundaries.
What Tsegaye did not realize is that at Parsons, where she was surrounded by a forward-looking community of critical thinkers, design was more than a process for developing services, fashioning products, and creating visuals; it was also a powerful tool for effecting change. She explains, “Being exposed to the theoretical foundations of design at Parsons really changed my world. Now I know that art and design — what I think of as creative expression and creative intervention, respectively — are capacities we all carry as humans. They’re means of exercising agency in the world, and I’m committed to ensuring that all people have access to these creative tools.”
Today, as assistant director for the Arts Research Institute at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), and through other projects outside of her day job, Tsegaye supports artists and designers in their research endeavors, conducts research on the benefits of arts participation, explores trends in the cultural sector, and identifies and addresses institutional barriers faced by marginalized populations. She recently helped launch the Racial Equity, Arts and Culture Core, a transdisciplinary group founded through VCU’s Institute for Inclusion, Inquiry and Innovation. The group seeks to redress social disparities and inequities in Richmond while drawing on the transformative potential of the arts. When Tsegaye is not helping the faculty at VCU find the resources they need to carry out creative projects, she can be found working on the editorial team of Createquity, a think tank and online publication that investigates important issues in the arts.
Reflecting on her time as a Parsons student, Tsegaye emphasizes the importance of looking outside one’s concentration or school for inspiration, information, and research partners. “The New School has a rich history as a progressive institution and attracts a phenomenal network of scholars and practitioners — people who really care about the issues they study and who want to apply their work in real time to make a difference. That human capital, paired with a collective energy to effect social change, is invaluable.”
(Photograph courtesy of Terry Brown for VCUarts)