Addressing Racial Disparity in Design Education

Audra Buck-Coleman
Associate Professor
Graphic Design Program Director
University of Maryland College Park

How do you engage undergraduates in complex, conflict-ridden issues such as social injustice, racism and police brutality? How can these students co-design meaningful objects and messages around such topics that resonate with its stakeholders and community members? Finally, how can you know if these efforts have been productive and successful? BMORE Than The Story offers one case study of how to answer these questions.

In April 2015, the death of Freddie Gray and his treatment by police sparked anger, protests and violence in Baltimore. People from President Obama to the mayor of Baltimore to countless others called the protesters “thugs” and strongly denounced the Uprising and the destruction taking place. The overriding media narrative was pejorative and full of scorn. West Baltimore schools and their students, including those at nearby Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts (AFSIVA), a public high school, were implicated in the crime and destruction whether they committed it or not. These students lost control of how they wanted to be defined and regarded.

BMORE Than The Story brought together AFSIVA students and graphic design seniors at University of Maryland College Park to co-design an exhibit that would address critical issues in their community: racial disparities, identity, disenfranchisement, equity, oppression, policing and self-agency. The students reclaimed their narrative and voiced counterpoints to the previous year’s one-sided media portrayal. The Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History in Culture in Baltimore, a Smithsonian affiliate, hosted the exhibit April through September 2016.

In addition, project authors incorporated qualitative and quantitative research to assess the project’s effectiveness. Results showed the high school students were empowered by the project and deemed the exhibit highly successful. Lessons include ways to engage students on difficult topics as well as ways to measure the effectiveness of such a project.