Author | Photos Nika Thompson

OCADU Dean Dori Tunstall on Asking Questions & Decolonizing Design

Elizabeth (Dori) Tunstall is a design anthropologist, public intellectual, and design advocate who works at the intersections of critical theory, culture, and design. As Dean of Design at Ontario College of Art and Design University, she leads the Cultures-Based Innovation Initiative focused on using old ways of knowing to drive innovation processes that directly benefit communities. Dori is presently leading the discussion about decolonizing design at OCAD and around the world.

We chatted with her this week about what it means to decolonize design, and how her new initiative is helping the next generation of students.

SDTC: What have you learned from the students at OCADU surrounding the practice of decolonizing design? How have they helped shape your perspective, and how have you helped shape theirs?

DT: The students push the boundaries of decolonization by holding the institution accountable for the ways in which we do not support them bringing their full selves into their learning experience. They are the ones who show me/show everyone the outcomes of providing an education in which their life experiences are validated and the curriculum does not do their nuanced identities harm. I help them find a language for the possibilities of a decolonizing design, provide access to professional designers already doing the work, and create the conditions in which decolonizing design can flourish institutionally.

For you personally, what does it mean to decolonize design? How did this become a major focus of yours? Can you identify a point where you realized that this was the direction you wanted to head in your career?

I have always had a strong cultural, social, economic, and environmental justice focus. You can ask my relatives. One of my uncle’s nicknames for me is Angela Davis. Decolonizing design means to me right now two things: (1) being an ally to the Indigenous struggle for sovereignty and (2) removing the conditions that make my racialized and Indigenous students feel that they need to choose between maintaining their nuanced identities and be a professional designer. The specific focus on the term decolonize comes from the teaching and administration that I did in Melbourne Australia at Swinburne University of Technology. Because we built Indigenous Knowledge into my Masters of Design (Design Anthropology) Program, I worked closely with Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander instructors and students who demanded a decolonizing approach to design as part of their engagement with the institution.

Walk us through a typical day in your life from getting up until going to bed.

Wake up before my alarm at 6:00 to 6:30 a.m. Read news on phone and check out social media. Decide what I am going to wear and get dressed and groomed. Post my #deandrag photo of the day detailing what I am wearing and what I am doing for the day. My day activities shift between types of meetings: committee meetings, meetings with faculty, meetings with students, and meetings with current and potential outside partners, and sometimes now more interviews and podcasts. The evening is taken up with community events and art/design receptions, with a focus on supporting BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and POC), LGBTQI2+, and art/design events. Go to bed no earlier than 11:00pm. Eating fits in the schedule where it can.

When you reflect on your career; did you end up where you thought you’d be? As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I am doing what I have prepared my whole life to do, which is to create the conditions for social and environmental harmony through learning. My intentionality has not wavered since I was a child. I am surprised to have ended up at OCAD University in Canada, but it makes sense because it is the best place to live out that intentionality. As a kid, I was most interested in being the exobiological specialists on Mars colony. I am not that far from the truth of that desire—to understand different forms of consciousness.

Best (and worst) career or life advice you’ve been given?

Best: frame your intentions (not goals) in the form of questions; thus, you remain open to the different ways in which the intentionality can be actualized. Worst career advice has been ignored and forgotten.

Tell us about your Black Sparks initiative. What has it entailed, who is involved, who is benefitting? Do you have any stories to share about the impact of this campaign?

I launched the 100 x 100 Black Sparks Movement in May 2019 at OCAD U’s GradEx as part of the tours of Black students that I give each year. This special donor group seeks to recruit 100 Black leaders who will commit to contributing $100 CAD a month in support of OCAD University’s Black students, faculty, staff, and community partners. They will receive special invitations to events and, more importantly, help advise me on how OCAD University can better support Black peoples in Toronto, North America, and globally. I am wanting to successfully recruit 25 more Black Sparks by October 1 and all 100 Black Sparks by December 31. ocadu.convio.net/100x100BlackSparks

The idea came from my friend Jerusha Richards a couple of years ago, but I wanted to make sure that OCAD U had demonstrated that we cared about the Black community before asking for something. Last year, we used our Centre for Emerging Artists and Designer’s Design4 Program to place teams of students in seven Black businesses and community organizations: Hxouse, Jane Finch Community Centre, BBPA, Youth Leaps, CrueTV, Operation Pre-Frontal Context, and Warren Salmon’s Ashaware Afrocentric Software. Darren Walker and the Ford Foundation has just contributed the $50,000 USD in order to help ignite two aspects of OCAD U’s Black Youth Design Initiative:

Our Blackreach Program to offer design “Imagine, Make, and Connect” workshops with 8-12 years old Black youth. Funds will be used to subsidize workshops for eight community partners who serve Black youth.

Our Entrepreneurial program through the Centre for Emerging Artists and Designers’s Design4 program. Funds will be used to subsidize the paid placement (at $22 per hour for 10 hours per week) of nine Black students and recent alumni in teams of three within three Black community organizations or businesses. I have already made a verbal commitment to support A Different Booklist.

I have also supported community events through my time, space, and/or sponsorship including: Afrochic 4D, Toronto African Fashion Week, the Caribbean Tales Film Festival, and our annual commitment to the Black Diamond Ball.

What do you love most about your work?

Two things are meaningful to me. As the first Black and Black female Dean of a faculty of design anywhere, I love when racialized and Indigenous young people get that look of possibility in their faces knowing that a women of colour is in this position of leadership and thus they can be too. This is why my Instagram account (i.e., DeanDori_OCADU) and daily #deandrag postings are important for them to “see it so they can be it.”

Secondly, I wake up everyday blissful, but tired because I can authentically live out my values of compassion, justice, recognition, and belonging through the decisions I make and help facilitate every day. It is humbling to be in the room when decisions are made that can impact vulnerable peoples and communities and know that my question, comment, or just raised eyebrow will make a difference to them feeling less vulnerable.

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