When Elizabeth (Dori) Tunstall was hired as Dean of the Faculty of Design at Toronto’s OCAD University in 2016, she brought an impressive body of work – and many expectations – with her. As Associate Dean of Learning and Teaching in the Faculty of Design at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia, her previous posting, the South Carolina-born design anthropologist – and now the first black woman to head a design faculty anywhere – pioneered work in areas such as respectful design (as informed by Indigenous principles) and the “decolonization” of design education (by encouraging and helping realize the work of Indigenous and racialized peoples).
The latter concept is among six codified principles in OCAD University’s newly developed academic plan, the others being diversity and equity, sustainability, interdisciplinarity, valuing faculty and health and wellness. Tunstall recently sat down with architect Janna Levitt to talk about the anxieties that decolonizing education sometimes produces, why it’s worth pursuing and what it might mean for students, educators and creative industries.
Your area of study is design anthropology. How did it prepare you for your current job?
I define it as a field that tries to understand how design translates values into tangible experiences. At OCAD University, we’ve identified a core set of values – diversity, inclusion, “decolonizing” the curriculum – and expressed them through our academic plan, then tried to make them tangible through our curriculum, how we do research, the relationships we establish to build communities.
So you’re talking about design in the broadest and highest terms?
Yes, almost in meta terms. But also about the work created by students.
How do you measure successes?
Well, you can gauge whether students, all students, feel a sense of community. Sometimes they’ll tell you, but you can also see it. Are they sitting there in isolation or are they talking in groups? How we construct our physical environment has an impact on this. What we have to be conscious of is whether we’re building opportunities, physical and otherwise, that promote diversity, inclusion, decolonization and sustainability.
So how is that going? You’ve been in your job for a year now.
I always say to people that I’m riding a wave. In the job description for the Dean of the Faculty of Design, experience with decolonizing curriculum and leading that kind of transformation was explicitly requested, so the university was deeply into these conversations before I arrived. The academic plan took a year and a half to ratify and that happened in January. My job here now is to take all of the grassroots energy that has been part of OCAD for a really long time and to remove some of the institutional barriers that slowed the faculty down or led it in directions we no longer want to go.
What are some of those barriers?
Not having enough Indigenous faculty to interweave Indigenous perspectives into our curriculum. Not having enough black faculty to do the same with black perspectives. People of colour are already well represented here but we need to do more. Institutionally, we want to promote an ethos of respectful design. That includes making sustainability a key part of everything we do, considering feminist perspectives, interweaving Indigenous content and principles into our curriculum.
The decolonization push is part of that shift, of creating the structures that allow Indigenous perspectives to be brought to the fore. This past spring, we had a workshop where the faculty went through the core courses for each program and identified where we had Indigenous content and principles and where we needed more.
Some professors could say, “Well, I have Indigenous content because we talk about this designer from Peru,” but there was a realization that we need to do more with regard to local cultures. Among other things, we brought in [Métis architect and academic] David Fortin from Laurentian University to help create a space in which we can have these discussions on a very granular level, like how to highlight Indigenous perspectives through our assignments, in new courses, etc.
Indigenization seems to be a top priority. How does decolonizing OCAD’s curriculum by highlighting Indigenous culture affect, say, students of Chinese or South Asian ancestry?
Colonization was global. There is no place in the world it didn’t touch. So if you are a student of, say, Indian heritage, first or second generation, you also have a history of decolonization, a commonality with, say, one of our Anishinaabe students. In Australia, where I also did research on respectful design, Asian and other racialized students who reflected on their place in the Australian context and on their relationships with the Indigenous communities there in many cases reconnected with things in their own cultures that were ignored or inhibited.
This was especially true in the context of design, where they might have aspired to be a great designer in the European tradition, but all of a sudden had permission to approach the process of making from a place of deep cultural knowledge and deep cultural appreciation. So focusing on the Indigenous perspective doesn’t erase. It opens up more possibilities, to ask the questions like, What is my relationship to the land? Not just the land here, but wherever the land back home was? To whom do I feel kinship in my community here? Who is my new family?
This process of self-reflection about all the relationships you have, which you get from engaging with the questions around the continued colonization of a place and its impact on its various Indigenous communities, brings you to a closer relationship with yourself.
How is this reflected in actual work?
It results in pieces and projects through which students express critical perspectives on their individual identities and on their identities within the Canadian context. Indigenous students at OCAD already have a good foundation for this in the Indigenous Visual Culture program, where faculty members such as Bonnie Devine help give them the space and tools to deal with issues of identity and to express identity through their work.
It is harder to see that in the work of the black students we’ve had, which is why that group is also a focus.
You mentioned faculty workshops and other staff initiatives. Has there been any resistance to the decolonization effort among professors?
I would characterize it more as anxiety. What I mean by that is that it’s coming from a place of “I want to be able to do this, but I don’t have the knowledge, I don’t have the tools, I don’t have the resources.” It is less about, “No, no, no, don’t do this. The Bauhaus is the best.” It’s daunting for everyone because we’re in the middle of a process.
We are redefining what it means to be a great designer. And these types of conversations are happening everywhere. They’re happening in Australia. They’re happening in Latin America. They’re happening in Europe, where I spent much of last summer.
In London, they’re asking, “How do we recognize the colonial legacy we’ve created and the harm it has done, to others and also to ourselves? How do we acknowledge, in London, the presence of those who were part of our colonies? What does that mean for who we are and the way we make things and what we use?” It’s part of the global zeitgeist.
How much of this zeitgeist is market-driven, a recognition of growing demographics and markets?
It’s all still operating within a capitalist/consumerist framework, but it’s a positive phenomenon over all, I think. The whole sustainability movement is also somewhat consumerist, but it’s changing our understanding of how and what we consume, getting us closer to some of these other values that are not about rapid consumerism.
In a similar vein, getting new immigrants to Canada or Australia or wherever to think of themselves less as settlers and more in alignment with Indigenous struggles could result in a paradigm shift that ultimately benefits all citizens.
On that positive note, I’d like to thank you for an interesting discussion.
Thank you very much.