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When we spoke to Dr. Dori Tunstall, OCAD U’s Dean of Design, just five years ago, decolonizing design education remained an almost fringe concept. But as over 1,000 unmarked graves were uncovered near Canada’s residential school sites in recent years, a reckoning with academia’s colonial history is no longer an abstract goal. Many local post-secondary institutions are now following the path to decouple education from its insidious past, including the practices of forced assimilation that stripped so many of their identity. Since joining OCAD University in 2016, Dr. Tunstall has made impressive strides, applying her expertise in design anthropology — honed at such institutions as Swineburne University of Technology, University of Illinois, Stanford University and Bryn Mawr College, as well as in her work with corporate clients — to create space for diverse voices and nourish environments that celebrate difference. As she prepares for the end of her tenure, we caught up with Tunstall to discuss the next evolution of her mandate to build equity in education: Indigenization.

Dr. Dori Tunstall, Dean of Design at OCAD University

Design anthropology is the driving force behind your pedagogical philosophy. What sparked your interest in the field and how does it inform your work today?

Dori Tunstall

I always had an interest in form and making so I took a lot of art classes, but I was also interested in culture and context. And so, design anthropology combines all my interests in looking at the culture behind the things that people make. It was amazing to be able to pull those things together professionally working in consulting, where my first job was trying to figure out what this newfangled thing called the Internet was going to mean for the way in which people worked and played and interacted and shopped and communicated with one another.

In my work at OCAD U, it’s helping students connect to the meanings behind the things that have been made in the past and the things that they want to make as part of the future. I’m doing less on the teaching side now. Everyone asks me: What do you do? And I say, I design the conditions of possibility. My role, especially in the last six years, has been assembling amazing, diverse peoples.

The Faculty of Design has grown from zero to six full-time Black faculty and zero to six Indigenous faculty after our recent hires. We’ve doubled the number of Asian and South Asian faculty in some of our programs. Maya Desai, in our Environmental Design program, is the first racialized woman to serve as a Chair. Howard Monroe is the first Indigenous person to serve as a Chair in the Industrial Design program. We’ve successfully changed the profile of our faculty, and because we’ve done it through critical mass, we’ve been able to transform our leadership.

You achieved all of this in a relatively short period of time. What challenges did you encounter — and what did you learn along the way?

It really does take a village to make this kind of transformation happen in an institution. This is the work of the Office for Diversity, Equity and Sustainability Initiatives, setting a context for an equity driven approach to DEI. This is the work of our HR teams setting up databases so that we could have people self-identify as part of our hiring records, and providing training for people to understand where differences play in the organization. This is the work of the Board of Governors and the Senate approving initiatives such as cluster hires. My job in many ways was just to help show people what the options would be with less risk. And I learned from my previous institutions that these things are feasible. As a Dean, I had the ability to remove structural barriers that were preventing some of the movement coming from faculty and staff who were wanting greater representation and allow that energy to pass through the decanal stages and spread throughout the institution.

And those barriers weren’t just at OCAD University. In Canada, for example, post-secondary institutions don’t collect detailed racialized data around faculty or students. The other challenge was changing the sense of possibility. One of the things that we borrowed from other institutions is the notion of a cluster hire, where you build a sort of critical mass of Indigenous faculty, then Black faculty, and then more Indigenous faculty and so on. We had to explain to people how that works, and then work with our faculty association to change our Memoranda of Agreement to allow for that structure to happen.

There were some attitudinal barriers in terms of people understanding what it meant to be truly inclusive. One of the main things we realized is that the way in which we hire people entails a lot of assumptions about people having long relationships with the post-secondary sector, across academics, staff and even administration. For some communities, specifically Black and Indigenous communities, there’s been hundreds of years of structural barriers that have kept them from gaining those kinds of credentials. In the case of Indigenous people, it meant, in many ways, losing your Indigenous status.

We still focus on excellence, with an understanding that excellence can happen through your profession or in the context of your connection to community. We’ve taken that into account and created criteria of evaluation that put those things in equivalency with post-secondary academic standards. It was just a matter of having conversations and helping people understand that this isn’t going to be as risky as they think it is.

Image of graphic design student, now alumni, Natasha Assma Ismail Kowo at OCAD's GradEx 107 with her project on Inspirational Women of Colour.
Image of graphic design student, now alumna, Natasha Assma Ismail Kowo at GradEx 107 with her project on Inspirational Women of Colour.

What do these high-level changes look like on the ground, in terms of the way the school operates?

There’s a definite change in the students’ work, and that happened really quickly. Going to my first graduate exhibition in 2017, in some areas of the Faculty of Design, I could not tell what the racial ethnic identity of the students had been. Within three years, that began to change when I began talking about respectful design, in the sense of respecting people’s cultures, different ways of knowing, respecting nature, and the students really embraced that as a way to bring more of themselves into their work. By 2019, the students were really advocating, but there was a little bit of tension between them and their faculty.

But last year, many of my faculty were like, “Dean Dori, come see what we’re doing in our third year or fourth year classes.” And they provided all these amazing examples of how they’ve been supporting the intermixture of the things that they’ve learned, let’s say, as European Bauhaus designers who are masters of the Swiss grid, and combining that with the knowledge and the place of their diverse students so that, for example, we no longer just work with a Swiss grid, but there’s a Lagos grid and a Shanghai grid. If you go to our graduate exhibitions now, in most cases, you will know the communities students are coming from. They’re embracing it — and that’s enthusiastically supported by their faculty.

It must be rewarding to see those shifts happen. Have you noticed that students are more engaged with topics of Indigeneity since adapting the curriculum?

Yes, and their own Indigeneity as well. Everyone is Indigenous to somewhere, right? What we’ve created is an opportunity for students to explore their own histories and heritages — whether that’s from Europe, England, Bangladesh, or Mexico — and given them permission to find inspiration for their creativity through that, as they’re experiencing it in the context of living in extraordinarily diverse Toronto. And because we’re in direct dialogue with Indigenous students, faculty and through the readings, students understand the importance of a sense of place, and that’s a transformation that all of us can participate in in terms of decolonization. It’s less about learning the specific design motifs of the Anishinaabe, although that does happen. It’s more about how we approach our relationship to the land, and through that, our relationship to one another.

The beautiful thing that’s happening now as a community is that many of our faculty who have invisible disabilities are coming out and becoming vocal about that. Students with similar backgrounds are able to see themselves in the faculty, and then feel that they can be supported and succeed in design. By embracing difference in and of itself, we’ve created conditions in which people know that their differences are being recognized and celebrated, and that they can be more forward in bringing those to the table because they know that being different is okay. And that means that wherever everyone goes on outside of OCAD U, they have a language and a confidence to be able to bring their differences into industry, into business or non-profits, wherever they want to engage. And it’s not perfect. There’s still lots of areas that we have to work on. There’s still a lot of stigma around disability and this year, we’re working in a major push to help shift that part of the culture.

What other upcoming initiatives are you excited about?

We’re still focused on decolonization, but, because we’ve built a critical mass of Indigenous faculty, we’re actually able to undergo the next phase — which is Indigenization. All five Indigenous faculty members hired in our last cluster hire have an obligation to also teach in the Indigenous Visual Culture program, so now we’re exploring how to create a sovereign space for Indigenous pedagogy within the institution. We’re searching now for a new executive director of Indigenous Relations. We already have an Indigenous Education Council and are building an Elder’s Council. So, there’s these beautiful transformations that are happening around building a space for true Indigenous ways of being, true Indigenous sovereignty and true Indigenous self-determination within this framework. Some transformative stuff is going to continue to come out of OCAD University over the next couple of years as we explore that.

Black OCADU Homecoming Fete
The OCAD U Black Homecoming Fête took place on October 4th. More than 100 Black faculty, students, staff, alumni and Black Sparks donors and community members came out to celebrate.

When we spoke to you in 2017, you unpacked what decolonizing the curriculum might look like. Has the school’s pedagogy been influenced by those efforts?

Everything has. For the second or third year now, we’re offering the choice of Global Art History or Art of Turtle Island (Indigenous art history) in the first-year program. That’s a very important shift that was directly in response to our students, who come from many places around the world, not seeing themselves represented in that first entry into the life of an artist or designer within OCAD University. We also have a set of Indigenous learning outcomes that a former staff member, Nadia McLaren, developed with our Faculty & Curriculum Development Centre. We had Elders approve it and we’re just waiting for a full contingent of Indigenous faculty to implement them. Now that we have 17 or 18 full-time Indigenous faculty at OCAD University, there’s the opportunity to move further into the process of Indigenizing the curriculum as well.

The concept of decolonization, in some ways, seems to be at odds with the power structures that are inherent to educational institutions. How do you address those hierarchies?

Our assumptions about power cannot be decoupled from the people holding power. In the structure of a white supremacist settler state, like Canada, the problem is that the power is concentrated in one group of people and they’re using it to benefit themselves to the direct detriment of others. When you move diverse people into these positions, they begin to redistribute the power and decision making so that we benefit and engage all communities. Power no longer becomes something that is oppressive, it becomes something that is shared, as the ability to make things happen and make people’s needs and desires and sense of belonging manifest in everything that happens within the institution.

I prefer to think of hierarchies as structural differences. As a Chair, for instance, their primary focus is their faculty and their students. As the Dean, I have to take a broader perspective across all the different programs, the Provost has to look at all the different faculties, and the President has to address not just the academic side but the operational and administrative sides as well. It’s not a matter of flattening those hierarchies. It’s asking, How do we interconnect and make sure that people, all the way up to the Board of Directors who make financial decisions on behalf of the institution, have a view of the broader things that are impacting them?

So, what we’ve been trying to do — and we’re still figuring these things out and making mistakes — is to ensure the flow of information is distributed between these different levels, as it affects the kinds of decisions that they’re making. We have the Indigenous Education Committee — and they have certain communities to whom they are accountable — to guide and advise us in terms of the impact our decisions are going to have on wider Indigenous communities. We’re trying to make sure that we have as much broad representation of many different levels of connection to other communities, so that when we assemble people together in a room to make a decision, we have as many perspectives as possible on how to make sure that decision is supporting, embracing and not harming all of the constituents.

Where the work gets done is understanding who needs what information when, where and how, as it relates to the decisions that they have the power to be making, and making sure that people are in constant relational contact with one another so that those perspectives can be shared.

How can students get involved in decolonizing design outside of the classroom? 

We’re going into our second year of It’s My Future Toronto, a program that gives eight- to 12-year-old Indigenous, Black and POC youth the opportunity to design future possibilities for the City of Toronto. OCAD University also has an amazing program run by the Centre for Emerging Artists and Designers called Design4, which takes interdisciplinary teams of three or four design students who work 10 hours per week during the school term, getting paid $24 per hour, to use their design thinking and making skills to do meaningful projects in the art, design or corporate sectors — and learn how to work in all the ambiguity that happens in industry. At OCAD U, our faculty writes really good and clear briefs, but when you’re working in industry that isn’t always the case. So, students learn how to do their own research to fill in the blanks and set up their own schedules. It’s a wonderful program to engage our soon-to-be professional students into these industry practices and processes.

I’m really excited about some corporate work that we’ve been doing through that program, to develop a curriculum around helping large design organizations practice cultural appreciation and avoid cultural appropriation. And it’s not just a video. The curriculum is really digging deep into the concepts you need to know and what it means for your organization, but also the self-reflection and personal transformation required to change the attitudes that allow cultural appropriation to happen. Even though it’s being done in the context of a corporate client, that’s the kind of work that we can feed back into academia as examples of what it takes for large design corporations to transform themselves so that they are aligned with the values of respectful design.

While it’s great to see these changes happening at the level of post-secondary institutions, what happens when these students go out into the real world where many organizations still have much work to do in this area?

Our students, in many ways, are our best ambassadors for this kind of work. They have been taught to engage in their design process in a very particular way by respecting culture, different ways of being, incorporating a strong sense of sustainability, designing for all relations and drawing from Indigenous ways of knowing. When they work with client partners, they bring this understanding into their solutions. In the client partner’s mind, it’s a small-scale project, so they’re open to those perspectives and all of a sudden, they see how they can begin to change their way of working — not just within this small, low-risk project that they’re doing, but in their other processes.

The industry is also changing. A corporate client we’re working with came to us specifically because of the work we’ve been doing around decolonizing design, with the explicit ask to resolve the issue of cultural appropriation. They felt we had a good sense of how to help them create a culture in which that doesn’t happen anymore, because we impart those same learnings to our students.

As you enter your final year as Dean of Design, how are you reflecting on your time at OCAD U?

I’m definitely flourishing in the sense that this is our second and third harvest of the amazing outcomes of the work that we’ve done to create a better environment for our students, faculty, staff and administration. Winning the Misha Black Award, I was thrilled to have an international body recognize the work that we’ve been doing at OCAD University. Sometimes, we just toil in the work. To know that people have been looking and watching and recognizing that work is really exciting because it means there are more people who are willing and wanting to emulate it.

Your book, Decolonizing Design: A Cultural Justice Guide Book, comes out in February. In many respects, it seems like a fitting way to close your chapter at OCAD U. What can we expect to learn from it?

What I’ve realized is there’s a lot of people who can do the work I’ve been doing at OCAD University. We’ve created a community of leaders to be able to do that work. But there are fewer people who can do the work at the level I’m able to do it with corporations — helping them to decolonize their approach so that they become safe workplaces aligned with the values we’ve been teaching. Being able to focus on creating the ecosystem that supports students of OCAD U is where I feel is the best use of my experience and skills as I transition out of my role.

Writing the book has been really exciting because it incorporates not just the work that I’ve been doing at OCAD U, but also the work I did at Swinburne University and other institutions, around how to prepare yourself as a person, and particularly as a leader, to help decolonize design. In it, I talk about putting Indigenous perspectives first. But as an African American, one of the blind spots that we have, especially if you grow up in the United States, is not always being inclusive or listening to the perspective of Indigenous people, because we led the Civil Rights Movement and feel we are the voice. In the context of Canada, I’ve had to learn to sit down, listen and be quiet — sometimes that’s what the work of decolonization requires you to do.

“I Design the Conditions of Possibility”: A Conversation with Dori Tunstall

In her final year as OCAD U’s Dean of Design, Dr. Dori Tunstall reflects on the push to decolonize — and Indigenize — design education.

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