Inaugural Address

Before I was a poet, I was a person who wrote poems, a non-traditional adult student at NYU with a full-time managerial job during the day who took classes at night. One day, I was sitting in the program director’s office with Ruth, a poet whose poetry class I was in. As we were talking about my poems—or what I called poems at the time—Ruth observed: “You have an innate talent for language and, specifically, sound. Everything you write reflects this, and yet, the content of your poems remains superficial, which you get away with because what you write sounds so good. But there is an entire world beneath the words you are writing; that is where the poem actually resides. Just something to think about.”

I left her office, walked down the steps, out of the building, and onto Washington Place and got a block away before stopping, unable to move. Understanding rooted me and bloomed suddenly. Did I want to be someone with an innate talent who got by—who wrote approximations of poems that sounded delightful but didn’t say much? Or did I want to be a poet?

To be a poet, or any artist, requires infinitely more than simply having and expressing innate talent. It requires emotional, intellectual, and disciplinary knowledge. In my case, it would require that I dig down and unearth the muddle of our lives to uncover a common core, realizing new emotional and psychological spaces. It would require that I contextualize, make relevant, and speak the unspoken—to and perhaps for others. I thought to myself: You‘ll have to be a truth-teller. You’ll have to acquire new tools, new skills. You’ll have to get out of your comfort zone.

Do you want to work that diligently, that deeply? I wondered. Do you want the world to see what you really think, to know what you believe and feel? Is what you have to say worth saying? Can you help make this a better place? Do you want to?

To be honest, I didn’t have an immediate answer. I wish I had. It would make for a dramatic retelling. Instead, befuddlement and fear swaddled me, which often is the case when faced with new spaces, new states of being, and realities. Ultimately, I unrooted myself and shuffled home in silence. The following morning though, an answer: Yes.

To the 2,620 students at Rhode Island School of Design: Each of you is here because you have innate talent, and because, at some point, when challenged, you answered yes. To the 600 faculty members—makers, designers, scholars all—you’ve posed those challenges, to generations of students, these brilliant points of light who come to us on the precipice of ignition. And to the 685 staff members—many artists and designers yourselves—you have supported and amplified the work of our students. We are all here, collectively, in pursuit of yes.

At RISD, we are here to enable, embolden, and amplify talent through visual, material, and intellectual means. We imbue young talent with the skills, knowledge, habits of mind, and action that help transform innately talented individuals into artists, designers, and scholars who change the world. It is worth stating that every fabric you touch, every piece of apparel, every earring, tool, painting, sculpture, film, animation, every poster, every program pamphlet, every park or building you walk in, every TV show, album, play, book. Everything seen, heard, felt, and read, is the work of artists and designers.

And in a societal context: Can you imagine a single national or international movement in which the arts were not a motivating and defining force? I have tried and cannot. For instance, in this country, the Civil Rights movement is often characterized as being driven by orators and attorneys, and activists. And yet, when you unpack the requisite strategic components of the movement—beside the visionaries, activists, and strategists were yet other visionaries, activists, and strategists: these ones narrating, depicting, and influencing via graphic design, visual arts, performance, literature, film, and television. Their work galvanized the imagination, influenced perceptions, and helped to drive real change.

Those are just some of the seen ways our work impacts the world. The unseen impact of our thinking—our ideas—challenges the status quo, eschews calcified thinking, and asserts new aspirations for how humanity can and should be. And those ideas are everywhere. In global corporations. In technology. In non-profits. In education. Everywhere. We are the light makers—and the light. Literally.

So, this isn’t superficial work. This is serious business. Arts and culture sectors added nearly $900 billion to the American GDP in 2020. Creative people regenerate neighborhoods, revitalize cities, connect communities, and imagine new futures. That is who we are and what we do here. And that is what we have been doing for almost 150 years. Our students, our thinking, and our work imagines, creates, and embodies new possibilities and, in so doing, effects change. And that is why and they are why I am so humbled and honored to be the 18th president of this astonishing institution.

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RISD’s origin story emerges from the minds of women who, in 1877—well before women could vote—believed the arts are drivers of human invention, connection, and enterprise. We proudly carry a vanguard past, inhabit a vanguard present, and are co-defining and co-creating a vanguard future.

There is a great deal of talk about the historic nature of my appointment. That I am the institution’s first Black president is indeed significant. I, too, am now part of RISD’s histories—the vanguard, capacious, and beautiful histories and the exclusionary, inequitable, and unjust histories too. These realities co-exist and underscore the complexity of human experience, the complexity of institutions, the complexity of art and design education, and the complexity of RISD.

Because of the work I’ve long done in the academy to ensure all people can thrive, I knew, intellectually, that representation is powerful. But I didn’t know until I began engaging all our students, staff, alums, and community members what my appointment meant to so many at RISD and beyond. That has to do with me. A Black woman. A poet. A teacher. A change-maker. But in my estimation, the bigger story, beloveds, has to do with you, with us. Our collective endeavor. Our collective aspirations. The new spaces we want to create and inhabit.

So now, let me begin to talk about our collective dream space, what defines our aspirations, and what more we, as an institution, say Yes to.

Over the past six months, I have been met with an excited, exquisite hopefulness and optimism. We are galvanized around a forward-looking dream about what must become a reality in art and design for the 21st century: art and design spaces, classrooms, and practices that reflect the full breadth of human dynamism; states of being undergirded by a belief that what makes us distinct from one another is precisely our strength, and from these distinctions emerge new spaces, new possibilities, new answers, broader knowledge, better and more dynamic art, and design.

I hear a beautiful community-wide chorus that envisions a campus and culture where the principles, goals, and outcomes of equity and inclusion are centered and central. A chorus that desires to inhabit and co-create a teaching, learning, and working environment where racism, ableism, classism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and other social scourges are expunged as inadequate intellectual and creative frameworks for the 21st century.

So, that I am here is historic. Yes. That we are here is historic. Yes. There is a great deal of good work for us to accomplish here at home as an institution and there is a great deal of good work for us to undertake out in the wide world of art and design. So, among our priorities will be to map onto and weave throughout everything we do our community’s commitment to and aspirations concerning social equity, inclusion, and diversity.

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What else do we dream? I want to share five interconnected and sometimes interdependent themes as we set the stage for RISD’s next 150 years: Amplify, Evolve, Cultivate, Engage, and Connect.

We seek to amplify the world’s most promising and impactful creative people. Therefore, a student’s ability to attend RISD must not depend on family resources. Increasing financial aid and scholarships ensures that the most exciting undergraduates and graduates worldwide can attend. Once here, we’ll think about the holistic student experience, making the invisible costs of attendance a moot point for students such that financial resources are never impediments to full participation. And as we focus on amplifying the whole individual—we must also focus on holistic wellness and develop an infrastructure with curricular and co-curricular implications that allows us to amplify the whole person and the many and varied differentiated needs of our students to include redoubling our efforts to support first generation to college students, international students, neurodiverse students and students living with disabilities, among other populations. This framing, of course, implies an ongoing commitment to evolve.

For us, to evolve means, we continue to ensure our teaching expansively reflects the world’s great art and design traditions, enables a more sustainable planet, and integrates and capitalizes upon emerging technologies. It means expanding our degree-granting programs to include online and low residency programs, which extend our reach and create broader access, and hiring additional clusters of excellent faculty focused on knowledge bases such as First Nations, North Africa/Middle East, the Asian diaspora, sustainability, and disability studies. In so doing, we rapidly advance and infuse fields of knowledge-making across the divisions, further incentivizing an institutional orientation. Moreover, it means capitalizing on our intimate size and expansive thinking to cultivate an Institute that incentivizes collective interrogation, catalyzes surprising convergences, new investigations, discovery and invention.

To cultivate also means tending to the development of the full range of our students’ potential and bolstering our commitment to developing all of their creative and professional possibilities. It means building more robust, strategic, and integrated relationships with our alums and corporate partners and creating ambitious institutional initiatives such as a post-grad incubator focused on entrepreneurship, VC engagement, and technological innovation.

Cultivating our people also means that we continue to build on existing support for faculty research and the professional development of staff, and that cultivation of potential be in service to the individual and the wider community.

Indeed, RISD is essential to and engages many communities—the global art and design community, the art and design educational community, and the Providence community. And we have a responsibility to not only continually evolve but also to engage in our various communities and leverage our knowledge and influence to foster and advance principles-aligned progress. This will include the expansion of our national and global reach, our lifelong learning endeavors, and our commitment to advancing justice in its multiple iterations—including social, climate, and design justice. It will include the expansion of key partnerships and initiatives. It will consist of hosting more global convenings like the New Space(s) symposium and the development of a RISD in the World platform meant to enable fuller participation of our students worldwide and develop exciting programs that advance our core mission. One of our most important points of engagement is the RISD Museum. With our Museum leading the way, we will continue to expand programming, public engagement, and enactment of our institutional values that both embody our social equity and inclusion principles and serve as an example to museums worldwide of how thoughtful, ambitious, community-inclusive curation and stewardship can and should look.

Finally, and perhaps most essentially, art and design emerge from and respond to human context. When I arrived here in April, I quickly learned that one of RISD’s distinctive characteristics is that we long to connect, to form meaningful, strategic alliances with each other. Alums want to be connected to students. Students want and need to be connected to alums. Parents want to connect with the school. Departments want to find points of overlap. To us, our interconnections and interdependencies, our communities, are elemental. So over the next years we will focus energy on developing means by which our multiple communities can further cohere in service of amplifying, cultivating, evolving, engaging and connecting.

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One of the mottos I live by is a quote from a line of poetry written by Gwendolyn Brooks, America’s first Black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. It’s taken from a poem titled Paul Robeson—one of this country’s first and most influential Civil Rights activists and a performing artist and attorney. They, too, were firsts. And, as Black people, they shared one of America’s dominant histories. So, the poem, as good poems do, manifests multiple levels of meaning—a meaning directed towards all human beings no matter where or who they are and a meaning and message directed at family who share a common experience. Brooks wrote:

“We are each other’s harvest. We are each other’s business. We are each other’s magnitude and bond.”

In these six months, I have learned that ours is a community primarily defined by people who live in the light of this quote, who believe in our mutuality, collective amplification, and service to each other and the wider world.

This weekend is an example of the power of the RISD community to work collectively to advance our goals. Students, staff, and faculty defined the New Space(s) symposium theme, developed its infrastructure, and operationalized this magnificent celebration of all that RISD is and hopes to become. And so, beloveds, I want you to see what our community, what collective action and collective work looks like here at RISD. When I call you, please stand. Co-chairs Becky Ebeling and Brooks Hagan; faculty leaders Ijlal Muzaffar, Avishek Ganguly who worked over the summer to bring the theme and panels to life, Operations Committee members, Advisory Committee members, deans, department heads, panelists, museum colleagues; and all faculty, staff, and students volunteers who in any way worked to make this weekend happen; Kyra Buenviaje who designed this presidential robe, and any of our alums who helped to design our New Space(s) website and visual identity: Thank you!

When I look at this group, what I see is the very best of Rhode Island School of Design. I see a group that represents our collective “yes.” I see a group that reflects the best of what we can become. Thank you.

What more will we become in the future? Stronger. More cohered. More connected. An institution aligned to a jointly held set of principles where all endeavors animate and elevate our key goals, a RISD that continues to nurture the world’s most influential artists, designers, and scholars; an institution that cultivates all of its members’ aspirations; an institution that prepares its students for their non-linear, complex, beautiful and gorgeous lives and prepares them to be effective and powerful citizens and actors on the world stage, effective business owners, makers, producers; an institution that has broadened its access and is at the vanguard of online education; an institution that engages technologies in service of art and design, and an institution that embraces evolution. A place of great joy, great celebration, and extraordinary innovation. A place where everyone is fully seen, valued, honored, and served. Where we ask hard questions of one another out of ambition for the innate talent before us, a place where complexity is celebrated and inventive answers revealed. RISD is a place of ineffable potential that exists beyond the imagination and resides in the heart of all that is possible. To the board: Thank you for your confidence in and support of my leadership. I am thrilled to be here and look forward to our work together.

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Thank you for being here—students, trustees, staff, faculty, parents, alums, patrons, collectors, entrepreneurs, and beloved friends. Thank you for supporting what we do here at Rhode Island School of Design. And I want to again welcome you into our vision and dreams for the future of RISD. This is a collective effort, just as our work serves the larger collective. We welcome you into our evolution. We welcome you into our amplification. We welcome you into our cultivation. We welcome you into our engagement with and in the wide world. When we see each other. When we honor the potential in others, when we serve each other and ask ourselves and others hard questions, our possibilities are boundless.

Indeed. "We are each other’s harvest.” Yes. “We are each other’s business.” Yes. We are each other’s magnitude and bond." Yes.

—President Crystal Williams’ Inaugural Address, October 7, 2022