By: Chanel Williams, Human Resources professional and AHF’s Social Media Lead
“As a design anthropologist, people always say, “design anthropologist? What do you design?” I say, “I design the conditions of possibility.” – Dr. Dori Tunstall
It was an absolute honour to sit down with Dr. Dori Tunstall, Dean of Design at OCAD University, to discuss her trailblazing work on decolonizing design and reimagining whiteness without white supremacy through art. White supremacy has been defined as the ideology that white people are better, more valuable, more deserving, more competent, more able than people of colour and Indigenous peoples and how this shows up and manifests is by way of power and privilege.
With a Ph.D. in Anthropology, Dr. Dori wears many hats – design anthropologist, public intellect and design advocate. She uses her platform to emphasize respect in design and integrate decolonization into curriculums. Her work has truly paved the way for revolutionary change to happen.
As the first Black Dean of Design anywhere in the world, can you tell us what it’s like being the first?
“The experience of being any first is always bittersweet. The sweetness comes with being able to create the conditions in which another person doesn’t have to be the first. The bitterness comes from understanding all of the institutional and individual barriers that have been in place that have kept myself and other women of colour excluded from positions in leadership.” explained Dr. Dori. “So, it’s always bittersweet. One of my wishes is to live in a world where there are no more first. No more first women in positions and no more first racialized or indigenous people in positions. The world of “first” just shows how much work there has to be done to create real conditions for diversity, equity, inclusion, and decolonization.”
What led you to apply for the role of Dean of Design at OCAD and why Leadership?
“I am always driven by the next challenge” Dr. Dori explained. “In OCAD’s call for the role, they asked for someone who could help facilitate the process of decolonization. I think the term they used was Indigenous revitalization. At that time, I was working hard as an Associate Dean at Swinburne University of Melbourne, Australia helping decolonize design by bringing Indigenous perspective into the curriculum and they have been quite successful in doing that.” With her extensive experience in academia and industry, her next challenge led her to OCAD.
In terms of leadership, Dr. Dori explained, “I’ve always found myself in the position of leadership, even if I wasn’t the official leader. One of my gifts is that I’m very innovative, and I’m sometimes able to see or sense things that others are not able to see, I always see the possibilities. I often aspire to increase my capacity for more effective leadership, to authentically position myself as a leader, and to find that open space by which I help others find their path to a common goal. And so, if you look at my career, in some ways, it’s either increasing the scale of impact or I’m challenging myself and others to navigate more challenging terrain.”
Dr. Dori added that a model of leadership she learned at the Banff Centre is it being like murmurations of a flock of birds. “It’s not that there’s a big bird that’s the leader. If you actually look at the flow and murmurations of birds, it’s really about moving together and sharing leadership.” When flying in the v-formation, the birds in the flock take turns flying lead so that no one bird collapses.
In a talk you do on decolonizing design, you speak to how “if [organizations] want diversity and inclusion, we have to decolonize design so that the practice itself stops traumatizing our diverse students and professionals.” Tell us more what you mean here.
“A brief way to say it is that many activities around diversity and inclusion are just bringing more diverse people into institutional structures that are defined by a white supremacist culture. And exposing them to greater harm in some ways, by saying you’re here and you get to confront trauma every single day because we will tell you how you don’t belong,” explained Dr. Dori.
“I say, decolonization, is the real step to dismantling all of those structures that tell diverse peoples they don’t belong. This is done by changing policies, changing content, and changing practices. Decolonization is about recentering around the Indigenous values of relationality, what it means to have a good life, to be a good person, and to walk in a good way. It’s about learning and living the Seven Grandfather teachings and knowing how to put them into your life.” The Seven Grandfather teachings are Wisdom, Love, Respect, Bravery, Honesty, Humility and Truth.
Dr. Dori expressed the importance of this work for her is about preparing institutions to live under the conditions of Indigenous sovereignty. “We do that by changing the institutions so they are based upon Indigenous principles, Indigenous notions of the good life and Indigenous processes so that when a wider transformation happens, there are places that already know how to do it. It’s not a big shock, we’re not afraid of what we already know, and you don’t have to be afraid of being excluded because the principles create the space in which you are able to self-define and self-express.”
You offer a workshop titled “Whiteness without White Supremacy” where you explore racial equity and anti-racism concepts through art. Tell us why you created this experience and what impact it has had on participants?
“As we were going through this process of transformation [at OCAD], something like 80% of my faculty, at the time, were still white. It was a very difficult place to be, and there had to be a way of responding to white fragility. So, I wanted to create an experience that was generative and self-reflexive. Instead of saying these are all the things that you should not be doing as a white person, I wanted to generate another notion of what it means to be a white person in such a way that you have something to aspire to and aim for.” recalled Dr. Dori. “Being a part of an art institute, the way we generate new possibilities is through making. In this workshop, we set up some concepts including the drawbacks of a white supremacist culture and the antidote values to that. Then we ask participants to create an image representation of someone who is white, who lives the antidote values to white supremacy and then they share back what it is that they’ve made.”
Dr. Dori gives participants options to create. “They could paint, do sculpture, do postering, lettering or writing, whatever creative expression they have seen fit because I want a very specific thing to happen. I wanted to talk about the sensitivities of whiteness by working through it as opposed to being confronted by it. And the experience is often catharsis and one of a kind. There’s a lot of tears, and pre-COVID, there was a lot of hugging that had to happen after the call in and share back.”
What advice do you have for early-career Black, Indigenous and racialized women in their early-careers as they navigate the world of work and workplaces?
“I was given a book titled Tempered Radicals by Deborah Meyerson when I was 27, and it was transformational. It taught me that in order to bring about change, I have to do the work of building relationships, networks and allies within institutions,” explained Dr. Dori. These are the individuals who can help in the cascading of that change when it’s ready to happen. “Especially if you’re not the most powerful person in an institution, these relationships are necessary in order to bring about change and justice.” Dr. Dori’s advice is to create that network of allies particularly in your early-career by having those zoom lunches and engaging in conversations with people in different departments and roles.
Dr. Dori’s work on decolonization of design is revolutionary. Institutions and leaders at all levels need to dismantle oppressive systems to create a space of belonging for all. Undoing the harm that has already been done, will take time, but we must all do our part and continue to work towards dismantling systems, rewriting policies and procedures, creating allies and realigning our personal principles.
Dr. Dori, thank you for your bravery in taking on this transformational work and for continuing to create experiences to help people work through what most fear to talk about. While we must all do our part, taking the lead and leaving a legacy is truly remarkable.
OCAD University. (n.d.). Retrieved March 14, 2021, from https://www.ocadu.ca/academics/faculty-of-design/our-team
Institute, J. (2019, February 06). Respecting our Relations: Dori Tunstall on Decolonizing Design. Retrieved March 14, 2021, from https://jacobsdesigncal.medium.com/respecting-our-relations-dori-tunstall-on-decolonizing-design-d894df4c2ed2