During the Fall 2015 semester, I had the amazing opportunity to attend a breakfast and luncheon with artists Sonya Clark and Tyree Guyton. The two artists visited the school to talk with Stamps students about their work and experiences.
The occasion was breezy and casual, and content powerful and revitalizing. The chance to hear Sonya Clark and Tyree Guyton speak in such an intimate setting (there were only 15 of us: 2 faculty members, 3 staff, and 10 students) was incredible. Typically, artist talks are all about one-way communication, with the artists delivering information lecture-style. But this was different. Our conversations with Sonya Clark and Tyree Guyton were dynamic, a true dialogue, with both artists genuinely interested in hearing our stories and perspectives.
As a creative of color studying at Stamps, there are definitely obstacles. For the most part, faculty members are warm and friendly and the administration values you (as much more than a token), but there are key issues that are inevitable when you're usually the "only one" in the room. Today, "diversity" is both a buzzword and sales hook. It's what everyone wants to hear, though not much critical discussion surrounding its implication or application are tested or even questioned. The concept of the only one has recently started gaining more traction, especially in the creative world. The concept, though new to some, has never been new to those of color, especially creatives. Being the only one, can burden you with the responsibility of representing whatever ethnic identity you either choose to represent or are expected to represent, all while demonstrating complete fluency in the ways, histories, and logic of the majority. As Sonya Clark puts it: you are forced to be bilingual. This is good for you in terms of skill but gets to be discouraging for the spirit. Discouraging because of the extra burden constantly weighing on you to be educator, student, cultural representative, and just like everybody else in order to relate enough to be able to communicate.
Learning to navigate being the only one is a necessary part of being at the university for most students of color, and as a result we learn to effortlessly navigate in and out of a variety of different spaces, some we identify with and some we don't. But it can get discouraging, and the opportunity to meet other creatives of color that relate is invaluable, if only for the motivation to keep going. Finding the support is the tricky thing, when you are the only one. But once you find your community, those you identify with not because you share the same ethnic identity but because they too recognize the struggle and take comfort in being able to discuss it.
That's where Stamps In Color comes in. This new student organization aims to increase the creative, social, and professional opportunities for students of color in the school through fostering community. The organization is not solely for self-identified students of color, but for all students, staff, and faculty that value the role of diversity in the future of the school. Stamps in Color's main function is to provide engaging programming that not only creates dialogue and subsequent action. Past events have included artist talks like the one with Sonya Clark and Tyree Guyton, and future events include a Stamps MLK exhibition called Agents of Change and an alumni/current student dinner. Stamps in Color is committed to making the Stamps School of Art & Design a more inclusive space for all students. In order for diversity to be more than just a buzzword, it needs to be understood more which can only come from more discussion, even when it may be controversial. As a result, we'll all become bilingual, or, better yet, polyglots.
Amy Kamdem-Wandji is a senior at the University of Michigan pursuing a dual degree in Art & Design (Stamps) and International Relations (LSA). She is a student organizer for Stamps in Color, a new student organization that aims to increase the creative, social, and professional opportunities for students of color through community-building.