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The Crafting Diversity Initiative

By June 16, 2022No Comments

The Crafting Diversity Initiative

We invite you to read the following Q&A with American Craft magazine and Aaron Beale, Director of Student Craft. Aaron provides an in-depth overview of Student Craft’s Crafting Diversity initiative and what it means for Berea College as an institution. An excerpt of this Q&A appeared in the Summer 2022 edition of American Craft magazine, with the theme Visionaries in Craft.

Why did you (or you and others) start this initiative or organization?
Berea College was founded in 1855 as the first coeducational and interracial college in the South, and its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) continues today as part of its rich and complex mission (Berea’s full mission is stated in eight Great Commitments ). The College’s 129-year dedication to craft is also an enduring part of Berea’s history. Our Crafting Diversity initiative seeks to unite the two powerful legacies of Berea’s mission and history more completely.
When did you start it?
Crafting Diversity was begun in 2018.
Who did you intend to serve?
As a federally recognized work college, all Berea students are required to work at least 10 hours in the College’s Labor Program.  Students work in various positions across campus, and approximately 100 students work within Student Craft in Woodcraft, Weaving, Broomcraft, Outreach, and Ceramics.  The Crafting Diversity Initiative was initially started to improve inclusion and representation of our students of color within the program.

The “Rainbow” baby blanket.  This product, the very first design completed after the adoption of our Crafting Diversity focus, by Head of Weaving Erin Miller and students Wes Hansen ’21 and now Weaving Assistant Emerson Croft ’21, sought to offer a blanket option beyond a gender binary and one reflective of Berea College’s Sixth Great Commitment to gender equality.

What were your initial hopes for the impact or difference you would make?
We wanted our students to feel more connected to the work they were creating—to see themselves as creators and designers and not just as production laborers—and to know that they have a voice and that they deserve to be heard.
Who are you serving, and has there been a change or evolution in this regard?
Through continued work and education, we are now more completely committed to conscious inclusion of a broader understanding of historically excluded populations.  This work is informed by the College’s motto that “God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth” (Acts 17:26).  Within Student Craft, we interpret that motto as a mandate to ensure representation for those populations marginalized because of race, gender identity, sexual orientation, economic status, educational access and more.
What impact are you making today, and how do you know?
The pace of student design and conceptual contributions has increased dramatically, and student engagement with the program has intensified.  Last year, Student Craft enjoyed an 84 percent retention rate of its Labor Program students, which outpaces the College’s overall first-to-second year retention rate in work positions campus-wide.  This suggests that students who work in Student Craft appreciate the new learning opportunities and inclusive changes being implemented.

Students Makaya ’22, Isaiah ’23, Oscar ’25, and Catelyn ’25 work together on this year’s “Intersections” Cutting Boards.  “Intersections” was designed by student Sharon ’21 and uses inlaid circles of wood from different species and different sizes to explore visual representations of diversity and intersectional feminism through our work in the woodshop.

What have been major hurdles/barriers to overcome? Elaborate a little.
The first task we faced was how to incorporate voices and perspectives that had not previously been invited to share.  To address this as quickly as possible, we began a partnership with the talented designer Stephen Burks in early 2019, who, in addition to helping re-invigorate the program with a series of new designs, provided essential representation and shared experience with many of our students.

The other hurdle I hadn’t anticipated and have only just recently come to understand is that many of our students didn’t trust that we really wanted their voices—and not just their labors—to be included in the work of the program.  As a person who has always been privileged because of my race, gender, and economic status, I very naively thought we could just invite our students to step forward creatively and expect that they would jump at the chance to contribute.  Berea always seeks to bring its students from, in the words of the late bell hooks, from margin to center.  I’ve learned that empowering such a journey is not always so easy. We have had to earn students’ trust, and we will continue to work toward sustaining it.

Where would you like to see the organization go in the near, and far, future?
I like to think that after four years on this specific path (reinforced in particular by the College’s Fifth Great Commitment to interracial education), we have almost completed our foundation on which to start building a future.  I believe the vast majority of our students feel safe, heard, respected, and valued within the program.  Perhaps half of our students who work in the program recognize that they are creatives, that they do carry artistic talent and skill within themselves.  That’s a very exciting start.  The goal for the future needs to ensure that everyone continues to feel empowered to share ideas and perspectives.  For that to happen, we have to recognize that this work has no finish line.
What, if anything, has surprised you about your organization’s path to the present?
As Dr. Linda Strong-Leek, the College’s former Provost and former Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion, reminded me many times, we call it “(DEI) work” for a reason. I regrettably thought the steps we have taken would be much easier than they have been. While I know I will never fully understand the barriers and difficulties that the majority of the world has to face every day, if I want to make the world a more equitable place, I have to remain committed to conscious inclusion at every opportunity.
Anything else you want us to know?
Without the work, commitment, talent, and dedication of the entire Student Craft Program staff, we wouldn’t be standing on a solid foundation ready to build toward a more equitable future.  The team includes:

  • Emerson Croft, Weaving Assistant
  • Steve Davis-Rosenbaum, Head of Craft Education and Outreach
  • Hunter Elliott, Head of Apprenticeships
  • Erin Miller, Head of Weaving
  • Jedidiah Radosevich, Woodcraft Assistant
  • Chris Robbins, Head of Broomcraft
  • Rob Spiece, Head of Woodcraft
  • Philip Wiggs, Head of Ceramics
Student Craft Staff 21-22

Berea College Student Craft Staff. Left to Right, Steve Davis-Rosenbaum, Jedidiah Radosevich, Chris Robbins, Philip Wiggs, Aaron Beale, Emerson Croft, Erin Miller, Rob Spiece, Hunter Elliott

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