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Design Educator Profile: Terresa Moses

Interview by Lisa Elzey Mercer

Design Educator Profiles
We are excited to share profile interviews highlighting members of the DEC Community, focusing on featuring the many roles we hold as educators in various institutional settings and job titles. In this month’s edition, we share a profile of design educator Terresa Moses.

At what moment did you decide to integrate anti-racism and Black liberation work into your pedagogy?

This is a tricky question only because I think the very existence of Black, Indigenous, and people of color being represented in higher education is a revolutionary act. However, just because of the identity I hold, I can’t say that my curriculum and pedagogical approaches reflected the same anti-racist lens as my research did. Being a design student raised in the same ideologies of the white Eurocentric canon of design education, it was hard to break away from the default, especially when you are given someone else’s syllabi to use for your course. In 2014, I started teaching as a Fellow a year before I finished my MFA, and there wasn’t support around paving your own way of disseminating design education. Looking back, I see this as a disservice to me, the students I taught, and the liberation of my people. Officially, I would say that intentional work to make my pedagogy and curriculum anti-racist was about two and a half years after I first began teaching when I finally felt like someone or something gave me permission to veer away from traditional white-centered topics to create a critical approach to design education. It was like my research, the organizing I engaged with in the community, and my teaching began to naturally merge.

How did your own experience with education impact your work?

Reflecting on my education, things could have been done differently to nurture not only who I was as a designer but who I was as a person. In my own experience as an educator and design practitioner, I have learned that those two things are not separate. The culture of white supremacy holds onto this idea that there is somehow a personal and business life, and that simply is not true. We bring the nuance of who we are into every space we enter. I think that if systems were in place to validate and nurture my holistic designer identity, I would be further along in the impact I now feel like I have agency to make in my work.

How do you center the Black experience for students? Has this evolved for you?

This concept is continually evolving for me but, simply put, unapologetically. When I first started teaching, there was a heavy amount of code-switching happening for me. I tried my damndest to assimilate to white colleagues in teaching style, critique style, and even attendance policies. This approach caused me so much anxiety until I finally came to terms with the fact that no matter how much less African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) I used or how hard of a grader I was, two things were sure: 1) I am still a Black woman, and 2) These performative acts of whiteness weren’t going to change my teaching evaluations or how I might connect with students. I began to navigate that reality amongst my own pedagogical approaches and found that I didn’t want to be just another Black faculty member assimilating to the hegemony. For me, it didn’t make sense to represent Black identity without being true to what Blackness meant to me. I think those ideals rub off in the projects I facilitate and the ways I engage students through communal culture settings, my vulnerability with students, and my ability to bring real life issues into the classroom. Through ways, too many to name, I not only center Blackness but also help guide non-Black students into an ecosystem of education that centers Black liberation and includes their identity.

How does your research impact your goals as an educator?

My design research, practice, and teaching are so strongly intertwined it is almost too difficult to separate those areas in my dossier. But, my work as a community organizer has definitely had the most impact on how I show up as an educator. I take things I learn on the ground, at protests, city halls, and in healing circles, and apply those to pedagogy. Always with the idea in mind that just like I am fighting for justice for the whole of the Black community, I also want to nurture the whole of the student. Their identity, just like my work, is intrinsically connected to the design outcomes. The sooner they understand that the sooner they can walk into their purpose to use their positionality and agency to affect positive change and lead to our collective liberation.

What topic(s) and skill(s) should educators address that would work toward a collective liberation?

Like most educators, my first reaction is to respond with a question (or questions): Why do you do the things you do in the classroom? How are these policies and practices serving you, the students, our communities, our society, or our culture? Are you validating student experiences in the curriculum? Are you providing opportunities to shift power to the student in and outside the classroom? Are you continually learning or do you think you have it all figured out? How are you honoring identities and counter-stories in your pedagogy? How are you connecting cultural impact to student learning objectives? How do you define collective liberation and do your classroom practices support those ideologies?

How do you continue to grow as a design educator?

Honestly, professional development. I am really intentional about conferences, summits, symposiums, keynotes, and books I engage with. And I am doing everything I can to remember every day that I don’t know it all and that I need to continue being the sponge that I so hope the students I engage with are willing to be. A continued access to educational opportunities, supportive groups of educators focused on holistically growing, vulnerability, and humility are really key in my growth as a person and educator.

What are you working on at the moment, and why is it important?

Questions like this make me realize just how much I am doing but also how interconnected it all is. So I am currently working on two books, scheduled to be out in the Fall of 2023. I am also going up for tenure next year and slowly adding employees to my small justice-centered and abolitionist-based design studio, Blackbird Revolt, in Minneapolis. I have some exhibitions and other creative works as well, but I am most excited about the work I am doing in my Ph.D. program at the University of Toronto. When I started my degree in Social Justice Education, my goal was to create a textbook that colleges and universities could adopt to teach design from a Black-centered, abolitionist, and liberatory lens. I am so excited to be at the place in my dissertation where I am now creating the curricular projects I will provide to educators interested in running these projects so I can gather data on the outcomes. Black Liberation X Design is the name of my study, a labor of passion and love that I am excited to bring into the world. If there are design educators who would like to run projects in their courses centered in Black liberation, please reach out! I am looking for people interested in running 4-week projects this April.

Terresa Moses (she/her) is a proud Black queer woman dedicated to the liberation of Black and brown people through art and design. As a designer and illustrator, her work focuses on race, identity, and social justice. She advocates for positive change in her community using creativity as a tool for community activism, like her recent solo exhibition, Umbra.

Terresa is the Creative Director at Blackbird Revolt, a social justice-based design studio. She is also an Assistant Professor of Graphic Design and the Director of Design Justice at the University of Minnesota’s College of Design. As a community engaged scholar, her design research interests include; Project Naptural, which creates spaces to educate, connect, and empower Black women about their natural hair and self-identity, and Racism Untaught, a curriculum model that reveals ‘racialized’ design and helps students, educators, and organizations create anti-racist concepts through the design research process. 

She earned her BFA in Fashion Design and African American Studies at the University of North Texas in 2008. In 2015, she earned her MFA in Design Research and Anthropology. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Social Justice Education at the University of Toronto.

She serves as a core team member of African American Graphic Designers by helping to organize and craft organizational structures. She serves on the executive board of the Black Liberation Lab to co-create solutions that support Black liberation.

This interview was led by AIGA DEC Steering Committee member Lisa Elzey Mercer, Assistant Professor of Graphic Design at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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