Leadership is not always comfortable and student leader Lauren Williams is OK with that

Photo: Juan Posada

Photo: Juan Posada

An ArtCenter education is demanding and rigorous and we expect our students to become the best they can be; one student expects the same from us.

Inspired by James Baldwin, who famously insisted on his right to “criticize America perpetually”, Lauren Williams, MFA candidate in Media Design Practices, has participated in the ArtCenter community with a critical eye and a focused determination to leave it a better institution than she found it. Coming from a place of admiration and respect, she resolutely demanded the College face complex and uncomfortable issues of racism, intentionally and directly. Recognizing her leadership and contributions to the College, Williams has been chosen as the Spring 2019 recipient of the Student Leadership Award.

Each term, the College reaches out to the campus population for nominations from peers, faculty and staff. All nominations are considered by a committee of faculty, staff and students and they select the student who most demonstrates leadership through their participation in ArtCenter’s campus life, community outreach, student organizations and department initiatives.

Williams entered ArtCenter in the fall of 2016, a time when institutions of higher education throughout the country were reacting to a new wave of student activism focusing on issues of racism on campus. Although ArtCenter had prioritized efforts to create a more diverse community of people (students, faculty and staff) and thought (curriculum and culture), Williams saw a pressing need to focus on issues of equity—desiring “a learning environment and academic community free of race-related aggressions, small or large, intentional or unintentional; procedures to air grievances and processes to hold aggressors (whether individuals or the institution) accountable when these aggressions do occur; and safe spaces that remind them they belong here.” (antiracistclassroom.com, Our Stories) As a result, Williams, along with fellow MDP students Bianca Nozaki-Nasser and Godiva Veliganilao Reisenbichler launched The Antiracist Classroom initiative (ARC).

Describing the impact of the ARC, a faculty member noted, “Lauren, with her signature forthrightness and dexterity managed to not only build a kind of informal consortium of antiracist entities at ArtCenter – ranging from undergraduate student clubs to individual faculty members incorporating antiracist pedagogy into their classes to library staff assembling archives of art and design work by students of color—but to develop and lead ArtCenter’s first graduate student conference (“Reconstructing Practice”) focusing on antiracist practices in art and design education, for which she also secured institutional funding.”

“Reconstructing Practice” was, in the eyes of one faculty member, “by far the most meaningful and impressive [academic symposia at ArtCenter] down to its very last detail.”

In addition to her work with the Antiracist Classroom, as student member of the College’s Research Committee Williams undertook a comprehensive review of current research practices, interviewing over 40 faculty and staff members and producing a detailed report that included recommendations on how to make the College’s research more professional, ethical and in line with standards at peer institutions. By delivering the report, she singlehandedly completed a project that had languished on the Committee’s agenda for years.

Lauren used what one faculty member described as her “formidable professional skillset,” developed during her pre-ArtCenter experience in the non-profit world, to every endeavor she tackled in her efforts to transform and improve the College.

That background proved invaluable when she signed on as a Teaching Assistant for the then-new Study Away course, Learning from Detroit, which challenged students to conduct community-based research to identify new frameworks and vocabularies for thinking about the city and its role in the US and world. Her experience with qualitative research, policy advocacy and program management proved essential not only to the construction of the curriculum but also the development of community networks in Detroit.

Fellow students who wrote in support of Williams’ nomination admired her courage in tackling difficult issues at the College with unwavering forthrightness, dedication to the community, depth of knowledge and teaching skills and personal kindness, patience and encouragement.

One faculty member was effusive in her admiration, “[s]tudents like Lauren are the reason I teach; colleagues like Lauren are the reason I continue to choose a career in design education.”

Choosing one student to receive this coveted award is always a difficult task for the committee. Each term, there are nominees who are not chosen who have, without question, shaped and contributed to the ArtCenter community in impressive ways and they all deserve recognition for their cocurricular efforts to enhance and improve the College experience for others.

Product Design graduate Anna Meddaugh was nominated for the Leadership Award in recognition of tireless dedication to and support for her fellow students. Entering ArtCenter at the age of 40, Meddaugh worked for 11 different departments at ArtCenter, taking on roles of Student Worker, Teaching Assistant and Peer Coach, among others. Embodying qualities she values in others—be generous (with ideas, praise, encouragement); be respectful, kind and gentle; be truthful—Meddaugh engendered great affection and admiration from the community members who nominated her.

Tito Gonzalez, a first-generation college student and child of immigrants, was a champion for his fellow students. As the student government department representative for the Transportation Design department, he took time to introduce himself in classes so that the students he represented would be comfortable seeking him out if they needed him. Witnessing the toll that the overwhelming workload of one class had on fellow students, he approached department leadership to explain the cost, both financial (when students split the course over two terms resulting in double tuition) and physical (when students would forgo sleeping and eating to complete the required work in a timely manner). The department listened and modified course requirements to a more reasonable level. Tito also worked closely with a past beloved faculty member, Pamela Blackwell, to bring design to impoverished youth communities and planned a showcase of cherished photographs on campus at the 2017 Car Classic from Pamela’s family collection after her death. He was also instrumental in proposing and shaping the Food Insecurity program on campus that provides food and/or prepaid cafeteria cards to any student who is hungry through his work with the Diversity Council.

Nick Laub was recognized by the community for his dedication to his peers as a mentor and leader. He served as a student Orientation Leader for ten terms, participated in student government as a department representative and vice president and worked as a teaching assistant for numerous classes over four departments.

Asli Akdemir was commended for her advocacy, leadership and commitment to the community. Serving in various student government roles and working as a teaching assistant, nominators noted her kindness, generosity and willingness to support her peers as well as her confidence, fearlessness and determination to make a positive impact at ArtCenter.

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