Black History Month


February is Black History Month and every year when it rolls around, so many of us experience a complex mixture of emotions: pride, of course, in the long history of courage and accomplishment and pleasure in the opportunity to celebrate that—but also frustration and distress at the slow path of progress and the recurring and remaining inequities. Some believe there ought not be a separate month devoted to Black history because, as they say, “Black history is American history.” And so it is.

In that context, the history of Black History Month is quite ironic because its creator—a pioneering Harvard-trained historian named Carter Woodson—neither expected nor wanted it to last. A man born of slaves, Carter Woodson saw that the books he studied either ignored or distorted black history in the United States. His goal was to correct the racist bias implicit in the work of most white scholars at the time and to objectively write the black American experience into the history books. And so he created what he called “Negro History Week,” which he situated between the birthdays of Frederick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. He was convinced that soon enough, black Americans and their history would enter the nation’s mainstream so that a special day, week or month would not be necessary.

And so here we are, 153 years since the Emancipation Proclamation, 53 years since Dr. King offered his great dream, 90 years since the establishment of Black History Month. In the era of “Black Lives Matter,” I cannot help but wonder what Carter Woodson would think today. His “week” was expanded into a month by President Ford in 1976—the year of the country’s bicentennial—and indeed, we do use the occasion to pay tribute to the generations who sacrificed so much in the name of freedom, and to celebrate the vast range and scope of black accomplishment in our history. But clearly it has been a far longer journey than Carter Woodson envisioned all those years ago. As President Obama reminded us not that long ago, “…this dream of equality and fairness has never come easily.” Indeed, in this era of “Black Lives Matter,” of continuing injustices and disparities, it seems to me that it is important to know our history so that we have a context for reflecting on today’s events. And if marking a time on our calendar acts as a prompt to do so, then perhaps, even 90 years later, Black History Month is still doing its job—it matters.

» Read more about Black History Month at the Library of Congress

Images from the Library of Congress

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Chalk! It Up


At commencement last year, I spoke about the thousands of rush hour commuters on a Washington DC subway platform who never noticed, much less stopped, while world-famous violinist Joshua Bell played Bach. Yet here, on the Seventh Avenue sidewalk outside FIT—at almost any time of day or night—busy passersby are stopping, or at least slowing down, as they notice our walls. What captures their attention is our Chalk! project—the large-scale exuberant images that run in a single, head-high band along the exterior wall of Pomerantz—all produced by our senior illustration majors and alumni in brilliantly colored chalk. I must say, it is pretty hard to miss, even if you have your nose pressed to your Smartphone.

Chalk!, which is overseen by illustration Professors Dan Shefelman and Richard Elmer, is now in its third year. From the start it was a great success and so it has become something of an end-of-semester FIT tradition. As FIT’s proud president, one of my favorite aspects of Chalk! is that it demonstrates to passersby the serious, rigorous work that goes on inside our walls—and allows them a glimpse, as well, into the sometimes vivid, colorful and surprising nature of that work. I occasionally linger nearby and watch people enjoy the mix of work the project puts on display. The colors are intense, almost leaping off the stone. The range of styles is wide, including everything from the abstract, to the comic, to representational portraiture.


According to Professor Shefelman, the entire senior illustration class (about 45 students) submits images, and he puts out an open invitation to alumni as well. Once the images have been approved, the artists reproduce their work on the Pomerantz walls using a grid system or simply by eye. And people love it, he says.

I can see that, and I’m not surprised. Chalk! is arresting and powerful, and while I am puzzled as to why busy people did not stop and listen to Joshua Bell in Washington, I am delighted that busy New Yorkers stop to examine and enjoy the talents of our students. Perhaps there are social scientists somewhere who will want to explore the elements that lead to such disparate behaviors.

In the meanwhile, I hope that anyone reading this who has not yet seen the project will wander by. Chalk! is just made from chalk, after all. And eventually—unfortunately—chalk fades.

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Cultural and Linguistic Diversity at FIT


With our increased awareness of the need to make campus life more welcoming for international students, I was delighted to learn that our Center for Excellence in Teaching had tackled this topic for its 2015-2016 student-faculty roundtable discussions.

These popular events, funded by the Student Faculty Corporation, have been taking place for the past seven years—always with a different theme. According to Elaine Maldonado, director of the CET, this year’s theme was suggested not only by our strategic plan—which this year is developing initiatives around this topic—but also by our students. It must be in the zeitgeist.

The basic ground rules and format are the same every year. Faculty participants are expected to invite at least three students; a list of questions are distributed at the table for discussion, and one student is selected to report out at the end of the event. Oh, and lunch is served.

So, late last month, about 35 students—most, but not all of them “international”—gathered around round tables in the Feldman Center Board Room along with 10 faculty members to discuss such questions as:

  • What has been your biggest challenge in an American classroom if you are an international student?
  • For native English speakers, have you ever been in a situation where everyone spoke a language other than English and if so, how did you feel?
  • How do you think cultural differences affect the way we learn?
  • How can teachers promote greater cultural understanding in their classes?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of having students from diverse backgrounds in the same class?

Plenty to talk about…plenty to think about. Professor Maldonado acted as facilitator and when she invited students to the podium to report on their “findings,” it was clear that this was a topic that resonated.

One of the most common “findings” among the students who spoke—and perhaps the most disturbing—was the complaint that because of their language difficulties, international students believe they are perceived by faculty and students as being less intelligent than their English-speaking peers and are simply not respected. This causes embarrassment, at the very least—and explains to some extent why they sometimes cling to each other in groups and fail to reach out for help.

Students also stressed cultural differences among learning styles and attitudes: in some countries, for instance, students are not expected to raise their hands in class. In another example, a student said that in China, directly quoting someone’s work is considered a compliment while it might be considered plagiarism here. In that context, a student from Italy maintained that faculty do not do enough to learn about the cultures of the students in their classes.

There were numerous suggestions about how to best remedy these problems. One of the most often mentioned was the adoption of a “buddy system,” which would pair an English-speaking student with an international student during class, keeping the two seated close together for easy consultation. As one faculty member commented after the lunch, “Usually I just think about how I can help them, but their peers are a great resource as well.”

It was a lively session—filled with useful and poignant insights. And most heartening, from my perspective, was that everyone agreed that exposure to other cultures was a very big advantage. Now, this was a self-selected group—those who attended possessed a sensitivity to and interest in intercultural exchange. Still, it was gratifying to hear about the Long Island student who spoke so enthusiastically about how much she learned from her international peers—the way they opened her to new information, new ideas, new perspectives. And her advice was succinct and on point: reach out to them, ask questions. “Be kind and patient,” she said. “That should be your first instinct.”

» Learn more about the Student-Faculty Roundtable Discussion at the Center for Excellence in Teaching website

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Another Successful Year for Design Entrepreneurs NYC

Although we awarded prizes to the winners of the Design Entrepreneurs NYC program weeks ago, I am still feeling the afterglow. This is the summertime program FIT inaugurated four years ago in collaboration with the city’s Economic Development Corporation (EDC) to help emerging designers devise the strategies that allow their businesses to thrive. It is a kind of business boot camp—and an intensive one at that—one that draws some of the city’s most promising designers as well as a cadre of elite business leaders who act as mentors and judges. While all participants benefit from this program, two are selected at the end to receive cash prizes—and each year, I am delighted to say, we are able to offer more.

Our major supporter since the beginning has been GIII and its generous and far-sighted CEO Morris Goldfarb who this year helped us to raise a total of $150,000 for prize money. The EDC increased its contribution as well this year which allowed us to enrich the programming. Jeanette Nostra, former president of GIII, has been the dynamic “executive in residence” for the program from the beginning and has provided brilliant leadership.

It is gratifying to know that this program has already helped more than 100 businesses grow and thrive. These designers have shown their lines in New York and Paris fashion weeks, won important industry prizes or “best in show” recognition, and gained high profile press as well as celebrity clients. One was invited to create a line for The GAP; another was named design consultant to a major industry event production company, and yet another now has a Cadillac collaboration. Four were among this year’s10 CFDA/ Vogue Fashion Fund finalists—and one has sold her line of lingerie to a large company while remaining its creative director. All of them remain New York City stalwarts—contributing to the future of the New York creative industry.

This year’s top prize winner was the Brooklyn-based menswear brand CADET, cofounded by Brad Schmidt and FIT alumnus Raul Arevalo. They received $100,000 to invest in their company. The husband-wife team Haus Alkire were awarded the second place $50,000 Israel Goldgrub Award for their luxury women’s wear company. The award is named for the father of YM, Inc president, Michael Gold, who not only provided the gift but also acted as a judge. Prize money for the top winners has grown significantly since the program’s inception thanks to the industry’s faith in and commitment to DENYC. It’s a great program, and I look forward eagerly to celebrating its fifth anniversary next year.

Read More:
» Design Entrepreneurs NYC
» DENYC at FIT Newsroom

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