Activists in the Making

student holding a bee hive frame
FIT Hives began as a proposal at the 2016 CGI U

Fifty years ago, 20 million Americans from across the nation—20 million—took part in the first Earth Day. That is one-tenth of the population of the entire country at that time. They demonstrated, marched, did environmental cleanups, and so rattled Washington that soon enough, we had the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Occupational Safety and Health Act—not to mention the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Inspired by an environmentalist senator from Wisconsin, Earth Day was actually spearheaded and organized by an activist graduate student recruited by the senator.

I am reminded of that student activist today when I think about the FIT students who, for the past six years, have been chosen to attend the annual Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U). This is an international leadership development program for university students who are activists in the making—young people determined to have an impact on some of the most pressing health, environmental, or societal problems confronting us today. It is led by former President Bill Clinton and Chelsea Clinton. Highly competitive, the program requires student applicants to design a social impact project and demonstrate that they have the resources, will, and capacity to turn their ideas into action. So it’s not surprising that the FIT students who conceived and developed our natural dye plant garden on the 9th floor terrace of Feldman were among those chosen in the past or that the two young women who designed our muslin-composting project were chosen as well.

This year, FIT was represented with three projects created by six students, joining students from 113 countries and 320 universities, including the University of Edinburgh, where the event was scheduled to take place until the coronavirus intervened. The conference—like so much else in our lives these days—was virtual and was dedicated to the topic of combating COVID-19. But this “relocation” didn’t in any way diminish the passion that students brought to their projects.

The loss of our bee population, the impact of culture on creativity, and the fashion industry’s harmful impact on the environment were the issues that our CGI U students tackled this year and I was impressed by the creative ways they chose to address them.

Michele Sparrow (Textile Development and Marketing) and Sydney Wilson (Production Management), for instance, plan to expand upon our established bee education program (FIT Hives), which started as a proposal at the 2016 CGI U. Since then, bees have been residing in hives on the roof of our bridge over 27th Street, and are very popular with members of the FIT community. Michele and Sydney proposed to train a team of students to act as bee educators and ambassadors at an increased number of special campus events. They have already engaged The Honeybee Conservancy, a non-profit group that trains beekeepers, to work with us on the hives and to offer the new FIT “bee ambassadors” the opportunity to volunteer at special events throughout the city.

Then we have William Mun (Film & Media) and Ashley Vargas (Illustration) who, last year, curated an exhibit in the Feldman Center lobby of art work by students of color that explored how their cultural identities affect their creativity. You may remember it. They also produced a very fine documentary on the same theme. The exhibit and film were so successful that they decided to turn the project—called POCreatives, or People of Color Creatives—into an annual tradition so that every year an exhibit will be produced on this timely and sensitive theme, mining the talents and perspectives of future FIT artists of color and creating a legacy. It will be fascinating to see how our thinking evolves on this topic over time.

And Abigail Dennis (Textile Development and Marketing) and Hannah Blaseg (Fashion Business Management), troubled by the fashion industry’s notorious contribution to over-consumption and climate change, committed to creating a space for monthly gatherings of the community to discuss and instill sustainable fashion practices, while recycling, repurposing, and reusing their fabric and garments. I think of it as a kind of sustainable sewing circle.

All of these projects were developed prior to the pandemic. The next challenge will be how to reconceive them for a meaningful life in the virtual world. All of our CGI U  representatives are investigating social media and other on-line opportunities right now. POCreatives have already presented their documentary online in one of English Professor Amy Lemmon’s classes, which was focused on creativity. The students continue to be guided by mentors from the CGI U—as well as by Suzanne McGillicuddy, our assistant dean of students who has supervised this initiative for FIT since its inception.


POCreatives Documentary “For Someone Who Looks Like Me”

The CGI U was founded in 2007 and I had the great pleasure of attending one of the first CGI U conferences. It was in Austin, Texas. There were about 1000 students from around the world—none, yet, from FIT. What I remember most from that event is not the projects that students presented, but rather their passion. I know that college students tend to be idealistic and get enthused about causes they adopt. But this was different somehow. The commitment, the excitement, the energy, the enthusiasm—all seemed a level up—and created an ambience that reinforced the lofty ambitions students arrived with. That seems not to have changed. Dean McGillicuddy mentioned something one of our current participants said to her: “Once I graduate, “ she said, “I want to go and do something that is important…something that has meaning and benefit.” I believe she will. More power to her…and to all of these very admirable and serious activists-in-the-making. They are the changemakers of tomorrow.

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FIT Celebrates 50 Years of Earth Day

students harvest flowers from the dye garden

This year, Earth Day—which falls on April 22—celebrates its 50th anniversary. And this year, FIT is celebrating sustainability in a very different way. Although the coronavirus prevents us from supporting our commitment to sustainability with our annual conference, which typically takes over the campus for a day or two every spring, we are delighted to be taking over our virtual campus on all of our social media platforms in honor of Earth Day.

The FIT Sustainability Council has gathered stories, videos, and photos that will all be available to our entire community. Even more exciting: our student members have developed an Earth Day Challenge for the FIT Instagram account with prizes for the best submissions.

Now more than ever, we as a society must renew our dedication to our environment and to incorporating sustainable practices into our lives. Even in the face of the global coronavirus crisis, it is heartening to see that the FIT continues to play a leading role in sustainability. As you will see from these stories, the incredible work our faculty, staff, and students is truly inspiring.

And so, I invite you to join us on April 22 as we celebrate Earth Day’s 50th anniversary and tune in as we literally “go green” across the FIT website, and FIT social media—and please share your own sustainability stories with us as well.

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A Conversation with Hue Magazine

As part of our 75th anniversary celebration, the editors of HUE, the college magazine, asked me to reflect on FIT through a small group of questions. Some of them will appear in the next edition of the magazine. Here is a sneak preview of the entire interview.


1. What was your vision for the college when you first arrived in 1998, and how much
has it been fulfilled?

I am first and foremost a cheerleader for the future. When I arrived, I found a college rich in historical traditions and values, rich in student and faculty talent, and creativity. We were on the cusp of the new century; all kinds of changes were happening in the world. Student demographics were changing–the technological revolution was in full swing. It was clear to me that if we could harness all of our talent to embrace the changes, we had great potential for growth. But as a community, we really had to examine all we had—our strengths and weaknesses—in order for FIT to become a beacon of the future for the industries it serves. Some of that vision has been realized through a college-wide strategic planning process. But visions evolve; they are always a work in progress. You always want to achieve more.

2. At many organizations, strategic plans end up dead on a shelf. Why do you think our
plans have been so dynamic, successful, and ingrained into the fabric of the life of the
college?

A strategic plan will only work if it has the community stamp. It is important that people feel they are part of the planning, so we deliberately created a process in which there was opportunity for everyone to have a voice. There were committees comprising faculty and other members of our community. They were deliberately formed with interdisciplinary interests and expertise in mind. The goal was to learn from one another about the different ideas germinating in the work of colleagues that could be incorporated in creative and collaborative ways to move FIT into the 21st century. We held roundtable discussions and town halls to get an overview of community interests and ideas. With technology advances, we were able to invite comments via the internet from members of the committee who were not able to attend the town halls or roundtable discussions. The goal was to create an inclusive process where everyone could develop a sense of ownership in the plan. For the most part, I think we succeeded.

3. As FIT’s longest-serving president, what are some of the highlights of your tenure–
and why?

  • It is my job as president to create opportunities for growth both for the college and for students, faculty and staff, and to the degree that my leadership played a role in that progress, I would consider that a highlight.
  • The success of the strategic plans—in part because in the process, they fostered a renewed appreciation of our ability to work together to realize the college’s vast possibilities. The process helped to break down silos; the level of cross-campus communication increased significantly, and now people from different corners of the campus started talking to each other, understanding the needs and interests of colleagues and collaborating as well.
  • Our long-time commitment to sustainability and all we’ve achieved in that arena (ie: 55 percent reduction in carbon emissions; 50 percent reduction in energy use; 17,000 square foot green roof system that diverts 300,000 gallons of runoff from the sewer system annually; rooftop natural dye garden; bee conservation program; inroads in biodesign; recognition from the city and state as an institutional leader in sustainability)
  • Today we are distinguishing ourselves in arenas that would have been unthinkable a short while ago. We collaborate with science giants like MIT and SUNY Stony Brook, we have national and international biodesign winners, and we have a growing presence in the world of materials science.
  • Campus renovations and improvements: the purchase and renovation of Kaufman Hall and the doubling of residential capacity; the new labs in Dubinsky; the student cafeteria and the Great Hall; the beautification of 27th Street; the lobby in the Pomerantz Center; supporting the infrastructure of the Museum at FIT; the vision for a new academic building, one fronting on West 28th Street—our first new academic building in over 40 years.

4. What have been your most stirring or moving or proudest moments?

Where we started: transforming a place by building on its natural resources. All of the following give my heart an extra beat when I think of them, and in effect are an outgrowth of that vision.

  • Developing partnerships with MIT, Stony Brook, Brown Opening the FIT/Infor DTech Lab and breaking new ground in the reputation and accomplishments for FIT
  • Opening our Innovation Center
  • Hiring accomplished scholars, designers, and artisans to join our faculty
  • Awakening the intellectual curiosity of our students to reach beyond their comfort zone to explore science and technology and marry that new-found knowledge to art and design
  • Commencements!
  • Meeting successful alums around the world
  • Working within a community to invigorate experimentation, exploration of new ideas and partnerships, collaboration, and movement to new horizons
  • And in another vein altogether, shepherding our community after the 9/11 strikes in a way that provided comfort and, to the degree possible, a sense of safety to all, including distant family members.

5. What is your vision for FIT in the next 25 years? What will the college look like?
What will be the emphasis in the curriculum? Who will our faculty and students be?

The most exciting element of envisioning the college in 2045 is that whoever we are and whatever that looks like is unknowable today in 2020. Indeed, that is more exciting than the challenge of predicting what will be. So many aspects of our lives have evolved—sometimes dramatically and sometimes rapidly—into new, life-changing patterns (ie: how we teach and learn, how we get information, communicate, are entertained, produce materials to support our lifestyles, etc.). All I can say is that we are bound by our imaginations, and those with the most fertile, daring and unfettered curiosity will continue to chart the path.

I am particularly encouraged by the creative abilities of our students as they have begun to harness their artistic and design ideas to the molecular and materials science of developing new configurations of natural elements in order to create sustainable, environmentally friendly products. Thus I believe the role of art and design combined with science and technology will have a huge imprint on an evolving way of life. By 2045 we will have perfected our current fledgling efforts and be well into the next chapters of biodesign and the new businesses of technologically advanced industries led by our graduates.

6. As you reflect on FIT and its history, what do you think its most important contribution has been to the industry and to the life and culture of the city?

FIT has been a safe haven for young creatives to learn about their place in the world. They arrive with a jumble of ideas and creative capabilities and they leave us destined to be the next generation of leaders of the creative industries that define New York City. For decades we have been turning out industry leaders and middle managers. Each generation carries a  vision or philosophy of life that I hope was influenced—for the good—by their years at FIT. Today’s students have a different prism, a different set of concerns, than our alumni from 2000 or 1975 or 1950. Today’s students are passionate about the environment, they are concerned with diversity and inclusion, and I think that is true of all of our students, whether they are destined for the C-suite or the big stage or middle management.

The creative industries at the heart of the dynamic culture and commerce of New York City will continue to evolve in response to the beliefs, commitment, and leadership of our graduates—particularly in regard to sustainability, diversity, iconoclastic breakthroughs in production, design, marketing and best business practices.

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Disney at FIT

More than a few dreams came true in mid-September when an exhibit opened in our Art & Design Gallery celebrating 25 years of Disney on Broadway, of all things. It isn’t as far-fetched as it seems. In fact, Disney came to FIT last summer with a design challenge for our students to create modern interpretations of costumes that might be worn by some of Disney on Broadway’s iconic female characters. Ten fashion design students were declared winners and it was their designs that were on display in this exhibit.

The opening reception drew a lively crowd from the FIT and Disney communities including the lead actresses from six productions who arrived early for a press preview and lingered as long as they could before rushing back to their respective theaters. However, a choral ensemble made up of Broadway singers remained and gave us as vibrant a performance of “A Whole New World” from Aladdin as you can imagine—and the acoustics in the Art & Design Gallery did them proud!

student award winners lined up with president brown
NEW YORK, NEW YORK – SEPTEMBER 24: (L-R) Georgianna Wells, Paige Walker, Sooyoung Yun, Ashna Moogi, Annette Stone, Dr. Joyce F. Brown, Yelayny Placencia, Ruby SeoHee Shin, Baoqing Yu, Eunhye Jo and Marianna Gonzalez attend Disney On Broadway X FIT on September 24, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Lars Niki/Getty Images for Disney on Broadway X FIT)

And speaking of “proud,” I was so proud to see the witty and charming contemporary interpretations of costumes that our ten students produced. Nala and Rafiki from The Lion King, Elsa and Anna from Frozen, Belle from Beauty and the Beast and Mary Poppins were among the “leading ladies” who got a refreshed wardrobe. The students were all third or fourth year fashion design majors and each received $3500 in prize money and $1000 to purchase materials for their costumes. This entire experience has been a “once in a lifetime” event for them—a dream come true. Annette Stone, a fourth year student from California who designed for Jasmine in Aladdin, spoke on behalf of all of the students and described what the experience has meant to them. “We are so unbelievably grateful to both FIT and Disney for giving us this opportunity and platform to share with the world our designs,” she said. “You have given us a voice as designers…I know that for each of us, there are hundreds of people believing in us, and whether or not it was true before, it certainly is true now.”

For me, it was gratifying to hear her tribute to FIT and to the professors in the fashion design program. “Our fashion program truly is the best,” she said.” Our professors go above and beyond… coming in on weekends, staying well after class hours, answering countless emails, and being true mentors when navigating this industry.” Also speaking at the reception was Professor Gerard Dellova, one of two faculty mentors for the project, who praised the students for their hard work and the way in which they bonded as a community over the summer, despite the pressure of producing the polished, professional costumes being showcased and celebrated in this exhibition.

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Remembering 9/11

newsweek magazine logo

To commemorate the 18th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, Newsweek magazine interviewed five New York City college presidents to learn where they were as the planes struck the two towers and the challenges they faced in creating a calm, reassuring environment for their campus community.

I was one of those five and my interview, which appears in the September 12th issue, follows.

Excerpt from Newsweek:

Where were you when you first learned about the attacks?

I remember explicitly. I was supposed to go to a meeting upstate and I was going to fly, so I was going to the airport.

It came over the news that a plane struck the World Trade Center. What I really thought was that the plane must have really been in trouble. The World Trade Center was such an imposing structure, how could you possibly hit the World Trade Center? It must have really been in trouble and falling to Earth.

I had the car radio on, and then another plane struck. As that came across, we passed an intersection, and I looked up. I saw the building and I knew. Then they said the tunnel was closed, transportation, everything, and I turned around and came back knowing we were really going to have to mobilize and figure out what to do for the community.

What was your first move?

I thought I have to gather my top staff, and we have to figure out a strategy for how we’re going to hold this community together. Whatever I thought was minuscule compared to how it felt when we got back here because it was like a pallor had fallen over everything. No one really knew what to do. Everything was systematically shutting down. The airports, the subways, the streets, the cash machine didn’t work, the phones didn’t work, people couldn’t get here.

I knew what I had to do was create whatever cocoon-like sense that we could that people would feel safe here. I needed to set up a communication pattern so that I would know what was happening in the various areas.

What about your own emotions?

I wasn’t in touch with my own emotions. I really felt like my biggest responsibility was to hold everything together for the community and people should feel this was a safe place to the extent that we could make it such.

Campus: calm or chaotic?

It wasn’t chaotic. I don’t know that I would call it calm. I think it was tense. I think people didn’t know what to think. They didn’t know where it would come from next. We’re very close. The smell, the stench of the attack was very pervasive at this end of town and that went on for weeks. It hung in the air.

Read the full article at Newsweek.com

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