Blake Sanders                                                                                                                                                                                             Diversity Statement

The homogeneity of my upbringing was clear to me from a young age. As a result, I pursued opportunities to experience being different to feel and think differently. I studied abroad at Kansai Gaidai University in Japan during my undergraduate studies. The International Studies program at K.G. brought students together from around the world to study Japanese language and culture while learning about their respective homelands. My travels allowed me full immersion in a friendly, though foreign, culture. I could be different in a community for an extended period, though my experience was still quite privileged. Also in undergrad, I participated in Global Health Corps, a program that, in better funded times, was designed to travel around the world to spread health and nutrition information to marginalized communities. I met with elderly African Americans in Waterloo and tribal elders on the Meskwaki settlement in Tama, Iowa. Though we were meant to be teaching our audience, it was always clear that they were many years older, and light-years wiser than we. While in the program I assisted with the Special Olympics as well.

 

I taught for several years at Tulane University in New Orleans, and at Baton Rouge Community College. Although close geographically, these two institutions attracted diverse student bodies, but from different ends of the economic opportunity spectrum. The students at Tulane were from a broad array of cultures and communities around the world, but most came from elite backgrounds. My students at BRCC were non-majors, most were minorities, many were international students, and some had disparate language barriers or learning disabilities. Some of these disparate experiences and abilities came with added pedagogical challenges, but that made the successes at the community college even more rewarding. Every day teaching simultaneously at these two institutions was a perspective shifting privilege.

 

While teaching at Murray State University and Austin Peay State University, with student bodies that were predominately white and rural, I was fortunate to have more diverse cohorts that included working teachers, international students and immigrants, and non-traditional students returning to school to further their opportunities. In my MSU drawing class I asked students to discover the strength and perspective that diversity provides. For their final project, I paired students of differing race, class, creed, and sexuality or gender identity for a collaborative assignment where interviews led to drawings of significant objects and events that acted as a map through the lives of their classmates. Respect was established through classroom discussions and brainstorming sessions earlier in the semester. The project, called Walking a Mile in Someone Else’s Shoes, encouraged empathy and opened the class to a more open relationship.

 

The camaraderie between seemingly different people discovered during the Walking a Mile… project may have been unexpected to some, but it is wholly typical of the dynamic fostered in the studio when students are made to work side by side. In open, welcoming studio students discover that diversity and differences breed creativity. The stories that arise organically in the shop, or through the narratives explored in their work help grow the community. Students are often asked to look to their personal experiences as fodder for their conceptual gristmill, if for no other reason than it is a subject that they can speak on with authority! Printmaking provides opportunities to discuss the heady power language and history—and indeed, art and pop culture—has on social artifices. Candor encourages a culture of trust in the studio so that students can continue to share about their experiences, their families, and themselves through their work. Being open and present is not always natural for some, so I approach all students with a healthy respect and sincere curiosity to make them comfortable when they are ready. Classmates naturally follow suit. On the rare occasions that trust is compromised due to a rash assumption in critique or an inappropriate reference, it is dealt with quickly but delicately. When a line is crossed, it is often the students who first point out the error or insensitivity and call for amends, evidence that my approach is effective.

 

Art can provide a forum to celebrate one’s cultural heritage and unique identity. It can foster cultural appreciation and understanding—and students are shown examples of work from sundry cultures around the world—but it should be experienced rather than reproduced. This philosophy produced its most fruitful examples while teaching at BGSU. I encouraged a Lebanese American student in a creative rut to embrace a turn toward the non-objective, and use that shift to investigate the pattern-based graphic tradition of Islamic art as a metaphor for her own spiritual journey. I also advised this same student about how to communicate her feelings to her family as she chose to remove the hijab. She is now a rising star in the graduate program at Northern Illinois University. Also at BGSU I worked closely with a student whose subsequent work embraced the landscape and Native American cultures of the Rockies. Despite her otherness this student earnestly worked with tribal elders to ensure that her work is always sanctioned and respectful avoiding the pitfalls of cultural appropriation. She has continued her commitment to the traditions and rights of indigenous peoples, including traveling to the Standing Rock reservation to stand in solidarity at the pipeline protests. These examples illustrate how my classroom provides a safe space for thoughtful exploration of oneself and other cultures and perspectives.

 

For too long, my privilege allowed me to focus on what I saw as the BIG picture, thinking that preserving a habitable planet would inevitably produce a more just society. Recent political machinations have made it clear that we are in fact becoming more isolated, less civil, and less open to experiences that challenge our own. To combat this devolution, I have chosen to reach out to the global print community. This includes a recent exhibition featuring a diverse roster of international print and book artists who share their perspectives of humanity’s unintended impact. Locally I have collaborated with student groups like the university PRIDE group, the Black Student Union, and the Association of Black Journalists to promote voices that often go unheard, contributions that go unrecognized. I have produced many matrices for live public printing events that promote and support these groups in the community at large. In this way, I use my talent to act as an artistic conduit so that others may share their truths. Printmaking is the original social media, one relatively free of trolls, so this collaboration provides a safe space for sharing and growing together.