College campuses across the globe have been making strides toward fostering diversity, equity, and inclusion in various aspects of student life. One avenue for promoting these values is the art and cultural spaces within college student unions. These spaces are crucial in creating an inclusive environment reflective of the study body.
Many student unions use art to celebrate and showcase local culture and highlight the diversity of the surrounding community. In February, North Dakota State University’s Memorial Union Gallery installed a collection from award-winning photographer Zig Jackson, the first indigenous photographer to win a Guggenheim Fellowship. Jackson’s images explore territorial ownership, focusing on the human form and intersections of land and property. As part of the project, the union invited Jackson to speak about his work. Such artistic events and exhibitions can contribute to a deeper understanding of the issues faced by underrepresented groups
During an ACUI webinar in June, Anthony Faris, gallery coordinator and curator of collections for North Dakota State University, said: “A major aspect of our gallery is that at every show, we have some sort of workshop or artist’s talk—so we are encouraging good conversations and making sure that the space can be used as a gathering spot.”
In March, the Oklahoma State University Student Union opened a student exhibition featuring 11 pieces of indigenous artwork from the Charles Little Collection in the OSU Museum of Art. The artwork dates from the 1930s to the present, focusing on plains and the Southwest.
The exhibition is centered on the concept of movement and how it is portrayed through art composition and form, specifically in the context of Native American culture. For example, the artistic techniques used to create the feathers and dresses in the exhibit’s feature piece, “War Dancer,” convey the dance and movement integral to rituals, ceremonies, and traditions in indigenous culture.
In 2022, Florida State University’s student affairs division sought proposals from contemporary artists for a Seminole Tribe-inspired mural at the student union. After a lengthy search, Seminole Tribe of Florida member Erica Deitz was chosen to create an acrylic painting that the artist described as “a representation of Osceola’s vision to see his people live freely and prosper all under the guidance of his forefathers and medicine men.”
“We are honored to have Erica’s art selected and to support a Seminole Tribe of Florida artist who offers an Indigenous perspective through art,” said Amy Hecht, vice president for student affairs, in a post on Florida State University News. “Erica’s piece of art will be an iconic representation of the Seminole Tribe of Florida and the Florida State University Student Union.”
In a similar project, the San Diego State University Division of Student Affairs and Campus Diversity partnered with campus arts, humanities, and social justice groups to feature murals focused on social justice across campus. Students crafted six murals, including one piece in tribute to the rich history of Black scholars, faculty, students, and leadership at SDSU.
Other schools use art as a powerful medium to celebrate DEI-related commemoration months and events, such as Black History Month, Women’s History Month, Pride Month, Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, and Hispanic Heritage Month, among others. Houston Community College, for example, has promoted National Diversity Month in April with a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Art & Design Contest in which designers create visual representations of their interpretations of DEI, belonging, and social justice. Judges evaluate whether each entry conveys the artist’s perspective on the significance of diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, and social justice, and winners receive scholarships of up to $1,000.
In other cases, schools have facilitated the co-creation of DEI-focused art, engaging students in the artistic process by providing a platform for personal expression and dialogue. More than 100 students at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln gathered in 2022 to create a collaborative “Unity in Diversity” mural for display in the Diversity & Inclusion Gathering Space in Howard L. Hawks Hall.
Research shows that collaborative art can push difficult conversations on pressing social issues forward, whether in a student union setting or beyond. According to the 2019 study “Collaborative Art: A Transformational Force within Communities,” community involvement can move initiatives forward when bringing about change has proven particularly difficult.
“In these situations, a prescription of community involvement to articulate the problem and develop a shared vision for change, as opposed to external promotion of a prescribed solution, may alleviate tensions and resistance to change,” the authors write. “In this way, collaborative initiatives can realize their potential to transform communities, enhancing the individual and collective well-being of all community members.”
In light of the June 2023 Supreme Court decision deeming affirmative action unlawful, many student unions are considering how best to promote diversity on campus. Small but impactful, collaborative DEI could create a sense of belonging amid challenges surrounding diversity in colleges, bolstered by more extensive efforts to remove barriers to success for all students.