Sébastien Proulx Uses Racial Justice Grant to Decolonize Design

A person lines up a ruler on a drawing notebook, pencil ready to begin sketching

Since 2018, Associate Professor Sébastien Proulx has been using Affordable Learning Exchange (ALX) grants to reimagine his courses in the Department of Design. This three-time grant winner created a “Scrapbrary” to reuse material that would otherwise become waste; he redesigned the research portion of his students’ capstone projects to incorporate digital tools; and now he’s dedicated to adding diversity discussions and topics to his senior-level course.

Proulx is using his 2020 Racial Justice grant to add a course module around decolonizing design, a discipline that is traditionally Eurocentric. Proulx hopes to help make diversity and ethnic issues a normal part of the conversation and study of design, rather than an afterthought.

Please explain your 2020 Racial Justice grant.

In the discipline of design, attention to issues related to diversity became a thing only 10 to 15 years ago and to this day a lot of ground still needs to be covered. Despite design being everywhere and affecting the daily lives of everyone, our discipline remains very Eurocentric. With the ALX Racial Justice grant I saw a call for me to reflect on my own responsibility with regards to expansion of those boundaries. Being a member of a cultural minority, in my own country of origin, I am aware of some of the frustration that may come with being misunderstood or aggregated to a flattening set of social norms. By developing a course module focused on diversity, I wanted to help my students see the rugged topography that characterizes the world we live in and encourage them to design with an awareness and accountability to ethnic and cultural heterogeneity.

Where do you turn for inspiration and how are you motivated each year to come up with the various grant projects?

Design as a trade is a rapidly and continually evolving practice, and in a way our courses also reflect that reality. For the same course number, we rarely teach the same thing twice. In our discipline, it is typical to pretty much reinvent the wheel every time. But like anything or anyone else, I have limited bandwidth, so I have to be pragmatic about it. What that flexibility grants me is the capacity to jump on opportunities and see how my goals can be folded so that they can align with what is in front of me. For the past few years, ALX kind of became a vector to help think about what I was going to do next. That is turning out to be easier than starting from a blank page most of the time. Given that ALX also leads to some resources to conduct the project and benefit students by making their study more affordable, I call that a win-win-win. 

What do you hope your students and other faculty gain/learn from your racial justice grant? From your previous grant projects?

In doing this module on decolonizing design, I hope I contribute to making those issues pertaining to ethnic and cultural diversity just part of the conversation. I often saw students wanting to focus on the realities of minorities coming to me asking if it is OK to do so, even if that is “reducing” the general outreach or potential marketability of their project. My answer to that of course is always OK! They should never even feel the need to ask—that is something I hope will come to change. If there is one thing the university is useful for and must be celebrated for is the willingness to go where the market or society is not willing to go.

Do you plan to incorporate student feedback with your most recent grant project? How so?

Students seemed to react really well to the topic, with many of them specifically asking for more. Well, they will be served as I will continue to dedicate effort to the topic of decolonization in design, but I am also working toward embedding issues pertaining to ethnic and cultural diversity more broadly so it is no longer anything to consider extraordinary.

Do you have an idea like Sébastien’s? Apply for an ALX grant before October 8.

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