Elizabeth Bayne: Approximately 300 Black alumni have graduated from ArtCenter in its 90-year history. What is your reaction to that?
Roosevelt Brown (BS '95 Product Design): Of course, that's a challenging number. It absolutely is. It should be much higher than that. I think part of the issue is awareness and community engagement. In doing product design, a lot of brands are realizing that, “my product offerings need to start to reflect the community and my customers.” OK, we really need to start getting a more African American, Latinx influence and "seasoning," I like to call it, to our design aesthetic because that's our customer base now.” And brands ask, "Well, what is the Black aesthetic? Or what is a brown aesthetic?" Once again, I'll equate it to seasoning. A lot of people can make chicken, but then there's soul food. A lot of people can make gumbo, but then there's Cajun gumbo. It's the seasoning and that comes from cultural experience.
EB: So design, how did you decide to follow that track?
RB: I've always had a huge imagination. I was the kind of kid who got new toys and immediately took them apart, just destroyed them, and made my own toys from them. So I think creatives are born; it's in you. And the opportunity to come to a place like this or any institution that fosters creativity is a beautiful thing. As a young kid, I didn't know what being a designer was, but I knew I wanted to make things and create things with my hands. One of my favorite sayings that I like to say in class is, the power of these two words, "imagine this."
EB: Do you remember when you first visited ArtCenter?
RB: I did the little tour, saw the gallery and that you could get a degree in Product Design. I mean, standing in the gallery, it gave me goosebumps... "Oh, that's where products come from. That's where that iPhone came from." Wow. It was an eye-opening experience, just to find this place. And then of course I applied, and that was my path.
EB: Once you got here and actually took your first class, what was your impression of the school?
RB: I think it was intimidating. You’re in a classroom at ArtCenter and your classmates are these really talented people, like the best of the best. And you’re sitting in this space, as that freshman, as that new kid, you’re like “am I good enough?” And then there being less than one point of percent of African American on this campus. It's one thing to be the only Black kid in the room. But to be the only Black kid in the building, to be the only Black kid on that side of the bridge, that was a little challenging in and of itself.
EB: How did that manifest itself, that challenge? Did you experience it in any visceral or tangible way?
RB: I looked at it as a distraction. And I was singularly focused. I'm the first male in my clan to graduate from college. Clan. Not my family, my clan. I have one aunt who was the first in our clan to graduate from college. She's a teacher and then my sister was second, so I was the first male to actually take that journey and succeed. So when I got here, I was like, “I don't care what happens. I'm definitely going to graduate.”
EB: What does it mean to be a Black designer and how do you feel about that question?
RB: It's a huge pride when I see other African American creatives, but especially African American designers. To be African American in this industry and willing to take on the challenges of access, the challenges of opportunity, the challenges of respect, the challenges of an equal playing field, and we still keep fighting. We still show up. And we just do what we've got to do to make it happen... It shouldn't still have to be a fight; it shouldn't have to be a challenge. The color of my skin. But I embrace it because we are special people. We embrace the fight. We overcome the fight. And we have success.
EB: What do we do as a community, or as individuals, need to do to make sure that more young people have access to that?
RB: I'm going to flip it, I’m going to put it on ArtCenter because as a young talented kid [growing up] in Pasadena, right down the street, I shouldn't have had to have to find this place. Someone should have told me or reached out and just tapped on my shoulder. "Hey, little guy. I see, you got some talent. Super creative. Huge imagination. Come here. Let me show you this place up here." So ArtCenter needs to seek out disadvantaged communities. We need to go into those communities, find those creative jewels.
But like a real pathway to high schools here in L.A., Pasadena, San Gabriel Valley, Southern California. Every creative kid of color should know about ArtCenter. Because ArtCenter is in that community saying, "Hey, there's an opportunity for you to experience an elevation of your skills and your talents."
And then once we get there. Like accessibility, scholarships. Undergird your goal. So once I've found you and I see that you got a goal, OK, let me support that goal. Let me help build that pathway and undergird your steps. Then we turn around and we do mentorship. And then repeat that process, right? So then that conversation and then those numbers start to increase, right? You’ve got to retrain some of these counselors. “Why don’t you tell a little black kid about ArtCenter? You told me about all these trade programs, Pasadena City College, LA Trade Tech, but you didn’t tell me about the Harvard of creative schools. Why?” Part of my personal mission is changing this. Because this is too powerful of a place for us to not be here.
*This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
Photo credit: Everard Williams
It shouldn't have to be a fight; it shouldn't have to be a challenge. The color of my skin. But I embrace it because we are special people. We embrace the fight.Roosevelt Brown (BS '95 Product Design)Product Designer, Professor
ArtCenter's Commitment to Black Lives