COVID-19 anc Communitas

Elaine Lopez
MFA GD 2019

“What are you grateful for? Write down five things and share one out loud.”

This prompt has kicked off my class since I started teaching graphic design in 2012. I learned it from Coy Owens, my high school sign language teacher, who had us sign our one example to the class, as a way to practice our vocabulary. Years later, as I was preparing to teach my first class at Chicago Portfolio School, I remembered this exercise and how connected it made me feel to my classmates and teacher. At first, it was just an ice breaker, but over time I’ve seen its value in helping to build community within the classroom. As the semester progresses, this exercise allows everyone in the class to get to know each other as human beings and not just design robots. I’m always struck by how much my students and I have in common, regardless of age or cultural differences.

My overall pedagogical approach stems from my own experiences of being stereotyped, underestimated, and misunderstood. As a first-generation Cuban-American, I have had to prove myself and my talent repeatedly while carefully managing my emotions—always afraid to feed into clichéd narratives. I prevent this from happening to my students by encouraging the exploration of culture and identity in the classroom. Diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts are not just about introducing students to a few people of color through your lesson plans. What good does that do if you are not learning about the people present in your classroom? Making space for students to share how they identify, where they are from, and what they are passionate about allows everyone present to learn about each other and create genuine connections. Setting the conditions for students to discover and share who they are through their work builds pride in their origins and sense of self, instills confidence in them as designers and people, and yields interesting and relevant work. It also helps to educate everyone in the room about new places, ideas, and perspectives.

For weeks before COVID-19 became a global pandemic, my students from China had been responding to my prompt by expressing their gratitude for the brave doctors and nurses fighting the coronavirus back home. We made time in class to be thankful for the safety and wellbeing of their friends and families. They shared how their loved ones were coping with quarantine and isolation. These students continued to show up and work hard while uncertainty and devastation consumed their country. While I admired their resilience from the start of all this, I see it with newfound appreciation as we face the same challenges in the U.S.

In Teaching To Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom bell hooks writes, “As a classroom community, our capacity to generate excitement is deeply affected by our interest in one another, in hearing one another’s voices, in recognizing one another’s presence.” Hearing one another’s voices is the path to building communitas: an intense community spirit, a feeling of genuine social equality, solidarity, and togetherness. 

How can we keep listening, keep building, even now, while we are away from one another? Things will be different when we return to the classroom for a myriad of reasons. Will students from around the world feel welcome to study in the U.S. if xenophobia continues to spread? How will the design industry change in response to our new reality? How will the role of education shift? These questions make the need for community and dialogue more important than ever before. As we learn to become more compassionate about the new challenges we will undoubtedly face, let’s also broaden our perspectives about people and cultures. Let’s make space for all students to explore their histories, identities, and perspectives to help us all make sense of our new reality. Let’s build communitas by sharing our gratitude with—and for—each other.