Parsons new dean aims to rid fashion education of white, nondisabled, cisgender, thin worldview
22 Mar 2021
Ben Barry will assume his new role as Dean of Fashion at Parsons School of Design this summer. In his former role as Chair of Fashion at Ryerson, he established himself as a leading voice of social change through the medium of fashion education. FashionUnited caught up with him to hear what he hopes to achieve from the leadership position of the most influential fashion program in the country, a job which he had initially considered a pipe dream when he first applied.
How are you currently feeling about the prospect of entering such an august institution?
Parsons has the platform, legacy and expertise necessary to scale and amplify the movement for justice and liberation in fashion education. As I say this, I am also very mindful of my privilege which grants me instant authority to be seen and heard as a leader, and hired as one. I am devoted to using this position to shift power in the spaces that I occupy.
You have identified 3 principles as the foundation of fashion education: Inclusion, Decolonization, Sustainability. Can you address each regarding what you hope to change?
Fashion schools need to prioritize a culture of equity and justice because these principles must be deliberate for change to happen. When I began the role of Chair of Fashion at Ryerson, I worked with our students, alumni, staff, faculty, partners and larger community to develop guiding principles that would shape our school’s culture and curriculum. We collectively generated the principles of Inclusion, Decolonization, Sustainability to direct all of our decision-making, strategy and activities, and to which we were to be held accountable.
I intend to engage in a similar process at Parsons. I am excited to explore how Parsons students, alumni, staff, faculty, partners and other stakeholders understand justice and liberation in fashion education, and to develop principles to guide the community towards a new era of fashion education. From my experience, collectively generated guiding principles bring everyone together to mark out our political commitments, to address structural issues of disadvantage, support redress and actively world-make. Their creation needs to center the experiences and interests of marginalized students, staff and faculty, but all stakeholders must be engaged in the process to feel invested in change.
Does it surprise you how many educators, even those writing textbooks that are widely used, continue to perpetuate old views in their classrooms?
Most faculty have learned the same Eurocentric histories in their own education and completed similar courses or practiced the same skills that they now teach. As a result, they might not know how to illustrate skin tones that are not white, how to draft patterns in plus-sizes or for trans and non-binary people, or how to think about fashion outside of Anglo-European worldviews. Most, but not all, fashion faculty also have perspectives and experiences that are shaped by being white, nondisabled, cisgender and thin. They are often resistant to admitting that they lack knowledge or questioning what they have always done because they are supposed to be the experts. I say this as a white cisgender man who is on a daily journey of checking my own biases. I have a gender studies degree, but many faculty have not had this experience.
How do schools address this meaningfully?
Schools need to offer workshops for staff and faculty on social justice and inclusion. These workshops should explore how a culture of white supremacy, intersectional racial injustice and other inequities manifest in fashion school, encourage an awareness of the uneven emotional burdens of social justice work, and commit to learning about and teaching fashion histories and practices outside of the Eurocentric fashion system. While some of these workshops should be mandatory for all faculty, others should be optional so as to not re-traumatize faculty by being ‘taught’ about their lived experience.
Faculty from underrepresented groups must be hired into full-time, permanent positions to bring knowledge that is missing into schools. However, most faculty job requirements do not take systemic barriers to education and employment into account. Fashion schools should develop postings that call for applications from Black, Indigenous and other underrepresented communities and rethink qualifications outside of Anglo-European understandings of success. For example, postings should consider community work, youth mentorship and micro-entrepreneurship as equivalencies to degrees, academic teaching and jobs at large fashion brands.
How do you hope to expand access to fashion education among communities whose young people might not even consider it a viable career path?
Many Black, Indigenous and other youth of color do not have access to the same training and support systems as their white peers to develop portfolios, and this is amplified for those who are also queer, non-binary and disabled. For example, I hope to develop a program employing Parsons’ Black alumni to host workshops for Black youth through local high schools and community groups during which alumni would teach introductory fashion skills and mentor those youth who want to apply to Parsons.
I also plan to work with the community to cultivate culturally relevant groups. At Ryerson, we created the Black Fashion Students Association to provide space for Black fashion students and alumni to discuss topics facing Black people in fashion, and to host Black fashion professionals to share their experiences and mentor students. We also created The Beading Circle, a space for Indigenous and non-Indigenous students to build community and kinship over the practice of beadwork. Of course, none of these initiatives will result in a more diverse student population without creating significant scholarships and bursaries. The combination of racial and class barriers that many students face make tuition costs out of reach or require them to hold multiple jobs to afford tuition and materials. As a result, they are exhausted, with less time and energy to focus on schoolwork compared to their white peers.
What have you learned from a year of remote fashion education about yourself or students that might influence you going forward?
The pandemic, certainly at the start, forced us to slow down our regular pace of life. With so many scheduled events and plans canceled, I had more time and space than ever before to reflect; fall into reading, watching and listening; go on long walks; and enjoy the pleasure of doing nothing. Interrupting the routinely frantic speed of work and life is what I want to bring forward into fashion education. I hope to reduce the intense pace and workload to which we have become familiar, and designate more time as well as place more value on ideation and contemplation when faculty and students work on projects.
Throughout remote teaching, I was constantly inspired by how faculty and students both centered compassion and gentleness. They recognized that everyone was experiencing different challenges, whether they were in different time zones, had financial stresses, or were anxious about the state of the world or more immediately about a family member. Rather than stick to hard schedules and plans, both faculty and students were flexible and caring with another. I hope we keep this spirit of being in good relations with each other and of honoring the humanity of each other as the soul of how fashion schools work and grow as communities.
Educators today are often undervalued, overworked and exhausted. Add to that the mission of dismantling centuries-old power structures, how do you relax?
I love starting the day by curling up on the sofa with a coffee and whatever book I have on the go (I’ve just started Aesthetics of Excess by Jillian Hernandez), or putting on some music (usually Whitney Houston, Toni Braxton or another 90s R&B diva), taking out my eye pencils and staging an at-home fashion show. But grabbing a hot drink and going to the dog park with my dog Apple and husband Daniel is my favorite way to unwind after a long day.
Photos provided by The New School
Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry