✨ Moving from the margins to the mainstream: on feminist curricula and intersectional practices. An interview with Maya Ober ✨

illustration by Anna Niedhardt

The open online directory feministcurricula.org maps and documents educational design initiatives that use feminist perspectives and pedagogies. The aim of the directory is to explore new, alternative ways of learning, teaching and practicing design. Its continuously-growing index of courses, workshops, classes and programmes features assignments, projects and reading lists to facilitate exchange and collaboration between designers, students, educators and researchers.

Superrr: Can you tell us more about you and your project feminist curricula?

Maya: feminist curricula was born out of my research on design education and feminist theory, in particular on how intersectional feminism can inform design education. Design as a discipline is patriarchal, androcentric and Eurocentric. As such, it reproduces and sustains different forms of suppression such as racism, sexism and ableism. In the past decade, there have been different programs popping up in and outside of academia and in different locations across the world. Since I am a design educator, I was interested in learning from other practices, so I started to look into what had already been done. There was, however, little research into and documentation of these practices, so I started thinking how to best make this research public and connect different people and initiatives with each other.

S: How did you find these people and initiatives then?

M: People were pointing towards interesting people or via Instagram — it was really random how I got to know who is working on what. The seed of feminist curricula was the thought of building a broader community of people working on similar ideas, exchanging thoughts and working together. The online directory was really born to map out and document educational design initiatives that use different feminist perspectives and pedagogies, and that look at alternative ways of teaching and educating on design. Teachers, students or activists who do this work inside and outside of academia can submit their work. Through this database, they can connect, profit from each other and make their individual initiatives and the groundswell of change more visible.

S: Super interesting, what are the next steps then?

What we now want to do, in the second phase, is to share stories about these programs and initiatives. I am working on a series of texts and interviews contributed by the educators which we will publish on depatriachise design and on futuress, a feminist platform for design politics, run by Nina Paim.

S: Feminisms and feminist perspectives are at the core of your work. Could you tell us more about your understanding and conception of feminism, and what that means for your ways of doing, working and being?

S: Thank you! This is a question which should be asked more and which we need to continuously reflect on. Feminism — or better, feminisms — can be described as a very situated lens or practice. It goes against the European, rationalist logic of a single definition. Feminism is multiple in itself and entails different worlds. There is no one way of doing and being, rather, there are many.

Feminist approaches and practices can take different forms and really depend on histories, resources, interests, contexts and legacies. But, banale as it might seem, they all do foster social transformation and look for more just futures for everyone. And I do think there are values shared in common for different feminist theories. For example, predominantly activist practices which strive for social justice and equality by stressing the importance of community.

Feminism criticises the universal notions of essentialism. It is not about the essence of being a woman, because that can mean different things — especially when speaking from an intersectional perspective. Religion, race, class, gender, ability… all inform the experience of being a woman. It connects to other social justice movements, like the movement for racial justice, the anti-colonial movement, the movement for Palestinian liberation. These are all, in my opinion, feminist causes.

S: Interesting. Are there some examples from the communities and initiatives you are working with that you would like to share — positive examples of collaborative feminist curricula informed by intersectional feminist perspectives?

M: Yes, there are many. The idea behind feminist curricula came from me and my interests, but the whole platform happened collaboratively: with f.ex. Good For A Gxrl Collective, Mathilde Avogardo, Iyo Bisseck and Elise Connor.

After immigrating to Switzerland, I was trying to figure myself out within the design realm and this new country. Back then, in 2017, I was questioning all the assumptions behind design and design practice and looking for people and initiatives posing the same challenges. Education is so profound in how it shapes our lives, societies and ultimately our futures. I was struggling a lot with design education. My undergraduate experience was not the best. In fact, and this experience is shared with many designers, it was very violent.

Then one of my best friends, a feminist activist and antrophologist living in Lima, shared an article by the Chair of Design and Gender Studies at the Faculty of Architecture, Design and Urbanism (FADU) at the University of Buenos Aires about the new course they founded. I was impressed because it showed how feminist curricula are not only in the margins but coming into the mainstream, influencing university spaces and ultimately the curricula. This is a great example from the academic sphere.

S: Impressive. And what about examples from outside of academia, like activist practices for example?

M: Institutions are slow to change, reluctant to decenter Eurocentrism and to foster change and critical transformation. There’s a lot of resistance from the ones upholding power. Outside of academia there have been different initiatives to create safer spaces — for example, the workshops and study programs that futuress is doing. They have three different online study programs which look at design from critical perspectives and they strive to democratise access to design history writing.Their fellowship, Against the Grain, brought together 44 designers, researchers and students from historically marginalised communities to learn and exchange online. It allowed for reflection on power and privilege within design, and was also about creating transnational solidarity. Within this digital study program were participants from across the world: Brazil, India, South and West Asia, people from diasporas based in Europe. This is just one example of how we can create different learning spaces for design and foreground epistemologies that have been erased, undermined or marginalised.

S: Thinking about the challenges when incorporating feminist perspectives into curricula, how does digitalisation inform these transformations positively, negatively and in between?

M: Activists have been using digital tools for a very long time to connect and amplify voices on social media. When I started depatriachisedesign, it was me bringing my thoughts to a blog — which was kind of a self-therapy. Through social media I suddenly started to connect organically with people who did the same. For example, I got to know Elise Connor and Mathilde Avogardo digitally, and together we created feminist curricula. I do really believe that we can use digital tools and social media for our own purposes.

However, we need to reflect critically on these platforms as well. We can look to the recent demonstrations on Sheikh Jarrah to see how Palestinian voices and activists have been silenced and shadow banned. Again and again, we see how technologies are used to counter resistance. So, it is not that I am just thinking “Wow, Instagram: a lovely place to hang.” We need different tools for our activism.

S: Feminist perspectives help in creating something new but also in deconstructing status quos and mechanisms, if I understand you correctly?

M: Yes, so one additional thing: digitalisation is amazing, as are the possibilities that come with it, like connections. But we also have to bear in mind that not everyone has access to the internet or has a smartphone. The internet enables us to create spaces but we have to be aware that these spaces are not automatically open for everyone — people who have no or limited access to internet, or no electricity at all. We need to consider that, too. The internet opens spaces but it also closes — so it is never the perfect tool.

S: When you think of intersectional feminism, your work and the New New fellowship, how is it all connected for you?

M: I am really grateful for the fellowship because it supports us with financial resources. It is so important in feminist practices to tackle questions of transparency and ensure that everyone is renumerated for their labour. You need the means to support yourself and the work that you do. Through the fellowship I can finance the project — it all goes to the people who contribute illustrations, solve technical issues, write texts… This is just amazing because otherwise it would not be possible. This is a really tangible thing. Less tangible is the community the fellowship is building — through the meetups, workshops, getting to know the other initiatives and projects. I am extremely grateful for how kind it is, how it is done with care. I really appreciate it. There are not many scholarships for this kind for the work we do, and we simply cannot take it for granted. Despite the challenges and extra layers of pandemic stress: thank you!

S: Thank you, dear Maya!

Building inclusive and just digital futures