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Toward Racial Justice at Smith College

Cromwell Day 2020 Update, November 9, 2020

by Floyd Cheung, Vice President for Equity and Inclusion
in collaboration with the Equity and Inclusion Team

A key pillar of Smith College’s strategic plan is a commitment to advancing inclusion, diversity and equity. The plan also calls for focus on complex, urgent problems facing our nation and our world. These two strategic themes intersect in the ongoing work of imagining, refining and achieving racial justice at Smith.

The Equity and Inclusion Team—comprising the Office for Equity and Inclusion, the Center for Religious and Spiritual Life, and the Office of Multicultural Affairs—acknowledges that change on this scale can cause discomfort. But we are called to put this discomfort in perspective. Since the college’s founding, many students, staff and faculty of color have been less than comfortable. Like most institutions of higher education in the United States—with the exception of historically Black colleges and universities and tribal colleges—Smith, historically speaking, was “not built for people of color.” Although we have made a number of changes over the years, now is the time for a strategic plan focused on concrete actions toward racial justice.

In July 2020, the Equity and Inclusion Team shared a preliminary plan for racial justice at Smith College; the plan was and remains a living document. Informed by reports, demands and campus climate surveys from the previous fifty years, as well as more recent Inclusion in Action work, we released the draft plan to elicit feedback from students, staff, faculty and alums about their current concerns and ideas. Between July and October, we heard from hundreds of community members via webform, email, open forums, focus groups and individual conversations. We also consulted with the Student Government Association, Staff Council, Faculty Council, Inclusion Council, the board of trustees and other representative groups. Thank you for taking the time to share your views and experiences. Major trends in your feedback included the following:

  • K–12 education in the U.S. and abroad provides insufficient preparation for most students to interact in a racially diverse community. Members of our staff and faculty could also benefit from opportunities to deepen their knowledge of race and inclusion. Hence, foundational educational opportunities around race and other dimensions of diversity should be built into the college’s curriculum and in employee development programs. 
  • A diverse population creates conditions for deeper learning; therefore, we should strive to recruit and retain a diverse student body, staff and faculty.
  • Despite making progress toward creating a diverse community, we have more work to do to achieve our goals around equity and inclusion. Structural and operational changes are therefore necessary.
  • Change needs to happen at multiple levels. Learning, reflection and action need to happen at the individual, departmental and college levels. The college will support department-level change with guidance and facilitation, and a key outcome of departmental action plans will be not only unit-level changes but also suggestions for institutional reform.

Feedback also clarified the need for standard definitions of the terms diversity, equity and inclusion. Let us begin with the following from the American Association of Colleges and Universities:

Diversity is an understanding of how individual and group differences contribute to the diverse thoughts, knowledge, and experiences that are the foundation of a high-quality liberal education. Inclusion is an active, intentional, and ongoing engagement with diversity across the curriculum, co-curriculum, and our communities to increase awareness, content knowledge, cognitive sophistication, and empathic understanding of the complex ways individuals interact within systems and institutions. Equity prioritizes the creation of opportunities for minoritized students to have equal outcomes and participation in education programs that can close the achievement gaps in student success and completion.

We expect to refine the definition of these values over time as we live them, discuss them and engage with them together at Smith. Practices that support this goal include listening, cultivating a growth mindset, respecting those with different views, being informed by data and understanding that the work is ongoing and evolving.

As of November 2020, the following initiative areas and action items have garnered sufficient consensus for us to move them forward to the appropriate bodies for consideration. For a fuller list of action items, see this action items page. The following list reflects a starting place with some initial examples; other items remain in consideration, and new ideas are always welcome.

  • Recruitment, Retention and Development: increase efforts to recruit and retain a diverse student body and workforce; broaden student participation in high-impact practices (e.g., study abroad, research with professors, internships); align equity and inclusion values of the college with recognition and promotion structures.
  • Learning: require a course addressing racial justice and equity for students and a parallel curriculum for staff and faculty; recommend that students take at least one additional course on race in the U.S. or the world; embed education about race and other dimensions of diversity in classes throughout the curriculum; launch LEAD program to build student capacity in equity-and-inclusion facilitation and design.
  • Identity Affirmation: develop principles for use in reviewing building names; affirm identity through technology; review and improve affinity housing; create and support employee resource groups; bolster wellness resources for BIPOC community members. 
  • Operational Change: diversify vendor pool; expand nonexempt employee access to professional development opportunities; institute a Campus Safety advisory group.
  • Community Engagement: empower units to reflect and create their own racial justice action plans; observe Juneteenth; expand opportunities for off-campus engagement and public scholarship with community partners focused on dismantling inequality and building equity.

The Equity and Inclusion Team recognizes that many of these items will take time and resources. In addition, this work will call upon broad collaboration across the college. We are confident, however, that working together, we will make progress on achieving racial justice at Smith College.