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Toward a Collective Sense of Justice

News of Note

The inauguration of President Sarah Willie-LeBreton celebrates the powerful role a Smith education plays in creating a better world.

Published October 22, 2023

Even before President Sarah Willie-LeBreton had uttered a word from the stage, the thousands of students, faculty, staff, and alums attending her inauguration at the Indoor Track and Tennis Facility on Oct. 21 had already proclaimed their deep affection for her. The second she was spotted on video screens, the crowd whooped and hollered. As she processed to the stage, students held up their phones and called out “President Sarah!”—hoping to snap a selfie or capture a quick video of the moment. Once onstage, Willie-LeBreton shared her own feelings, raising her hands in the shape of a heart above her head. 

These were just a few of the many expressions of joy, love, and welcome conveyed over two days as the Smith community came together to celebrate and honor the college’s newly installed 12th president.

Alison Overseth ’80, chair of the Smith College Board of Trustees, said Willie-LeBreton is the perfect fit for the college. “In Sarah Willie-LeBreton we have made a dynamic choice,” Overseth said. “She is, without a doubt, the best leader to steward Smith’s legacy and move us into the future.”  

In her opening invocation, Matilda Cantwell, college chaplain and director of religious and spiritual life, set the tone for the day’s festivities, speaking about how love builds—and heals—community. “Love extends not just a friendly, conventional welcome but a radical welcome,” she said. “This is the welcome that says, Home is not always where we visit one another; home is what we create together.”

Student speaker Vanessa Nicole Silva-Burgos ’24, president of the Student Government Association, echoed the theme of community, saying President Willie-LeBreton’s arrival signals an opportunity to work toward a “more just and equitable campus.” “Her presence, her words, her leadership exude collaboration, compassion, and joy—three vital pillars that fill me with hope for revitalization and transformation across campus,” Silva-Burgos said.

In her inauguration address, Willie-LeBreton reflected on the power of the liberal arts—and a Smith education, in particular—to create a just world. “As educators, we have an opportunity to prepare students—our future leaders—for a new paradigm of living together harmoniously,” she said. “We have an opportunity to challenge the narrative of winners and losers and emphasize instead a collective sense of justice and the recognition that as a people we have enough. Indeed, we have enough to share.” 

For Willie-LeBreton, the concept of justice goes beyond what she called a “collective sense of fairness.” Rather, she said, it involves “attending to the experiences of those marked by difference.” “It requires us to engage in dialogue, requires us to share the stories of our lives and cultures—from the level of families to those of nations—and to try to understand them.” 

Her charge as president, she said, is to steward an academic community in which its members can engage with each other without fear of retribution or incivility, where students and faculty have the space and resources to uncover new knowledge, and where collectively we work toward our ongoing potential. In doing so, Willie-LeBreton said, “we might achieve the inclusive, sustainable, and just world we imagine.”

The inauguration ceremony was punctuated with powerful performances from the Grammy-nominated, all-women African American vocal ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock as well as the Smith College Glee Club. 

Camille O’Bryant ’83, a former college trustee, traveled from San Luis Obispo, California, to attend the weekend’s festivities and cheer on Willie-LeBreton. “There’s nothing like a Smith party,” O’Bryant said, “and Sarah is clearly amazing. She’s going to do great things.”  

The inauguration capped two days of campuswide celebrations that included student performances, tours of campus hot spots, presentations and panel discussions, and meals galore. Following are dispatches from various events leading up to Saturday afternoon’s installation. —JOHN MACMILLAN

Friday, October 20

10:30 a.m., Geothermal Presentation, Alumnae House Conference Hall

A presentation on Smith’s geothermal energy project is the first event to take place in the Alumnae House Conference Hall since the building reopened following a top-to-bottom renovation. This gives the 40 or so people in attendance “special bragging rights,” says Associate Vice President for Facilities and Operations Jim Gray, the first speaker. Gray gives an overview of the $220 million project, explaining how it will enable the college to reach its goal of carbon neutrality by 2030. Finding himself without a laser pointer when he gets to a slide with a map of the project’s three “districts,” or phases, he grabs an umbrella—“the old-fashioned kind of pointer”—prompting laughter from the audience. Next up is Beth Hooker, the college’s director of sustainability and administrative director of the Center for the Environment, Ecological Design, and Sustainability, who discusses “the fun part”: connecting the project to student learning and research through honors theses, capstone work, and more. Alum audience members, one of whom can be seen knitting throughout the presentation, make the most of the Q&A session, inquiring about everything from the fate of the college’s 80-year-old steam heating system to the expected lifespan of its geothermal successor. —CHRISTINA BARBER-JUST

11:15 a.m., Dining Showcase Lunch and Campus Tea, King House

The small dining room at King/Scales is a sea of blue, as campus buildings-and-grounds workers in caps and work shirts file in to enjoy the special inauguration celebration lunch buffet. “We don’t usually have this kind of lunch,” says Pablo Matos, a painter and glazer who has worked at Smith for a dozen years. His tablemate, Jay Sullivan, a painter and working foreman, has started on a small serving of lemon-garlic shrimp, roast chicken, and roast vegetables. “I’m having an appetizer!” he quips. Dining room coordinator Lori McFarland—who began her day at 5 a.m.—stands to one side of the buffet, making sure everyone has what they need. “I just really love doing this,” she says with a smile. By 11:30 a.m., the tables are full of facilities workers, staff from the Wurtele Center, and a smattering of students. As for what menu items get the most oohs and ahhs, it’s a three-way tie among the shrimp, the petits fours, and the official Smith College teas. —BARBARA SOLOW

A group of attendees at lunch talk and smile around their table.
An attendee dunks a "Smithie Breakfast" tea bag in a mug of hot water.

11:30 a.m., Radical Visions: The Art of Protest Posters, Neilson Library

Art and activism go hand in hand. The posters on display in the lower level of Neilson Library bring home that notion in powerful and visually exciting ways. Covering one wall, the exhibit of protest posters—created by the Office for the Arts, Smith College Special Collections, and the Smith College Libraries—shines a light on the role art plays in inspiring social, political, and cultural change. Perusing each poster, visitors can see decades of advocating for gender equity, reproductive justice, transgender rights, environmental justice, and prison reform come to life. They can also gain an appreciation for why these posters are works of art with a social conscience. “The posters can be beautiful, challenging, sometimes funny, and often unexpected, but always complicated and multilayered,” says Beth Myers, director of special collections. “We hope that viewers will be inspired by the concept of a ‘visual argument.’” —CHERYL DELLECESE

Two attendees look at a wall of art, during a special pop-up art installation.

12:30 p.m., Welcome Hours, Alumnae House Welcome Center

The Alumnae House’s new Welcome Center is earning its name. Alums checking in for inauguration weekend are greeted with an overflowing bowl of local apples, a giant platter of cider doughnuts, all the supplies needed to make a cup of official Smith College tea, and swag-filled tables of Smith-themed buttons and stickers for the taking. Ellen Kearns ’86 has just arrived in Northampton from Pound Ridge, New York. Asked what brings her to Smith on this day, Kearns cheekily says, “Well, guess,” then adds, “I’m here for the inauguration of our 12th president, Sarah Willie-LeBreton, who looks fabulous and full of spirit, so it’s really exciting.” Isa Lentz ’26 is with her mother, Monica Lentz, who flew in from Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. “She was originally going to come for Family Weekend,” Isa says, “but she had a work conflict, so this was the next best thing.” Having had lunch at Chase/Duckett, they’re off to tour the new Neilson, the art museum, the poetry center, and the botanic garden. Friends Elissa Lowell ’95 of Annapolis, Maryland, and Amy Raudenbush ’95 of Somerville, Massachusetts, met at Reunion in 2015 and have been “as thick as thieves” ever since, Raudenbush says. What does inauguration mean to them? “Community,” Lowell says. “Friendship.” Raudenbush adds: “Our 2020 Reunion was online because of the pandemic, so this has been a good opportunity—or excuse—to come back to the college.” —CBJ

Three alums gathered in the Alumnae House smiling and talking.
Two alums posing with a Smith College pennant.

1:15 p.m., Film and Media Studies Screening, Graham Hall, Hillyer Hall

The Graham Hall auditorium has been transformed into a movie theater. Playing, one after the other, are 26 media works by students in Assistant Professor Anaiis Cisco’s introductory and advanced film and media studies classes. Those screams coming from the screen are from a number of horror films created by students; but there is also a tragic love story with an entity who can only manifest every 50 years, a look at a man who won’t—or can’t—come out of his basement, and a tale of the Sage Hall ghost, just to name a few storylines. “The films explore themes around the pressure of being a perfect student, the complexities of friendship, queer desire, and heartbreaks, and encompass a range of genres, including narrative, documentary, and experimental,” says Cisco, adding, “An inspiring culture of filmmaking is emerging at Smith.” Action! —CD

1:30 p.m., Nuptial Blitz, Nolen Art Lounge, Julia McWilliams Child ’34 Campus Center

Walking into the Nolen Art Lounge on the first floor of the Julia McWilliams Child ’34 Campus Center is a bit like stepping into the pages of someone’s wedding album. For a moment, you might feel like backing out of the room, fearing that you’re invading the happy couple’s privacy, but then you can’t help getting caught up in the wonder and warmth of the images on display. That’s the idea behind performance artist and MFA student Gabrielle Revlock’s photographic exhibition Nuptial Blitz, one of several exhibits being shown across campus as part of the college’s inauguration celebration. Appearing in every photo, with either a friend or a stranger posing as her partner, Revlock says the intention was to subvert some of the “visual tropes and cliches of modern wedding photography.” One image, for example, was taken in what appears to be a junkyard. Another was taken in a construction site with mountains of dirt in the background. Together, the series of 30-plus images is playful and poignant. In her artist’s statement, Revlock says she hopes viewers will walk away wondering about the concept of romantic love and whether there is a “template” for what it looks like. —JM

2 p.m., Special Collections Tour, Neilson Library

Sylvia Plath’s typewriter. The first issue of Ms. magazine. A picture of President Sarah Willie-LeBreton’s dog Ranger (Smith’s new first dog). All are sights on the 2 p.m. tour of special collections in Neilson Library—one of several hosted on Friday afternoon. Participants view exhibits, classrooms, a digitization studio, and the temperature- and humidity-controlled stacks where archived items are stored. They also have a chance to ask questions about Smith’s three remarkable repositories: the College Archives, Mortimer Rare Book Collection, and Sophia Smith Collection of Women’s History. At the end of the tour, participants in the 2 p.m. round—including a current student and alums on campus for inauguration weekend—are offered some special souvenirs: custom-made buttons featuring Smith’s Grécourt Gates logo, the number 12 (for the 12th president in college history), and an “I heart” picture of Ranger. —BS

8 p.m., Dance Party, Julia McWilliams Child ’34 Campus Center

It's a little after 8:30, and the campus center “dance emporium” is officially bopping. Strobe lights pierce the rainy sky above, purple lights set the building aglow, and students mingle out front, waiting for more of their friends to arrive. Inside, Lizzo is on the turntable, and dozens of Smithies are waiting in line to pick up the night’s sweet treat: specially packaged s’mores kits, featuring marshmallows made by Alexx Shuman ’12, founder and owner of The Vermont Marshmallow Co. Then, at 8:50 on the nose, a roar rises from the makeshift dance floor upstairs. Someone yells, “Our president has arrived,” and suddenly Sarah Willie-LeBreton is at the center of it all, dancing her heart out to the ’70s classic “Shame” by Evelyn Champagne King. Once that song segues into “We Are Family,” she pulls other people onto the floor, mouthing the lyrics, “We are family/I got all my sisters with me.” If ever there were a moment of pure joy, this was it. Back downstairs, Beamlak Woldeab ’26 says it was the promise of s’mores that initially lured her out on a rainy night, but she ultimately stayed because “I wanted to party with the president.” Meanwhile, her friend Yaretsy Castro ’25 had this message for President Sarah on the eve of her inauguration: “Thank you for coming to Smith. I hope your time here is fruitful.” —JM

Sarah Willie-LeBreton smiling and dancing at a dance party with students.

Saturday, October 21

10:15 a.m., Sustainability and Justice: Leveraging Liberal Education, Weinstein Auditorium

Dance partygoers, some of whom are bleary-eyed from last night’s revelries, are nonetheless excited to listen to the faculty panel assembled for a conversation on sustainability and justice. The panel—moderated by Michael Thurston, provost and dean of the faculty—does not disappoint. The event begins with brief presentations from Alex Barron, associate professor of environmental science and policy; Alexis Callender, associate professor of art; Benita Jackson, professor of psychology; Javier Puente, chair of Latin American and Latino/a studies; and Steve Moga, associate professor of landscape studies. The presentations are as diverse as the disciplines represented, as is the ensuing discussion, which covers the elasticity of time, equity and representation in academia, increasing one’s bandwidth, and how the proliferation of minors and concentrations has resulted in students organically thinking in an interdisciplinary manner. A memorable quote from artist Callender: “I’m a fan of beauty, but aesthetics have been used to mask the truth.” —CD

12:45 p.m., Performance, Julia McWilliams Child ’34 Campus Center

Early in the afternoon, there is the sound of bells—then, from the first floor of the campus center, African drums. Dancers in colorful print dresses and bare feet swoop and sway like graceful birds. The West African drumming ensemble Mbo Lette (“We have a lot to say”) has come to help celebrate inauguration. In minutes, the balconies and stairwells of the campus center are crowded with onlookers. “C’mon down!” the dancers yell up, extending their arms in invitation as the tempo increases. “Dance with us!” Giselle Greenberg ’24 is among those who answer the call. What was it like to move with the group? “It’s so fun,” says the English language and literature major as she rejoins her friends on the sidelines. “It feels so joyful and celebratory.” —BS

Drummers and dancers joyfully performing in the Campus Center.