Erin Oppel ’22 has taken advantage of every opportunity that Smith offered. As she looks back on her college experience, she says the support of her professors has prepared her for what comes next.
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‘The Most Consequential Work We Can Do’
Smith is taking a comprehensive approach to dismantling systemic racism on campus.
As the former director of the Sherrerd Center for Teaching and Learning, Professor Floyd Cheung established two mottos: “There are many different ways to teach well” and “All teaching is improvable.” As the current vice president for equity and inclusion, he expanded the latter motto to: “All aspects of Smith are improvable with regard to advancing racial justice.”
For almost two years, Cheung and members of the Smith College Equity and Inclusion Team have been working to implement a comprehensive, multipronged strategic plan, “Toward Racial Justice at Smith College,” to advance antiracism work and make Smith, as the plan notes, “truly inclusive for each and every person.”
At the heart of the plan, which was released in fall 2020, are three tenets: educate all members of the Smith community about America’s 400-plus-year history of racial injustice, reflect on the role Smith played in that history, and take action to dismantle systemic racism on campus.
In a fall 2020 letter to campus, Cheung acknowledged Smith’s own history with racism and the need to work together as a community to achieve racial justice. “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,” he wrote. Most recently, the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery in early 2020 and the racial reckoning that followed underscored the stark reality of present-day racism and violence and the urgent need to combat both. “Committing to racial justice and equity is the most consequential work we can do as a community of learners and educators,” Cheung says.
Informed by feedback from faculty, students, and staff, “Toward Racial Justice at Smith College” includes 45 action items. Among them are initiatives to eliminate loans as part of financial aid packages; institute a campus safety advisory group; bolster mental health services for the community, especially to provide more support for Black students and colleagues; and improve the hiring and retention of more diverse faculty and staff. So far, more than half of the items have been accomplished.
Here Cheung reflects on Smith’s promise for racial justice, the ways Smith is encouraging honest conversations about racism, and how the college is ensuring that its plan remains sustainable.
What were some of the common themes that emerged from discussions with community members about the racial climate here at Smith?
My team and I reached back to earlier community input from campus climate surveys, and we also reread past student demands from as early as the 1960s. We conducted listening sessions with students, staff, and faculty, and we used a web form to capture hundreds of comments. What came out of this was a clear support for advancing racial justice. But there was also frustration with slow progress since the 1960s, a desire to expand our vision of racial justice beyond the walls of Smith into the local community and among alums, and a desire to better support students, staff, and faculty of color, especially. We also were reminded that all of us are complex individuals with intersecting registers of identity. As we work toward racial justice, we must engage actively with gender, sexuality, age, religion, and disability justice as well.
How would you like to see Smith evolve as a result of the plan?
True collaboration and deep learning at Smith College call for every student, faculty, and staff member to feel a sense of belonging. As the author and political commentator Heather McGhee reminds us in The Sum of Us, “racism costs everyone.” But by addressing it, “we can prosper together.” Racial justice means creating conditions in which all can thrive.
In what ways does the plan advance Smith’s efforts to dismantle systemic racism?
I can point to several examples. Most notably, we recently replaced federal loans with grants in our financial aid packages. This is good for all students, but will disproportionately benefit Black and Latinx students, who, here and across the nation, have historically taken out more loans on average. We’ve made progress on recruiting faculty of color in recent years. In 2021, 57 percent of new tenure-track hires identify as people of color. Going forward, we must have the structures and supports to retain them and help them thrive. Finally, work at the departmental level, including action planning, will create an ongoing, sustainable system for all academic and administrative departments to reflect on their own practices and policies and make them more equitable.
One of the most challenging components of antiracism work is just getting the conversation started. What are some of the ways the plan encourages productive conversations among members of the community about race, racism, equity, and justice?
We’ve fostered conversations in a variety of ways—through Inclusion in Action community engagement luncheons, a Cross-Class Dialogue Series, Grounded Knowledge Panels, and Generating Justice and Joy gatherings. Big events like Cromwell Day [held on November 4] focus our conversations on race, racism, equity, and justice, while smaller events like book discussions provide opportunities for conversation. Last year, we discussed Just Mercy [by Bryan Stevenson] and Being Heumann [by Judith Heumann and Kristen Joiner], for instance. This year, we’re planning a series around Heather McGhee’s The Sum of Us. Departmental action planning provides structured opportunities for conversations as well.
“We have a long way to go, but we will get there together.”
Why are plans like “Toward Racial Justice” critical components of the work colleges and universities are doing in relation to equity and inclusion?
It is true that colleges and universities, including Smith, have made great strides in increasing diversity, but access is not inclusion. The latter requires deep reflection, thoughtful conversation, and systemic change. Plans like this ensure that our work is visible and tangible, valued and prioritized at every level.
How is Smith ensuring that its plan is sustainable?
The Office for Equity and Inclusion is charged with leading and managing the plan, but President McCartney and every member of her cabinet were intimately involved in the development of its action items. So it is in every way a collaborative effort sustained by top leadership. In addition, the board of trustees recently established a Trustee Advisory Group on Equity and Inclusion, so we have support and commitment at the board level as well.
Is this the final plan?
We have always intended for the plan to evolve as necessary. I continue to meet with groups to learn more about their needs and ideas. Also, individuals are welcome to write to and meet with me. The Inclusion Council, which includes students, staff, and faculty, meets with me monthly to discuss equity and inclusion joys and concerns across campus. Its members also help me think through possible new action items.
This is difficult, challenging work. What motivates you to keep going with it?
Before turning on my computer each morning, I recite a passage from the Talmud: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justice now. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” Also, I know that my office and I are not alone in doing this work. Many groups and individuals are pulling in the same direction.
What’s your message to the Smith community about the college’s commitment to racial justice?
We have a long way to go, but we will get there together.
This story appears in the Winter 2022 issue of the Smith Alumnae Quarterly.