DISSENTING OPINION

Smith College School for Social Work student protesters respond to critical Boston Globe editorial

BY SMITH COLLEGE SOCIAL WORK STUDENTS


Introductory Note by Jason Pramas, Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism: For the growing number of American students who come from “non-traditional” (read “Black, Latina/o, Asian, Native American, immigrant, and/or poor”) backgrounds, getting into a university — let alone graduating— remains extremely difficult. All too many colleges — especially elite Ivy League and Seven Sisters schools — simply were not designed to deal with students who weren’t white, wealthy, and WASP. They were designed to exclude them. Things have changed over the past half century after much struggle by university students, faculty, and staff of good conscience (together with off-campus allies) across the country, but not nearly enough in some important respects. So it was disappointing to read this week’s Boston Globe editorial, “Smith College activists cry wolf over bigotry.” In which the immensely privileged editorial board of a major newspaper told a group of students of color at the Smith College School for Social Work — a co-ed graduate program — that they were out of line for protesting racism at their school. Specifically, letters to the Smith administration written by one of their department chairs and an anonymous group of their adjunct faculty. Both stating that many social work students of color should never have been admitted to the college. Globe reporter Laura Krantz took a more balanced look at the Smith situation earlier this week, but that doesn’t excuse the newspaper’s editors for choosing to call the Smith students out for special disfavor without giving them a chance to respond in print. By way of corrective, I thought it was important to reach out to the Smith College School for Social Work student protesters and let them speak for themselves. They graciously agreed to write a response to the Globe editorial, and I now publish it here in the public interest. Read on …


Several Smith College social work students drafted this statement addressing recent organizing surrounding issues of race and racism at the Smith College School for Social Work. Our voices are a small part of a larger organizing collective committed to this work.

A recent op-ed in the Boston Globe suggests that student activism at Smith College’s School for Social Work is “overwrought,” and advises us as organizers that “not every dispute warrants a social-justice crusade.” The Globe’s editorial writers have not been sitting in classes or common spaces on campus, nor have they been talking to professors or students directly. As students in these spaces, we feel that we must provide context that challenges the Globe’s narrative: our actions have encouraged open dialogue to better our school, community, and the larger profession of social work.

Thus, we agree with the authors of the Globe editorial, who write: “disagreements and problems can only get worse when people don’t talk about them.” It is imperative to bring these issues out from behind closed doors, where professors and administrators are discussing their concerns about students without our input. Our actions this summer follow the actions of many before us, extending far beyond the walls of Smith. They are intended to start public conversations, not shut them down. We encourage our administrators and professors to engage authentically with us, not in private, anonymous forums without giving us an opportunity to respond. Students have been left out of these conversations for decades, and the two letters released were written directly in response to student voices finally being a part of the conversation. This was a result of organizing efforts by students. Our hope has always been to have the opportunity to respond and engage in collective dialogue to improve Smith College.

Further, the Globe editorial mischaracterizes Smith students as individuals who don’t know what real oppression looks like. We do in fact understand the reading of “colonialism and racial oppression” in the two leaked letters. When faculty and administrators decry students “lacking academic qualifications,” call our “competence” into question, and criticize a “tainted” admissions process, we understand that this rhetoric has a history. In academia, as Roderick A. Ferguson writes in his book “The Reorder of Things,” words like “ability,” “competence,” and “efficiency” are used as seemingly “neutral” words that are actually used to surveil, exclude, and measure students of color. As one organizer points out, “these notions are only ever deployed in an attempt to ‘neutrally’ or ‘colorblindly’ exclude members of marginalized communities from gaining access to sites of power.”

However, it is critical to understand that as student protesters, we are addressing more than these singular letters. Like students from other institutions of higher learning across the country, we are seeking structural changes in faculty and student diversity, curriculum variety, and an academic review process that has disproportionately harmed students of color at Smith’s School for Social Work. As recently as 1986, there were only 3 students of color in the school’s student body of nearly 300. Even today, the school’s widely-publicized anti-racism commitment fails to bring diversity to its teaching staff, its admissions recruitment and retention, and its assigned readings. In the summer of 2015, students at Smith presented a list of demands similar to the demands presented by students at 51 other institutions across the country, demanding that the school live up to its anti-racism commitment. This work carried over into the summer of 2016, and student organizing on campus has had a history of success in bringing about tangible change. In this work, we are not here to shut down speech or dialogue. We are not here to speak over white members of our community. Faculty, students, and administrators can be able to engage in collective conversation around the ways Smith lives up to its commitment.

We are concerned that the Globe has chosen to characterize us as part of the maligned “college crybully” generation. If aligning ourselves with the standards of social work articulated by the National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics makes us “crybullies,” then so be it. We seek to “obtain education about and seek to understand the nature of social diversity and oppression with respect to race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, age, marital status, political belief, religion, and mental or physical disability.” We “challenge social injustice.” As students who want to carry our critical thinking skills with us into practice now and in our careers, can we be blamed for our criticisms of Smith’s culture? As Roxane Gay writes in The New Republic, “Whether we agree with these student protesters or not, we should be listening: They are articulating a vision for a better future, one that cannot be reached with complacency.”

As members of the Smith community, we are in pain watching our fellow community-members disproportionately take on the burden of educating peers and professors about their own internalized racist beliefs. We are then saddled with a burden of proof when we engage with professors like the “concerned adjuncts” and Dennis Miehls: individuals who are eager to cast doubt on students of color and our experiences here. And yet, many are not only hesitant to engage in direct conversation with us about our concerns, but consistently invalidate them.

In the words of the “concerned community members” who leaked the letters, “if we are truly to be a leading school for social work with an anti-racism mission, then our faculty must be leading our field to be more inclusive and ever-committed to the pursuit of social justice.” These protests were not simply about the letters; the letters were symptomatic of a culture of latent racist bias at Smith, where students of color are constantly pushed to prove that we belong here, too. We can no longer idly stand by while Smith fails to give us the education we need to be successful social workers.


Readers who would like to communicate with the Smith College School for Social Work student protesters can email them at smithmswforchange@gmail.com.


This article replaces the August 26, 2016 Apparent Horizon column.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

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