“Reflections on the 2017-2018 innovation challenge”

PHOTO COURTESY OF PBS.ORG The wider Smith College community continues to work on advancing equity, inclusion and diversity through the 2017-2018 Innovation Challenge.

The wider Smith College community continues to work on advancing equity, inclusion and diversity through the 2017-2018 Innovation Challenge.

Patience Kayira ‘20 | Associate Editor

On July 13, 2016, President Kathleen McCartney issued a letter to the Smith College community responding to the prevalence of violent attacks around the world. References to the nightclub attacks in Orlando and Istanbul as well as to the deaths of five police officers protecting protesters in Minnesota were included in this letter amongst many other tragedies.

These events took place over the duration of revising Smith’s Strategic Plan. As a global institution, the college sought to integrate the values of “inclusion, diversity, and equity” at the core of its strategic plan.

President McCartney wrote, “Social Justice has been an important part of the fabric of Smith since its inception; we must do more.” The drive “to do more” came to fruition through the Innovation Challenge—a funding opportunity aimed at “Advancing Inclusion, Diversity and Equity.”

The Innovation Challenge gives students, faculty and staff an opportunity to tackle real-world problems through projects that are intended to teach and engage the wider campus community on “culture and social justice.”

According to the Grécourt Gates news, “projects that were awarded funding needed to be completed within the duration of the primary applicant’s time at Smith.”

In the 2016-2017 school year, 11 proposals were approved, and they ranged in topics as well as student, faculty and staff involvement.

Some of the projects included: a Social Justice Mediation Institute led by Raven Fowlkes Witten ’17, Building Leadership for an Inclusive, Sustainable Smith (BLISS Program) with Psychology Professor Benita Jackson, Community United: A Sport League to Build Dialogue and Unity Among High-Need Youth in Holyoke, Springfield and Northampton through Jo-Glading DiLorenzo (Director of Project Coach and coordinator of urban education) and Psychosocial Capacity Building with Refugees with Professor Josh Miller in the School for Social Work.

This year the Innovation Challenge kicked off again in September with President McCarthy releasing a campus-wide announcement inviting all to apply.

As a continuation from the previous year, the theme was the same:  “Advancing Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity.” As an improvement from last year, 16 proposals were approved—some building off the work done in the previous year and others introducing new initiatives.

Among the projects that were carried over and adapted from the 2016-2017 Innovation Challenge was Professor Josh Miller’s “Supporting Dreamers” Initiative. This project is a collaboration between the School for Social Work, Office for Religious and Spiritual Life and the Organization for Undocumented Students at Smith.

When asked about his inspiration for beginning this project, Professor Miller referred to recent immigration policies that have targeted immigrants of color. As he wrote to the Sophian, “my grave concern[is] that the current political regime in the US has turned against all immigrants of color and has been particularly aggressive in preventing immigrants of color and Muslims from entering the US.” “Supporting Dreamers”’s main goal was to educate all sectors of the campus community. One of the ways this way this was accomplished was through a two-day conference in March that provided workshops for attendees to be trained in ways to provide support to undocumented students.

In addition to “Supporting Dreamers,” this year’s Innovation Challenge saw an increase in the number of student-led proposals. Of these projects was the “African and Caribbean Careers Network”—an initiative led by Hilda Nalwanga ’18 and Ruth Tekleab Mekbib ’19. Nalwanga and Mekbib sought to improve African and Caribbean Students’ access to jobs and internships through the creation of an African alumni network. In collaboration with other SACSA members and the Conway Center, the two organized a day trip to the Harvard Business School to attend the Harvard Africa Business Conference along with 20 other Smith students. Mekbib and Nalwanga hope that the SACSA Careers project will continue to grow in the coming years.

Bridging the barriers that society often construes with race and identity was a consistent theme with nearly all of the recipients of the 2017-2018 Innovation Grant. POCheese led by Rebecca York ’18, a house-led campaign to make House Teas more inclusive to students of color is an example of another project that focused on addressing race. The campaign to for “Equity and Inclusion in Campus Mental Health,” led by Kris Evans at the Schacht Center also seeks to improve marginalized students’ access and comfort in using health services.

Within this broader issue of addressing racism, some projects also drew attention to the ways in which people relate to each other. Last year Professor Chris Aiken in the department of dance launched an “Empathy Project” in collaboration with choreographers and student dancers. This project emphasized the value of working together to produce a dance exhibit geared at creating empathy for students of color.

This year, “Cooking up Compassion” by Shailee Shah ’20—four Monday dinners that focused on discussing peace and community—and the “Friendship Bench and Friendship Circle” by Stormi Smith ‘20 continued the theme of empathy and human connection. “Cooking Up Compassion” is a house initiative to foster community and connections through welcoming conversations and chats.

Overall, these projects not only remind us that oppression needs to be combatted through institutional change, but that kindness and compassion are necessary keys in fighting global oppression.

Given the popularity and interest in this year’s Innovation Challenge, there is a strong likelihood that this initiative will continue in the coming years. For more information on the grant and the projects of the recipients visit Grecourt Gate News.

Sophian Smith