Work in Progress
SLU’s chief diversity officer draws on his activist roots to reckon with the University’s past and present, and to put forth SLU’s plans for a more just and equitable future for all.
Dr. Jonathan Smith never imagined himself in the upper echelons of a university. A class academic — Ivy League-educated, with a background in philosophy and literature — Smith is steeped in ideas, not policy. But his parents, the children of sharecroppers in Alabama, instilled in him a propensity to activism that inspired him to stand up (and sit in) for his beliefs again and again. And that moved him, in due time, to become Saint Louis University’s first chief diversity officer.
In the fall of 2014, Smith felt solidarity with activists whose protests led to an encampment near SLU’s clock tower. The discussions he had with students and protestors during those tense days brought forward new ideas about diversity efforts on campus and led to his appointment as vice president for diversity and community engagement.
The years since then have been filled with both ideas and policy, putting plans into action. In this interview with Universitas, Smith reflects on his past, the University’s past and present, and how to make a better future for all.
Dr. Smith, you came to Saint Louis University in 2002. What led you here? Would you talk about your first decade at SLU?
I finished my Ph.D. at Washington University in St. Louis and was looking for a full-time faculty position. My wife and I thought we wanted to leave St. Louis, but then there was a job posted in American studies at Saint Louis University. It was with the kind of colleagues that I would have wanted anywhere. The person who was key in getting me to see what SLU was all about was Sister Elizabeth Kolmer [A.S.C.], who was a professor in American studies then. That’s what brought me here.
My first decade, teaching was most important to me, and graduate mentoring. By the beginning of my second year, I was advising graduate dissertations. One of the things I’m most proud of is that I directed a dissertation that won the Gabriel Prize in American studies: Our student Rob Hawkins (A&S ’11) won that national prize. If you go to the American Studies Association website to see the winners, it’s something like Yale, Cornell, Yale, Yale, Brown and Saint Louis University.
Graduate advising helped me think about communication and mentoring, and shaped my thoughts and beliefs about race, identity and equity.
In what way?
My academic background is African American literature, and in that study, I started to think about how identity is formed in culture. The first time I learned that identities are social constructs was in grad school. But we never had a moment where we asked what constructs do. So I pushed my students: Don’t ask what race is, ask what it does. What forms of power does it work with? What forms of power does it aim to distribute or strain?
A decade into your time at SLU is close to 2014. That summer, Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, and in October, VonDerrit Myers Jr. was killed in the Shaw neighborhood near campus. In response to their deaths, protests happened around the city and on campus. At the same time, SLU was welcoming its first new president in decades. What was that time like for you?
That fall, like many faculty members at SLU, I was involved on panels, planning programming, talking to students, and occasionally before October, being out on the streets. But the death of VonDerrit Myers changed the situation for me.
At that time, my wife and I were living in the Shaw neighborhood, where VonDerrit was killed. And that day, I had a bizarre experience.
Actually a few days before, when I left for work, there was a homeless guy, a white guy, hanging out near my house. I tried to engage him on a human level and offer help. As I went to speak with him, he literally turned away. I was stunned — did he just dis me in my own neighborhood? Then I thought that perhaps there was an element of shame, right? But later, I saw him speak to one of my white neighbors. When he got nearer to me, he gave me that same treatment again. I assumed he dissed me because I’m Black.
On the morning VonDerrit was killed, there was a young Black man sitting in front of my neighbor’s house. As I go to my car, he stops me to let me know he’s working for my neighbor and waiting for someone to show up. I hadn’t thought anything of it. But then I think, here’s this homeless white guy in my neighborhood who feels empowered to disrespect me — while a young Black man feels he has to explain his presence to me.
That was the day VonDerrit was killed. So it was completely and profoundly personal to me. As soon as there was a vigil on site, I was there — because it’s my neighborhood.
When did you realize you would be involved, from an institutional standpoint?
One of my colleagues sent me a text that campus was being occupied. I thought, I’m going to be in this because, again, this is my neighborhood. This is where I live. SLU is where I work. I can’t not be involved.
I took my classes out to the clock tower and invited activists from the clock tower to my classes. I was teaching a course on Black comedy — one of my favorite things to teach. But I changed the syllabus, changed the lesson plan and invited activists, some of whom I had connections with. There was a group who were artists from New York, and my oldest daughter knew them, and one of my former grad students knew them. They connected us. I remember going out to the clock tower and yelling, “Where’s Chris from New York?” (laughs)
I also got my church involved, asking them to bring umbrellas, water and blankets to support the occupation. I got my local coffee shop to donate coffee for the activists. I spearheaded and helped coordinate some faculty support letters. I connected with just about every group involved that week. And I didn’t think of it as leadership — I just thought of it as what I could do.
At that point, you’re getting actively involved, of your own volition. But no one had asked you at that point...
No one asked me to do anything that week. In official capacities, Dr. Pestello, who had just been inaugurated as president a few days prior, had no idea who I was. The faculty members who worked on the negotiations were Dr. Stefan Bradley, who was directing African American studies, and Dr. Norm White, who was an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice, and an activist. I wasn’t in any of the official negotiations. I did have a strong connection with some of the students who were activists, and I had conversations with them about some things that ended up in the Clock Tower Accords, which ended the encampment and committed SLU to several diversity initiatives.
What was your mindset as you became chief diversity officer?
I initially didn’t even want to apply for the position; I thought of other people I’d support. Then in a random conversation with the vice president for student development, he said, “You’re applying, right?” Before that, I never had aspirations to be an administrator.
But then Dr. Pestello saw me and got to know me because, again, I ended up at the clock tower on the last day of the encampment. Not because anybody asked me, but because I wanted to be there. I knew that the Clock Tower Accords had been agreed upon. I went to campus to see that things were going OK because I had relationships with the activists and the students. And there was a long moment that day where it appeared it might fall through — and that was where I saw Fred in action for the first time. And I really liked what I saw. I think that’s also the first time he saw me in action, doing this work, and liked what he saw. Over the rest of the year, I was the co-lead of one of the University Strategic Plan working groups — which I think never would have happened had I not come to senior leadership attention during the occupation.
Let’s switch gears a bit. Around the same time, you got involved with the Slavery, History, Memory and Reconciliation project, an initiative of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. What does it mean to you and to the University?
I brought that idea to the table early on. My first year as chief diversity officer, the prime objective was the Clock Tower Accords. But I also let everyone know that we needed to research our history with slavery. Institutions around the nation were doing that kind of research — and I thought it was imperative that we do it, especially as we were rolling up on our bicentennial. That conversation coincided with a conversation that the Jesuit province was already having. Early on, we decided to do the work together.
I think it’s important to note that this wasn’t something we were dragged into. There are a number of places where a student protest or exposé surfaced this issue, but we decided proactively.
The project’s overall aim is to figure out appropriate responses to our history with slavery. But before we even began addressing responses, we wanted to do as much research as possible. I was the most pessimistic person in the room in terms of our ability to find out much beyond what we knew at the time, which was just the first names of the original six slaves who worked at the University.
That started in 2016. And then it was so fruitful that it took forever to reach the public phase, because at some point we understood we could reach living descendants. That was unthinkable at the beginning.
As we researched, we wanted to focus on the lives of enslaved people as opposed to the sins of the owners. At this point, we don’t need to just find the transgressions. No one has to make the argument that slavery was wrong — simply owning another human being crosses a line. But what has been missing are the ways to enrich the narratives about the lives of the people who were enslaved, who did the work, who had families, married, moved about. That’s important.
And then when we could reach living descendants, we wanted to include them in the conversation at the front end as opposed to the back end.
Engage them — not tell them what we’re going to do with this research, but ask them.
Yes. And this telescopes one of the demands that has come up in different places: Some people are calling on us to change the names of DuBourg and Verhaegen halls, and so on. And my response — and I think it’s the appropriate and ethical and equitable response — is whatever we do, we want to prioritize the voices of descendants.
Look, we’re discussing everything — nothing’s off the table. But it’s important to hear the priorities of the descendants. Changing the names of buildings doesn’t materially benefit anybody. It doesn’t change structures or history.
Now, the names of buildings and monuments and structures are important. I’m a person who believes that symbols are deeply important; I’m not saying that names don’t matter. It’s just that in this conversation, if the descendants say we’d rather those names stay and we’ll put our names on new buildings, then that should be the plan.
I think that gets at how both the history and the priorities have evolved for that project.
What does the project mean for SLU going forward? Will the work continue to inform things?
Yes, but exactly how? Even as co-director of the project, I don’t completely know. I do know that engagement with descendants of the enslaved people — that’s not going away. The people who are descendants today will always be descendants, and so will their children.
And we don’t think of the research as having an end date. Because who knows what records will be discovered? Who knows what scholar might come along and tie together a loose thread or see something differently?
Let’s talk about other work that’s ongoing, the University’s response to the Clock Tower Accords. What progress has been made?
Yes, that work has been ongoing, and I refer readers to the Clock Tower Accords website, which we continue to update. And I want to say that we will continue to work not only toward fulfilling the accords but also to honoring and amplifying the spirit from which they were born.
With so many of the accords, the work happens in small spaces — but it happens continuously. Like the Diversity Speaker Series. Look at that list of speakers: so many people, so many different types, on campus under the auspices of the accords. It’s been in conjunction with academic departments, student organizations, the Urban League — partnerships made that happen.
Some of the things at the heart of the accords — financial aid, bridge programs, retention of African American students — those are ongoing and, frankly, multigenerational projects. Also, some of that work is so mundane. People don’t want to check retention rates and financial aid data on a daily basis. And that’s where the rubber meets the road. What is the debt load of Black students? Reciting data doesn’t make for a great story.
Young people need to have the fierce urgency of now. Those of us in positions to make decisions about structures and institutions need to commit to the long haul. That leaves space for a lot of possibilities."Smith
But it’s absolutely important. And there was a dramatic increase in the grant aid awarded to Black students. From the 2013-14 academic year to the 2016-17 academic year, there was a 36% increase in institutional gift aid to Black freshmen. That gets distributed across students, so it’s hard to feel that progress in real time.
There’s also reducing the debt ratio or the debt load. Reducing the amount of debt that a student has when they graduate is an important part of access and retention, and increasing the amount of institutional financial aid that’s not loan-based contributes to access programs like the African American Male Scholar Initiative. And the pilot of our test-optional admissions initiative is a huge step toward access, just because of the disparities in test scores that exist along axes of race and socioeconomic status.
The University was talking about going “test-optional” before the pandemic?
Yes, it just happened to coincide. We’d been talking about that all year. Same with the Donald Suggs Scholarships for current SLU students from underrepresented backgrounds. None of this was in response to COVID-19. We saw it as related to Clock Tower Accords work. We consider scholarships retention because if we bring students here and they leave without a degree but have debt, that’s a serious disservice. For those cases where finances make it hard to stay, we’ve tried to make it easier by partnering with the development division and working closely with the Black Alumni Association to provide resources for scholarship funds, such as the Pioneers of Inclusion Scholarship, the John Berry Meachum Scholarship and the St. Peter Claver, S.J., Service Scholarship.
Recently some students, young alumni and other members of the University community have spoken out about systemic issues and microaggressions they’ve experienced being Black at SLU. How do you respond to that?
How do I respond to that?
Those of us who live as Black people in this society experience that in so many places. Like the story I told earlier, walking out of my house and there’s a homeless person who by so many criteria is a suspicious person in my neighborhood, who microaggressed me twice in my own neighborhood. When you throw that in the context of higher education, there’s nothing surprising about those experiences. It’s absolutely valuable for us to hear and learn from those experiences. And actually, this summer isn’t the first time the hashtag #blackatslu came up. It may have started as far back as 2014.
In September 2020, students reacted to a racially charged incident on campus with a protest and a vigil. How does student activism inform your work? You talked about being an activist yourself during the protests on campus in 2014. How does that continue to affect you?
I think about Martin Luther King’s 1963 speech at the Washington Monument, which begins with one of King’s most oft-repeated phrases, “the fierce urgency of now.” In 1963, the promise of freedom is already 100 years too late. So, the fierce urgency of now. But the part of the speech that everybody remembers is the “I have a dream” portion, and one of the key phrases is, “I have a dream that one day my children…” If you pull those two phrases together, they appear in conflict: the fierce urgency of now, and a dream that one day my children.
I see this as the necessary engine of change. I think the role of young people has always been to introduce the fierce urgency of now. I think the role of those of us in leadership is to secure change in a way that’s transformational. And I think that for structures to be transformed and for progress to be real, we always need those two things in action with each other.
This is something I’ve thought about long before I was in this position. And I think of myself and my history as an activist, and my parents’ history.
Both of my parents were involved in the Montgomery bus boycott. My father used his car to pick up people who needed to ride the buses; people would gather at parking lots that were owned by Black business people, and folks like my dad would drive them places. He was arrested with a large group of people, including Martin Luther King. And then my mother. What my mother did was not ride the bus. For her, the thing to do was an inaction. And that inaction was activism, just like my father’s activist action was to pick people up. It took me a while to even see that kind of dichotomy.
One of my earliest memories is sitting on the hood of my father’s 1963 sea-green Pontiac Catalina — it’s a very specific memory — and watching him picket outside of an A&P in Chicago. Later, he becomes a school board member. As he grew older and his circumstances changed, his leadership and commitment never waned, but he did it differently. For 40-some years, he was a school board member and at least 20 of those, he was president of the board. He was pastor of a church. He wasn’t necessarily on the streets, but he set an example for me.
That’s why in 2014, when people were scheduling marches via social media at like 10 o’clock on a Sunday night, I thought, “I’m 50-something, and I got sciatica, and I can’t stay up late anymore.” (laughs) I couldn’t always be out on the streets, so what do I do? Because the aim is to secure transformation.
Do you have a history of activism, like your parents?
It was all I did in college. The big issue then was South Africa and university divestment. But yes, that’s what I did for four years, often to the detriment of my studies — picketing. During the spring semester of my freshman year at Princeton University, we picketed behind the administration building every day. I was out there, rain, shine, snow.
There was a sit-in my freshman year in the administration building, on the hall with the president’s office. Fast-forward to the summer of 2015. One weekend I go into DuBourg Hall, and I’ve been told my ID will get me in. I don’t trust it. I think, I’m going to pull the door handle, and the Department of Public Safety is going to descend because I don’t belong here. But I get into my office and I’m sitting there thinking, why is this feeling familiar? It hit me: I’m alone in the senior administration building after hours — and I was reminded of the last time I was in a senior administration building after hours, when I was involved in the sit-in.
It helps me understand the fullness of King’s speech. I appreciate being in a space where I still feel I can speak truth to power. I haven’t had to make my view of the world fit into this job. I see myself as connected to this long arc of struggle that’s anti-racist, that seeks to end sexism and misogyny and homophobia. Not an iota of that has changed.
So, what can you do, what can any university do, to make for a more equitable experience? How does a community that is starting to recognize that it needs to get better actually get better?
By simply doing anything you can.
Look, this structure of modern racism is minimally 400 years old. There’s a case to be made that it’s almost 600 years old. And it was built and cultivated through the settling of the Americas, through the American Revolution, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the Civil War, through to World War I. On the flip side, we’re at less than 100 years. If you go back to Brown v. Board of Education, that’s only 1954. We have to understand that even though we have made quite a bit of progress, it’s going to be a multigenerational struggle to fully change.
So, young people need to have the fierce urgency of now. Those of us in positions to make decisions about structures and institutions need to commit to the long haul. That leaves space for a lot of possibilities. If it’s about reading and training on a personal level, do that. If it’s about organizational affiliation, do that. If it’s about political activism, do that. If it’s about caring for friends and family who are Black and other people of color, absolutely do that. If it’s bystander intervention or even documenting events, do that. Whatever you can imagine to do in opposition to racism, do it.
Any other advice for our readers who want to make a difference?
Well, as a teacher, what I’d suggest is to read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time.
In two beautifully written essays, it will give you a good look at what it means to be Black in the U.S. and what it means to be young, Black and male in the U.S. It will also give you a sense of what it means to love a place and to critique that place.
One of my favorite passages is near the end. Baldwin is talking about the possibilities of racial progress and change and reconciliation and transformation, and he says, “Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands. We have no right to assume otherwise.” And then he says that we Black folk and white folk who are committed to this have an opportunity to change the world.
Smith also shared his thoughts on several SLU initiatives that focus on diversity.
African American Studies
“We’re well down the road on having African American studies move from a program to a department under the leadership of Dr. Chris Tinson. He and the provost’s are working steadily, and we’ll hopefully be there next fall.”
SLU Health Resource Center/Urban League Partnership
“The HRC, which is a free clinic run by SLU medical students, is on track to get expanded space in their building. The Urban League is going to offer more of their services there, which will make that a hub for people who are looking for a variety of services and health care access.
“Especially now, considering what COVID-19 has amplified about the health disparities in our country, it feels more important than ever that we offer better access to health care.”
New Internal SLU Committee on Diversity
“That committee is essentially looking at what we’ve done. Look at the Clock Tower Accords. Where is progress being made, and where are we lagging behind? We will look at that in relationship to a set of demands and concerns that have come from Black faculty and staff, alumni, the Black Student Alliance over the last several months. We’ll prioritize at a fairly high level. There may be some things we put broad timelines to, if there are things we think can happen within a semester or a year. But this is not a committee that will do implementation.”
New Diversity Subcommittee of the Board of Trustees
“This is a regular subcommittee of the board, and I’m the administrator responsible for reporting to and engaging with the committee. It will allow us to ensure that there’s board-level accountability and engagement about equity issues for the University.”
— By Amy Garland
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