Protesting Smith students allege racial bias

  • Smith College School for Social Work student Manuel Ortiz speaks during a rally outside of Seelye Hall on Tuesday to protest alleged racist rhetoric and attitudes experienced by students in the Masters in Social Work program. —Gazette Staff / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Smith College School for Social Work third-year student Maki Camacho speaks during a rally outside of Seelye Hall on Tuesday to protest alleged racist rhetoric and attitudes experienced by students in the Masters in Social Work program. —Gazette Staff / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Peggy O'Neill, an assistant professor in the Smith College School for Social Work, listens to a second-year student in the program address her directly during a rally outside of Seelye Hall on Tuesday. The student, who declined to be identified, was the last of several speakers at the event held to protest what were termed, in a flyer drafted by first-year students, as "racist rhetoric and attitudes" allegedly experienced by students in the Masters in Social Work program. —Gazette Staff / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Smith College School for Social Work student Jackie Cosse speaks during a rally outside of Seelye Hall on Tuesday to protest alleged racist rhetoric and attitudes experienced by students in the master’s in social work program. Below, Maki Camacho speaks. She is a third-year student in the School for Social Work. Gazette Staff/KEVIN GUTTING PHOTOS

  • Smith College School for Social Work student Jackie Cosse speaks during a rally outside of Seelye Hall on Tuesday to protest alleged racist rhetoric and attitudes experienced by students in the Masters in Social Work program. —Gazette Staff / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Smith College School for Social Work third-year student Katherine Roubos speaks during a rally outside of Seelye Hall on Tuesday to protest alleged racist rhetoric and attitudes experienced by students in the Masters in Social Work program. —Gazette Staff / KEVIN GUTTING

  • About 250 people attended a rally outside Seelye Hall at Smith College on Tuesday to protest what were termed, in a flyer drafted by first-year students, as "racist rhetoric and attitudes" allegedly experienced by students in the School of Social Work Masters in Social Work program. Gazette Staff/KEVIN GUTTING

  • About 250 people attended a rally outside Seelye Hall at Smith College on Tuesday to protest alleged racist rhetoric and attitudes experienced by students in the School of Social Work Masters in Social Work program. —Gazette Staff / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Smith College School for Social Work student Courtney Tucker finished her address to a rally outside of Seelye Hall on Tuesday with a recitation of "Still I Rise" by Maya Angelou, to which many in the crowd of 250 replied, "still we rise." —Gazette Staff / KEVIN GUTTING

  • About 250 people attended a rally outside Seelye Hall at Smith College on Tuesday to protest alleged racist rhetoric and attitudes experienced by students in the School of Social Work Masters in Social Work program. —Gazette Staff / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Smith College School for Social Work student Courtney Tucker finished her address to a rally outside of Seelye Hall on Tuesday with a recitation of "Still I Rise" by Maya Angelou, to which many in the crowd of 250 replied, "still we rise." —Gazette Staff / KEVIN GUTTING

@DHGCrosby
Published: 8/16/2016 8:58:31 PM

NORTHAMPTON — A majority of students enrolled in Smith College’s School for Social Work gathered on campus Tuesday to protest what they described as the institution’s failure to resolve ongoing complaints of racial bias.

The day before, over 80 students gathered privately to discuss what they described as racist attitudes among some faculty members, citing two letters written by full-time and adjunct faculty members.

Third-year student Manuel Ortiz, who helped lead Tuesday’s noontime protest outside Seelye Hall, said the letters — copies of which were reviewed by the Gazette — come as no surprise to students who he said have been flagging issues of racism in the program for “at least eight years.”

Ortiz said students face unfair criticism from faculty who question their suitability for the school and profession. He led the crowd in vocally expressing that they deserve to be at Smith and are competent. Until recently, he said, the program hasn’t recognized issues of racism alleged by students.

Myrna Flynn, the school’s communications manager, said in an email to the Gazette, in response to questions, that the program is “dedicated to the work of inclusion and access.”

She said that work is moving forward and “will be spurred by the energy that student actions, such as this rally, have generated.”

“This is the beginning of a conversation,” she said.

But several students who spoke during the rally, such as second-year Susana Gomez, said they feel as though concerns about racism are not being taken seriously.

Gomez, who identifies as a person of color and a disabled person, said during the protest that she was placed under review by the school.

A statement from student Christopher Watkins, provided before the event, alleged that a “disproportionate amount of Black and Latino students are under review.”

Gomez said the reviews are usually confidential, but her understanding is that they take place when a student’s “essential attributes” have been called into question.

Gomez said her work was called into question because she was trying to serve in an “anti-oppressive” way with clients. She said the school did not support her wish to practice social work in a way that wasn’t “oppressive and redactive.”

Although her review didn’t bar her from graduating, Gomez said, it has for others.

Student Jackie Cosse said remarks by a professor in one of the letters provided a “concrete piece” that has focused student activism to address racism on their campus.

Students interviewed Tuesday said they believe the two documents display racial biases, call into question the competence of the current student body and raise questions around determining which students should be allowed to join the social work profession.

One letter anonymously sent to Smith College President Kathleen McCartney by a group of concerned adjunct faculty suggests rifts among students, faculty and administrators.

The perception on campus, according to the letter, is that the school administration is “allowing the school to sink into chaos and (to) self destruct.”

“What many people are thinking but afraid to say is that when students are admitted who do not have the academic qualifications to do well enough in a rigorous, demanding, stressful program … these students are being set up for failure particularly when we do not provide adequate support of all types as they pass through the program,” the letter from adjunct faculty members said. The letter went on to state that this is both “unethical and immoral.”

“There is clearly something terribly faulty with the admission policy when scores of students develop, from the very start, serious problems in both their academic performance and their field experience,” it said.

A second letter, attributed to a full-time faculty member, suggested that administrators were creating chaos and strongly questioned the school’s admission process, which according to the letter, “has been tainted for a number of years.”

“We have admitted students who did not have a reasonable chance of success in our program,” he said.

The letter also speaks to “differential outcomes to students of color” and said that “student narratives may be exaggerated at this point” in regard to students of color expressing their “concerns and outrage at how they perceive they have been treated at the School and in the field agencies.”

The full-time faculty member who wrote that letter could not be reached by phone at his office or home for comment Tuesday.

The Gazette is withholding his name because it could not independently verify that he was the author of the letter.

Dean Marianne Yoshioka agreed to speak to the Gazette about the letters Tuesday afternoon but later canceled that interview.

Gomez, the second-year student, said the issue addressed Tuesday is a microcosm of “the shadow side” of the social work profession. She said social workers are complicit in using the field to “objectify, to reduce, to pathologize and to use as a tool for social control.”

The school and field in general need to examine whose words are valued and whose are not, she said.

Protest calls

In Tuesday’s protest, students took to the main steps of Seelye Hall one by one to decry what was articulated in the letters. Some 250 of their peers stood around them in solidarity against what they called “violent, racist rhetoric directed toward students of color.”

The school has an estimated 370 master’s degree students and 25 doctoral students.

Speakers included white students and students of color. Ortiz said the diverse group present offered evidence that students as a whole are standing against racism. “Last year, over 250 students and alumns signed the anti-racism petition,” he said.

“We have crowded the rooms, just as these issues of oppression have crowded our experiences here,” he said of Smith.

Some 190 white students signed a letter in support of issues raised by students of color.

Student Katherine Roubos said social justice must be central in clinical work.

“We bear witness to the violence of racialized, differential treatment of students of color,” Roubos said. Those students should not have to act as educators for professors at the expense of their own learning, Roubos said.

Students clad in black clothing held high signs quoting a passage from the faculty member’s letter, which read: “The narratives that students are creating are in many instances not reflective of actual events.”

Maki Camacho, a third-year student, said the review process that students face is sometimes a “way to gatekeep” who graduates from the program and who does not. She will be graduating as a person of color this year, she said, but some of her peers will not.

She, and others, called for change from the school’s faculty and administration.

Flynn, the school’s spokeswoman, said the rally “takes place in the context of the final week of the semester.” She said “students and faculty are focusing on completing academic work in anticipation of graduation.”

But for an hour, students put academic work on hold to stand for what they said is an issue of social justice – a calling they feel is an integral part of being a social worker.

“Together, we rebuild ourselves,” said Ortiz. He thanked the group for coming together to share in his pain, his anger and his voice.

“We reimagine that which is broken, and we become something whole,” he said.

Sarah Crosby can be reached at scrosby@gazettenet.com. 




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