Asa Daniels, senior staff writer
On Sept. 20, Dean of Students Lindsey Taylor announced via email that Haley Smith, director of the Gate Scholarship program, would become the new Student Diversity Initiatives (SDI) director effective Oct. 1. She will be filling the role that Chon’tel Washington left this past summer.
“Haley is certified in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, Circle Facilitation in higher education and is completing her master’s at Eastern Mennonite University in Transformational Leadership, which focuses on restorative social justice, conflict transformation, and peace-building,” the email from Taylor stated.
In the interim, Assistant Dean of Students, Meredith Johnson, has been acting as liaison for the SDI office.
Johnson said taking on the role was an easy transition thanks to Washington’s work and the work of the students in the SDI office. She has been able to focus on being a resource for the office during her time.
“I was just plugged [in] and made myself available as a resource and helping in any way possible,” Johnson said. “Mainly, that’s with me checking in regularly with the student leaders who are managing the day-to-day work of the office and just helping support those plans and helping with anything that comes up.”
Johnson is excited for the skills that Smith can bring to not only build upon the SDI office but also provide new ideas.
“I know that she is a very creative person, she’s a very relationship-focused person and very committed to the work of the SDI office, and so I know that she will continue to build on a lot of the things that we’ve been putting in place, in the SDI office,” Johnson said. “I’m excited to see what new things and how she can build on that and just grow a lot of the programs and the impact of the office.”
When Smith joined Berry in May of 2020, the Black Lives Matter protests in response to the murder of George Floyd were happening. That event, and the following diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives at Berry, gave her exposure to the environment at Berry around DEI topics.
“I [wanted] to know if the culture that we have here is conducive to my own work and it has to be if it’s going to be conducive for students to be able to have a community where they feel like they belong, not just that they’re told they belong, but they really feel like they belong,” Smith said. “Being part of the committees and being able to partner with some of the different departments on the side of Gate that focused on DEI really gave me more experience on how it would work here.”
Smith explained that, though she has only been at Berry for a year, her experiences before and during her time at Berry have aided in her ability to do DEI work.
Smith hopes that the SDI office will be able to help bring about long-term changes regarding DEI at Berry, even if they do take time.
Smith adds that she hopes current students will be able to appreciate the changes brought about in the distant future.
“Students today that are in leadership will be able to look back at Berry as alumni and say ‘[this] is a completely different place than it was because of some of the work I got to do and partner in,’”Smith said.
Smith is looking forward to learning from students on what the SDI department should work and focus on in the best interests of students.
“I think that the best way to learn what we need is having conversations with students,” Smith said. “I think having conversations with staff and faculty is going to be important, but this is really about what the students need, so having conversations with student workers, having conversations with students who are from marginalized communities, I think that’s the first thing before I could start moving on something.”
Before taking on the role as SDI Director, Smith worked as the director for the Gate of Opportunity Scholarship. Students who got to know her through the scholarship program were able to attest to the qualities Smith brings to the table in both positions.
“Haley brings the vision and experience of creating and fostering a collaborative community,” sophomore Gate Scholar Hannah Horton said. “She has proven through her accomplishments within the Gate program, that community can happen, and that she can put in the work to help make it. I am excited for the whole Berry community to be able to experience this as well.”
Junior Macilah Taylor, student program coordinator in the SDI office, also believes that these conversations will be vital for Smith to be able to fulfill her role.
“Chon’tel had such a good relationship with other students so I’m excited to see how that plays out,” Taylor said. “I hope [Smith] cultivates a great relationship with a plethora of students and our student groups and our office [because], before even programming, relationships and connections [are] the most important thing.”
Being a Gate Scholar, Tristan Bawi, freshman, has experienced firsthand the sense of inclusion he feels Smith aims to foster by listening to the needs and voices of all students in the Berry community. He is confident she will continue to do so in the SDI office.
“I’m so excited to see her working on diversity and equity for other people of color and members of the LBGTQ+ community,” Bawi said. “Berry is doing work for people of different skin colors and they are becoming more accepting of LGBTQ+ people, but [Berry] does not do much. But, I know Haley cares about working on issues in both of these areas. I am so happy she is going to work on them and I know she can do it.”
While Taylor is looking forward to what Smith can do for the SDI office, she was surprised that the hiring process did not include any members of the SDI office. She explained that she wished her experience with the office had been considered in the hiring process.
“I know the work I do transcends and affects a lot of students here on campus and so it’s hurtful that my experience wasn’t good enough to have an influence on this decision, or anyone from my office,” Taylor said. “It’s odd to me but also I think it’s not very shocking, I feel that’s how Berry does it a lot of the time.”
Taylor also expressed concern that the SDI director hiring process was as quick as it was, given the history of other DEI initiatives being told that they will take time to implement.
“Everything this office needs or needed, has been under the guise of ‘this is going to take time, you need to be patient about this,’ except for a new director of SDI, so that’s odd and worrisome to me,” Taylor said.
Taylor added that Smith’s hiring does not equate to Berry having met previous calls for a Chief Diversity Officer.
“Diversity work transcends among all offices, so we need staff, we need bodies, working full-force on this,” Taylor said. “I am hoping [a Chief Diversity Officer] is still on their radar, I don’t know how seriously they took that suggestion early in the year when we proposed it to administration and the Board of Trustees, and maybe we can revisit that, but I think that is such an important position.”
Likewise, Taylor believes it is key for other members of the Berry community to support the SDI office so that it can continue what it does.
“I think students here deserve support from our office and the best way we can do that is getting support through other community members,” Taylor said.
Johnson said that she and her office will continue to support the SDI office once Smith is director to make sure that the work isn’t just carried by the SDI office.
“[This] is part of the continuation of some collaborative efforts that have been in the works, to ensure it’s not just the SDI office that is working on these issues but that it’s something [that has] many partners on campus and that we can make more progress to make sure that our campus is safe, inclusive and supportive of all our students,” Johnson said.
Smith echoes these statements that it will be a campus-wide effort to bring about meaningful change with regards to DEI and the work of the SDI office.
“I think that when you look at diversity, equity and inclusion, it’s going to be important for us to partner with different entities on campus, different departments, different people, different student organizations, I think that’s really important if we really want to see cultural change,” Smith said. “If this work is not important to anybody but this office, then we’re not going to get as much done as we want to do get done.”
According to Leslie Gutierrez, senior Gate Scholar, Smith’s dedication to intentional change is one of the qualities Smith offers that will help her succeed in the new position and be beneficial to both the program and Berry community.
“She has made a lot of significant changes to the Gate program, and I have no doubt she will continue to make change in the diversity aspect at Berry,” Gutierrez said. “She is determined and creative when it comes to a variety of things so I’m excited to see what she will continue to achieve.”
Additionally, Smith added that it will be important for her and the SDI office to keep in mind their mental health, given that DEI work can be difficult for people of color and those in marginalized communities.
“We don’t go home from our oppression,” Smith said. “We talk about it at work, we’re figuring out some different things on how to make this community more inclusive, but a lot of that we take home with us, with what our identity is, and so sometimes that can be very heavy. I think it will be important for me to make sure that, one, I prioritize my own mental health [because] I’m not going to be of any good service to anybody unless I’m healthy, and then also making sure we prioritize the student leaders who are doing this work, making sure that they’re taking care of their mental health and that we have the resources needed to do that because it is so personal and it is so connected to who we are.”