Interview with Regina Smith, Naropa’s Interim Director of Diversity

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Recent events across the nation, and here on our own campus, have inspired a renewed effort to examine Naropa’s relationship to diversity, equality, inclusion, community, and justice. Part of that effort includes engaging all community members—Naropa leadership, faculty, staff, and students—in the conversation. Recently, we had a chance to sit with alumna Regina Smith, Naropa’s Interim Director of Diversity, to hear her thoughts on the role of community in creating an inclusive environment at Naropa.

Department of University Relations: What brought you to Naropa?

Regina Smith: Well, primarily suffering. [LAUGHS] I think that’s probably what brings a lot of people into any place where they’re willing to completely change their life. I was living in Brooklyn, New York, and I was at a job that I had been at for 8 years, and a relationship I’d been in for 7 years. I had an extensive community, but I wasn’t very happy. I think that’s what brought me to Naropa—trying to figure out how to suffer less. And I was listening to a lot of Tara Brach, who’s a Buddhist meditation teacher, and her dharma talks. I commuted 4 hours a day, so on my commute to and from work I’d listen to dharma talks—kind of the only respite in my life was when I was listening to those dharma talks.

DUR: Was this in Brooklyn?

RS: Yes. I was commuting from Brooklyn to my job in White Plains, and I was also looking at PhD programs, because I already had a Master of Fine Arts in Poetry, so I was looking to further my education. I was looking at programs that would bring together spirituality and psychology, and there were a number of programs out there, but all of them were studying these disciplines from the outside, you know, and I wanted to study them from the inside. I was exposed to sitting Zen, and I asked one of the other students where I could go for spiritual psychology, and they mentioned transpersonal psychology as a field–which I had never heard of. I Googled it, and Naropa came up. And I ended up coming here for the Contemplative Counseling Psychology program.

DUR: That’s what we’re finding as we hear from students – that people come from a place of suffering or transition, and are really realizing that the moment has come for them to actually claim their lives, and then questioning how they’re going to find a program that’s going to give them the hope they need, right?

RS: There’s a line at the end of a Rilke poem [“Archaic Torso of Apollo”], and he says “You must change your life.” It’s the last line. And so that rang true for me, and then also, I was listening to a talk by Pema Chödron and she was talking about how she was on a silent retreat, and you know, she wasn’t able to talk, and she had in her mind another nun that was on the retreat. Something was going on between the two of them, but she couldn’t talk it out with this person because it was silent–and so she started to really obsess about this. This person and their interaction, like it was so immensely uncomfortable, and at some point she realized that she had spent her whole life running from that very experience she was having. I remember hearing that as well, as a part of what influenced me particularly to choose this program, because there’s a lot of mandatory sitting, there are retreat requirements, and I wanted to … stop running from myself, and see who I was made of, or what I was made of, or who I am.

DUR: What are your personal connections and passions around diversity?

RS: I’m trying to, like, go back, [LAUGHS] to, like, “Where did this start?” because I never intended to do diversity work, or to actually be in the field that I am currently in! It wasn’t like: “Yes!”

I think just being a person of color in this country—and especially a person of color whose education is taking place in primarily white institutions and environments—you just kind of naturally end up doing diversity work because your experience is markedly different from the experience of those around you. And you’re trying to make sense of your life and of the world. Some of the only things that start to make sense are the ways in which the culture is structured to silence you, or to identify you, or, y’know, the feelings of outsiderness and loneliness—feeling a little “off” all the time—kind of can make you crazy, y’know? So trying to find a way to normalize that experience for yourself, in order to just survive.

I think you end up needing to learn more to contextualize your experience, and then—I think that I was already a really sensitive child, and really spiritual and poetic, and needing to be understood, and to articulate my experiences—and so I think those two streams coming together is what led me to want to really understand my experience, but then to be able to share it with other people. And then, later, I think the idea that I could transform my experience—or people’s understanding or something—came on line.

DUR: Did Naropa have anything to do with that—your ability to transform?

RS: Well, I think before I came to Naropa… I also went to Sarah Lawrence College in New York, which is a small white, liberal arts college. It’s very similar in some ways to Naropa—we focus on spirituality, they have more focus on the arts—but some of the messaging, the branding, and who’s drawn to these institutions feels somewhat similar. Anyway, one of my friends who’s white asked me “Why?” When I decided to come to Naropa, she was like: “Why do you keep going to these really small white, wealthy enclaves? What is that about?” And I didn’t have an answer at the time, and then after being here for a while, and when I started to get into diversity work, I was able to reflect on that. I think I actually had to go to primarily white environments to really understand my identity as a black woman. Because I’m very fair skinned, I have curly hair—you know, I’ve never quite been fully accepted by the black community, and never quite been fully accepted by the white community—so I think I didn’t really know how to claim being black until it was unquestionable. And in primarily white environments, my identity is really unquestionable, because I’m definitely black when I am surrounded by white people.

I think it was in part a developmental stage that I had to go through in order to fully claim my blackness, but it wasn’t conscious. I didn’t like do it—until after the fact—I was like: “Oh, y’know, it’s kind of like my spirit or something….” And then, in terms of Naropa’s education and how that’s enabled me to … transmute or transform my experience–yes, I think that’s what I studied and learned in the contemplative counseling program, around warriorship and around a kind of primordial confidence, and around the unquestionable right that I have to be here, and to exist. And around my basic goodness, I think all of those teachings for me did transmute—or help me work with—internalized oppression. And, particularly in the contemplative counseling psychology program, which is a cohort model—you’re training the entire time in being able to hold your seat, no matter what comes at you, the value of your voice, speaking your truth, and how to do it skillfully.

So all of those skills that I learned definitely helped. I can’t see myself being in the position I am in now without having gone through that program.

DUR: How do you believe community should work to foster and grow broad, natural, and healthy inclusive environments?

RS: I don’t think I have an answer to that question yet, because I’m still trying to understand what community actually is, and what it means. I don’t know yet if I believe in community. I want to believe in community, but I don’t know if I really do.

DUR: Does your lack of belief in community stem from your experience with diversity, or with the lack of diversity?

RS: Yes, definitely! That’s why I think I’m still … curious about community, and I think that’s what we all really long for. I believe that there are other cultures that probably have those experiences that we western United States folks want, and I’m sure there are communities within the U.S. that are succeeding at it as well. I’m not sure how diverse those communities are, but I want to believe that we can grow something where we take care of each other. But I don’t think I’ve had enough experience with that personally. Not enough that I know how to do it, or what that looks like, anyway.

So I think it’s an open question that I live—trying to find community—and I think I used to try to find it more. Now I’m trying to actively co-create community, and I think that’s what we’re trying to figure out here. It’s like: “We might know how to do community, if it’s not diverse.” Y’know, but I think we don’t yet know how to have a truly diverse community in this country.

DUR: Can you articulate Naropa’s current status with regards to diversity, in your own words?

The first thing that comes to mind is a part of this quotation that I really like by TS Eliot [from the Four Quartets], where he says “Do not hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing,” or something like that, and I feel like that when it comes to where Naropa is regarding diversity. In some ways, I thought we were farther along than we are. I feel like privilege, and the ignorance that comes from having privilege is so pervasive, and also invisible, that it’s also … you know, they talk about it—or we talk about it—as “the water we swim in.” How do you work with something that’s that close? How do you make something that’s that habitual, unconscious, something that you can then take—aside from yourself—or see from a distance, in order to have enough perspective to do something about it? Is there a way to create change without suffering? And, if there needs to be suffering, how much suffering do we need? I feel like the community did suffer with, or as a result of, our student protests, but now that the immediacy of that situation has passed, I am able to see that it still didn’t trouble the waters—not as much as it seemed like it was troubling the waters when it was on.

Do we need to suffer more as individuals, or as a community, in order to really want to significantly commit and make this a top priority? Not just for “those people,” but for all of us? Or is there a way to create change in other ways? I think about the Coalition for Cultural Transformation and its potential, how it could create a cultural shift, through connection and community, relationship, and a more systems approach. Not just having someone on top who’s saying “This is exactly what needs to happen,” but actually having all these groups brainstorming together and synergizing and creating change, from a new paradigm of power sharing!

I kind of vacillate between hopelessness and hopefulness, depending on the hour and the day. I don’t know if that speaks to where Naropa is as an institution, but I think we are at a crossroads, and we’ll either go back to sleep—and by going back to sleep, eventually become irrelevant to the rest of the world. We’ll just be a little monastic, entitled, privileged community that really wants to make change, but ultimately isn’t doing it, in the long run. Or, we’ll wake up—or continue to wake up—and become increasingly more relevant, and potentially—in my opinion—there is no reason why, with significant commitment, we couldn’t actually be change agents and be the model for other institutions. This could be how to “walk our talk.”

DUR: How do you think can Naropa offer a more inclusive campus environment?

RS: I think that there are different levels that we need to work on simultaneously. Like the intrapersonal. I think each individual needs to commit to deep, inward examination, identifying the places in which they’re holding bias, or privilege, or ignorance, or unwillingness, resistance, y’know, and working with those individually, which I think is not a simple thing. I mean, you’re basically asking people to unlearn who they think they are in order to buy into this collective identity that’s really kind of anti- the way Americans are taught to view the self.

And, yes, the dissolution of the self—and that whole positive disintegration that is necessary—is painful. So few people, willingly, I think, undertake that. But then, the next level will be looking at our interpersonal relationships, and how we treat each other interpersonally, and looking at ways in which we take up space and use our power, and use our privilege, to either support others or—even if it’s not consciously—oppress others. And then there’s the institutional level, which includes looking at our policies and our practices, and our procedures and how we operate, for all of the places in which bias continues to influence how we operate.

And looking at the ways in which—like every other institution—we’ve been operating from a dominant ideology and then how can we really be willing to start rebuilding Naropa from the ground up? Not throwing out the things that we love, but I think in wanting to protect Naropa’s lineage and legacy, we really do pull back from deep examination of the ways in which we have perpetuated a very exclusive membership to this club.

DUR: If Trungpa was alive, from my perspective, I think it would be the same. That would be what he would say–”Why aren’t we doing this?” I mean, that is what our motto is about—tearing down, deconstructing, and rebuilding the better right minded fashion.

RS: I agree that there are probably not enough people willing to be outrageous, to follow the ‘crazy wisdom’ legacy. I’m not deeply steeped in his teachings, so I don’t want to misspeak, but it just seems like people aren’t wild and crazy enough when it comes to wanting to create change. Myself included.

DUR: What, to you, is Naropa’s mission around diversity today?

RS: I don’t know. What comes to mind, things that I think of, how we’re in this “cocoon” that we don’t want to come out of. It’s safe, and it’s cozy, and it’s habitual–and I feel like we still operate from a fear-driven place, and from some poverty consciousness. Those are like our anti-mission. So, I think our mission, I mean: transform yourself, transform the world! I don’t know if it gets any clearer than that! [LAUGHS]

What does it actually mean to “transform?” Does it mean that you just add a bunch of stuff to who you are already are? Like a sitting practice, y’know, or some cool new language to talk about? I mean, transformation, again, goes back to this idea of positive disintegration, really getting down to the essence of self, and maybe some of it just reconstitutes. Really thinking about—not necessarily just what we want—but what the world needs. Being willing to suffer, in order to really get whatever it is we need to get in our bones, so that we show up in the world like a very different self. So we’re more willing to become vessels for change, and not just polishing our egos.

I also think we’re so afraid of being bad people, which is interesting at a school where one of the basic teachings is humanity’s basic goodness. If it’s not possible to be a bad person—if we’re not basically bad—then why are we afraid of what we’re going to discover if we look too closely or get too involved?

DUR: How do you see your position contributing to that mission?

RS: I don’t even know if I will be in this position in 12 months. I am having a baby. And it’s an interim position, and the director will come back. What I think is interesting is that I applied for this position a year ago, and I didn’t get it. And I was really upset—I was doing all this diversity work on campus. I wanted this position. I applied for it and I didn’t get it, and I actually started kind of scaling back my diversity work on campus although I was still teaching diversity and doing presentations at conferences with my colleagues.

I just think it’s really funny, or kind of ironic, or something, that when I finally was okay not being the director of diversity, all this came about.

DUR: So as soon as you didn’t want it, it dropped in your life?

RS: Kind of like I wanted it so bad I was pushing it away or something. But now, of course, I feel even less attached to having it. You know, by the time I got it, I was like “I don’t know about that!”

So what do I think about this role in relationship to diversity?

DUR: Over the next 12 months?

P1140750RS: The way I’m approaching the position is that it’s not humanly possible for any one person to do all that needs to be done to shift the culture of Naropa. It’s just not possible. I think the interim nature of the position is actually a gift, because it’s even less possible–not knowing how much time I have. The only sane way, which also feels completely insane, that I could think of approaching this from was as a coalition—having all of these different working groups, and really trusting in systems that will self-organize, and that will be emergent properties. That the whole will be greater than the sum of all the different parts, and that the wisdom of the system itself will create a cultural shift.

I feel like my voice has always been present in the community, but it’s kind of like my voice now has this temporary ability to be louder than other voices, and to actually be heard above the din. So another part of my role is just trying to get as much high-impact things done in a short amount of time, so I’m trying to work with the cabinet specifically, and have them undergo training, but also having interpersonal interactions with them that might be meaningful, and getting the community to really get involved and have their wisdom be heard in a way that maybe wasn’t getting heard before.

I’m hoping that I’m being some sort of channel or vessel for greater energy.

DUR: You already led into this, but do you have specific goals that you want to achieve?

RS: It will be great if we get the multicultural center open, for a start, as well as training and awareness/consciousness-building, on campus for as many people as possible.

I would say getting a wider array of candidates for jobs, too, and being more intentional around diversity in recruitment—definitely for staff and faculty. Also, beginning to shape a cohort-based scholarship program, where we brought in 15 or so students and qualified them socioeconomically. Hopefully the crossover would also bring in other diverse applicants, more diverse students. That’s what I did before I came to Naropa. I was the Assistant Director of a scholarship program at another institution, and we brought in 15 new students every year. I really would love it if Naropa had a version of that to diversify our student body.

DUR: Are there a few of those initiatives that you think are more urgent, that require immediate action?

RS: The consciousness building, for sure. Once people view this as not “someone else’s problem,” I think everything else will be impacted. Once someone’s consciousness changes around these topics, and they view it as part of their mission, then this office or this role doesn’t have so much pressure on it, because then we’re truly creating community. And I think that’s going to happen. It can happen. I think diversifying the student body and the people here shift the consciousness. Once they get here, they want to stay here because no matter who they’re interacting with, they understand that that person gets it. That’s what keeps people here, and gets them here—creating a culture where they want to stay.

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