Dr. Sherwood Smith is a multicultural educator and human development assistant research professor at the University of Vermont. He currently serves as director of the Center for Cultural Pluralism, and he has played an important role in the University's effort to address affirmative action issues on campus. His experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer in Tanzania and as an academic director for an overseas program in Kenya give him an international perspective. Dr. Smith was second editor for the first volume and first editor for the second volume of Our Stories: The Experience of Black Professionals on Predominantly White Campuses.
For me, Burlington, Vermont is a perfect balance of a big small city. There are enough things to do without feeling like you’re in a very small town. In my free time, I bicycle, cross country ski, fence, fish, attend yard sales and events at the Flynn Theater. As a city, Burlington doesn’t have some of the challenges that come with really big cities, and it has one of the best public transit systems. It is a lively college town with one of the largest refugee resettlement programs. At the same time, one of the things Vermont struggles with is social class issues.
For instance, the Burlington School District has a long way to go to have the diversity of the school population represented in the administration, a problem that is only now being addressed. My eight-year-old daughter has lots of other classmates of color, but it is important for children to see this diversity reflected in positions of power if we expect to prepare them to work in a global world and think critically.
I grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood in Englewood, New Jersey. My hometown was ethnically diverse, but Englewood was historically racially segregated and divided into wards. As a kid, I was sent to a predominantly white private school. One of my earliest memories is my classmates telling me, “We like you, Sherwood. You’re not like the other black kids we know,” although I probably think about these childhood memories much more complexly now.
I attended Washington State University, where I earned my bachelor’s degree in zoology. It drew me in as an environmental model of the ways in which certain environments negatively impact species. I was especially intrigued by the ways in which certain species were systematically discriminated against. I jokingly tell people that I am still doing animal behavior, just with higher level primates.
I moved to Vermont in August of 1995 when I finished my doctorate of education and did a fellowship at the University of Vermont through the New England Board of Education. Now I teach undergraduate courses in community development, do professional development training, and help bring speakers to the University. As the director of the Center for Cultural Pluralism, I work to bring together culture and pedagogy. I lecture on topics ranging from gender construction across cultures and cultural competency, to organizational inclusion and roles of race and ethnicity.
Traveling and observing the United States from the outside has made me very aware of the discriminatory issues that are unique to the United States. I spent a total of five years living overseas and developed the understanding that the social issues in our country don’t have to be the norm. My philosophy is that the dominant society maintains dominance often by being the default. I try to understand those defaults, decide whether I like them or not, and help others. If people are going to act unjust, they need to be made aware that they are doing so, rather than let it remain an unconscious action.
I am a social constructionist, and Vermont sees itself as liberal. While Vermonters purport to be open, we don’t know how open we are until we are challenged. People do their own things here without necessarily having to conform culturally as a state. Vermont has a relatively individualistic nature to it. So in the case of social justice, I relate the saying that the chicken is involved with the egg, but the pig is devoted to the ham. In the end, there are structural problems that only end up getting addressed through laws, lawsuits, leadership change, and policy change.
I think it is more difficult to confront and deal with covert and unconscious acts of discrimination, but Vermont is a much more positive environment than living in a conservative state. In Vermont, I don’t have to worry about if there are lights where I park my car, or where I walk at night. The most difficult challenge is recognizing the power inequality when engaging in a conversation, and then staying in that difficult conversation. Even though changing one person at a time is critical, the root of the issue is not being addressed.
Most of Vermont is made up of rural, predominantly white, small towns. If you want the city, Burlington has a lot more relative forms of ethnicity. There are 35 languages spoken at Burlington High School alone. But Burlington is an outlier. And if you want certain cultural items, you don’t have the ease you would in a big city. The good news is that you are 90 minutes from Montreal and three hours from Boston. If you are considering a move to Vermont, my advice depends on where you are moving from. If you are coming from a very big urban area, you need to understand that despite being a city, Burlington responds as a small town. You won’t find a lot of businesses open after 11 at night, and people you don’t know will say hello to you.