Share / Discuss

United She Stands

T. Shá Duncan Smith wasn't looking to move. She had been with the University of Michigan for more than 20 years, most recently as director of inclusion at its Ross School of Business, earning accolades for her proactive approach to building community and encouraging dialogue. But as soon as she set foot on Swarthmore’s campus, she felt “perfectly at peace,” at home, and among kindred spirits. The College’s new associate dean of diversity, inclusion, and community development, Smith explains why.

What drew you here?

The sense of ownership from students, faculty, and staff, even on what some might consider the most mundane of topics. Everyone was eager to share their experiences and why they consider Swarthmore special. But it wasn’t a rose-colored glasses “Miss America” speech—it seemed very organic and authentic. There’s a real commitment here to building true collaborations on campus and in the greater community.


What are your key responsibilities?

Well, beyond my 3-mile-long title, [laughs] it’s really bringing the community together around diversity, inclusion, and equity issues. It’s identifying the gaps or blind spots we’re missing as an institution, and moving forward thoughtfully to address them. But the biggest thing is really getting people to engage in discourse and dialogue, even if it’s agreeing to disagree.


Has that gotten more difficult in recent years?

At higher education institutions in general, we’ve gotten away from it. We don’t talk to each other anymore. If we don’t hear what we want to hear, we shut it down. But it can’t be that way. With today’s political and civil rights climate and the increase in social justice movements, we need to have those difficult conversations. And where better than Swarthmore?


What does diversity mean to you?

A lot of times, people just think race, but I define it in the broadest sense: identity in general, everything from sexual orientation, religious views, and political affiliation to occupational status, and the ways in which those identities intersect and engage. And once you move past the makeup of all of those identities, you can focus on how to be inclusive and equitable.


Why is your work rewarding?

If I can get up every day knowing I’m empowered to make change, I’m happy. Even growing up, I was like the playground defense attorney, the social and civil rights activist. It’s just a piece of my identity. This work isn’t easy—it’s usually off the grid, tackling stuff others don’t want to. But the reward comes when you can get people to engage and work closely together in the spirit of curiosity.


How was adjusting to the area?

Well, I brought a whole crew with me. My partner, Tony, and I have a 14-year-old, a 9-year-old, a 7-year-old, and a baby on board. But our transition has actually been really easy. We’re surprised by how much we already feel at home, thanks to how welcoming everyone has been. Plus, State Street in Media reminds me of Ann Arbor, with a variety of shops and restaurants we’re enjoying.


What do you do for fun?

I love to dance. I used to compete in international-style tango. That was a pro-am, and I was the “am.” I also really enjoy writing poetry.