Conversations with Arif: Looking back, moving forward

Arif Smith was originally hired as a Residential Life Coordinator and later beccame the Assisstant Director of the Multicultural Center. During his time at Williams College, Arif established the dance group Ritmo Latino in 2006-2007 and SpeakFree in 2008. He finished his term at Williams College last Friday.

Why did you come to Williams?

At the time I was working at Colorado State University with the Upward Bound program. Upward Bound is a government-funded program that falls under the [Department of Education] TRIO umbrella and is essentially a precollegiate program that serves first-generation, low-income students and helps them get into college. I was an advisor for that group as well as advising other student groups on campus like the BSU and the athlete student organization. I helped start the Latin dancing cultural club there and that was what I really enjoyed doing. I appreciated creating those opportunities for high school students, but I really got tired of the ways that families were intervening so I knew I needed something new. I was willing to take an entry level position, wherever it was.

However, before I made that decision, I went to the Social Justice Training Institute (SJTI), which is an institute for social justice educators and practitioners who come and just do personal reflective work and that’s where I met [former Campus Life coordinator] Kareem [Khubchandani].

I met Kareem, and we had a great couple of conversations while we were there and stayed in touch. The way that it works with SJTI is that once people go through that experience it’s so transformative that folks always send out job announcements. So one came out for Williams, and I was looking for a job, and I was willing to take a risk, and I said, “Well, I don’t know what the hell a Williams is, but I’m gonna go ahead and jump in the pond”

So did you plan on doing the same thing here, encouraging students to make their own student activist groups or join Zambezi, etc.?

I really didn’t have any expectations other than just knowing that I was going to be, who I was and [that music and dance] were a part of my identity already. There were things I really enjoyed doing and hoped that I would be able to find space in the community to be able to continue doing that work. I had no idea that this was the place to go, [and] that there would be mentors from left to right seeking to support me and working to help me develop in those traditions.

You say you have a passion for helping others. Have you faced any particular struggles these past couple of years or helped others overcome struggles?

That was such a critical part of my job, but one that wasn’t really in the job description. It was something that I did .… But it was hard being here, and that’s part of the reason why I was so engaged in the arts. Being at Williams, being young, single – it’s challenging; it’s isolating. The only community that you have is really the students. You have colleagues, staff and faculty are great – I made some incredible relationships while being here – but it’s just really hard. That was the reason I thrust myself into Kusika, Zambezi and more … because it allowed me to be productive. There was something socially gratifying about it. It reminded me of home. The “safe space” for me was a place I could suspend my identity as a staff person. And I know students didn’t always feel like that, but for me, that’s what I felt I could do. There was something that brought us together, and it was those traditions: whether you were born in those traditions, or identified and reclaimed that tradition, however you came to it. But that was what we shared and, to me, that meant a lot. That’s probably what I’m going to miss the most.

I would say the hardest part for me was the trauma that happens when students leave. As an administrator, it’s painful. You’ve gotten to know someone; you’ve spent all that time; and you’ve helped people work through their problems. You’ve seen them at their worst and at their best, and [having] the person exit your life is challenging. It’s something that I really didn’t experience while I was [working] at Colorado State, but the community is so close-knit here, and you’re so used to seeing people that once somebody exits, you feel it; it totally changes the social ecology. You say, well I don’t go that place anymore because someone isn’t there. Or, I’m used to seeing those people together. It’s the little things, the unintended consequences of people coming and going. I would say, aside from the isolation, that’s been one of the greatest challenges for me. Williams is a special place. It has its magic: It’s a place which allows your imagination to thrive and nurtures that creative and flexible thinking if you’re willing to lean into the discomfort of that.

There’s some history here that makes it hard for certain kinds of people to be at Williams. There are certain things about our identity that makes it difficult to navigate an institution like Williams. I felt that as a staff member. It sort of makes me feel that me exiting this place is a triumph, even. Like I survived something, as if it was a rite of passage. But it’s something that I wouldn’t trade for anything. It’s been extremely transformative and gratifying in ways I still can’t grasp now. But clearly it’s directing me – I feel accomplished enough to move on to the next chapter.

What is the next chapter?

Going back to Oklahoma. I’ll be working in northeast Oklahoma City, and I’ll be part of a team that’s building a program very similar to Harlem Children’s Zone [a nonprofit community-centered organization]. [It’s] a comprehensive system of programming and support for students K-12 and their families. They’re bringing me in to help develop the arts curriculum, to do some grant writing and to advise in general in terms of developing the program components. It’s an exciting opportunity; it feels good to be able to be asked to come back [to my hometown] and give to the community that nurtured my own success.

Is this the last we’re going to see of you, Arif?

No, [laughs] I’m coming back. I hope to be back in the spring at some point. I’m bound to pop up, even if it’s just to chill with Zambezi and Kusika in the spring.