In Commitment to Equity, Inclusion Octavia Smith Cautions Fellow Grads Against Complacency
It’s a long way from the Bronx to Minneapolis. And Octavia Smith freely admits she experienced some culture shock when she made that move two years ago to pursue her Master of Public Policy degree at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
But Smith has come full circle since then—and honored by her peers and school leaders for helping to create a more supportive and inclusive culture at the School.
“I have been able to build a home away from home here in Minneapolis and at the Humphrey School,” she says. “My most important takeaway is the solidarity I have seen among students, especially students of color, in supporting one another to accomplish their goals while navigating academia.”
Smith herself is credited for being a visible source of support for others while serving as president of the Humphrey Students of Color Association (HSOCA) this past year. She has also been an informal counselor, mentor, and advocate for students in the School and the University as a whole.
In recognition of those efforts, Smith received two student leadership awards, and delivered the student speech, at the Humphrey School’s commencement May 12.
“Octavia has helped to continue hard conversations around institutional integrity, and equity and inclusion,” said Associate Dean Carissa Slotterback in announcing the awards. “She has supported the initiatives of other students who have been brave enough to question the status quo. She is an amazing leader, not because she seeks to lead, but because she offers to support others.”
Those conversations have been uncomfortable at times, Smith says, but in a recent essay about art and public policy, she writes that conflict is not necessarily a bad thing.
“Too often we are afraid to say something contrarian for fear of causing harm. As a result, we hide our feelings, parts of who we are, to appease others,” she says. “Our ability to lean in to the messiness and vulnerabilities of others is the work of anyone seeking to advance the common good.”
Smith’s message to her fellow graduates is a call to remain engaged with the world around them, and to believe in their ability to make change.
“The students, faculty and staff here will leave me feeling hopeful about the future we can envision together,” she said. “My time here at the Humphrey School was filled with deep conversation about issues of equity for various marginalized groups. But I want to caution everyone against complacency. What you say and do matters. We all came here to make a difference in the world around us. You now have new tools to make that a reality.”
After graduation, Smith plans to embark on a trip that will trace her family’s roots, from the Bronx all the way to Africa—one that will bring her full circle once again.