UC LGBTQ Center founder takes on new diversity role
Leisan Smith, A&S ’99, CECH ’03, is the chief equity officer at the Columbus School for Girls.
By Cindy Starr
When Leisan Smith, ’99, ME ’03, began work this year as the inaugural Chief Equity Officer at the prestigious Columbus School for Girls, the school’s staff and faculty were thrilled. The job description, they said, “was written for you.”
Smith, who is African American, a member of the LGBTQ community, and the mother of a 6-year-old daughter, brings to the role a life steeped in diversity and a richly varied career path that has intersected with education at every point along the way. Her past experience includes serving as the founding director of UC’s LGBTQ Center from 2010 to 2015.
At the private Columbus School for Girls, located in the historic, tree-lined suburb of Bexley, Smith is overseeing a range of initiatives. One of her primary tasks is to advance the recommendations of an anti-racism task force that covers several areas, including recruiting and hiring, curriculum evaluation, as well as programs and traditions.
“We want to make sure the curriculum is inclusive of specific diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) learning standards,” Smith said. “We’re also looking at our programs and traditions, because at an independent school, there are a lot of them. We want to ensure that they are inclusive of all members of our community, and we want to explore how might we re-imagine those if they’re not.”
Also on her must-do list: Establishing and implementing a formal tool for gathering confidential reporting of DEI-related issues and reviewing the current student and faculty codes of conduct. “We want to ensure that they contain specific language around inclusion and belonging, especially for underrepresented groups so that our entire community understands what being part of the schools’ community looks like and what it doesn’t look like,” Smith said. “The school’s anti-racism action plan is a starting point for our inclusion work, which will also include other identities that our community brings in, whether that be religion, gender identity or socio-economic status.”
Leisan Smith – her first name is pronounced LAY-sahn -- grew up in Berwick, a diverse, middle-class neighborhood on the east side of Columbus. Her mother was a Columbus City Schools teacher, and as a child and teen Smith wanted to become a teacher as well. After graduating from Eastmoor High School, she enrolled at UC, which had captured her attention with a former admissions program for African American students called “Images of Color.”
As an undergraduate in the UC College of Arts and Sciences, Smith spent most of her time outside the classroom at the African American Cultural Resource Center (AACRC), her future in the LGBTQ community not yet clear to her. “I was coming out to myself, figuring that piece out,” she said. “And then, once I graduated with my bachelor’s, that’s when I was like, oh, OK, and at that time I identified as a lesbian; I identify as queer now. So that was something I had to work through.”
Coming out to people who were close to her proved another challenge, and it strengthened her decision to stay in Cincinnati after graduation. “I knew I needed to have some space to figure out who I was,” Smith said. “I had friends who were extremely supportive; I had folks in my life I thought were friends who were not as supportive. Overall, the experience was pretty good, and for some people in my life it was less about me being a lesbian and more about, ‘Oh my goodness, I didn’t see this coming.’”
Following graduation, Smith worked at UC’s AACRC for a year, then the YMCA in Cincinnati. In 2001, the director of UC’s Women’s Center suggested she apply for a new graduate assistant position. “I told her I’m not in grad school, and she said, ‘Then I think you need to apply for grad school.’ And I said, OK, I guess I’m going to grad school!” Two years later, Smith had her master’s in education.
Positions at the YWCA and the Upward Bound program at Mount St. Joseph University followed, and in 2010 UC hired Smith to expand the LGBTQ Center. Under her leadership, the center moved from a small, cramped space in the Steger Student Life Center to a large office suitable for gatherings and small events. Smith and her staff stepped up LGBTQ awareness training across campus so that more students felt included, and she reached out purposefully to students of color.
LGBTQ spaces are frequently seen “as white spaces, unless they are designated for queer folks of color,” Smith said. “That was something we were very intentional about. UC had a Student Life Department that included the Women’s Center, the AACRC and Ethnic Programs & Services (EPS). As Director of the LGBTQ Center, I worked closely with the director of EPS and the director of AACRC to talk about how we could bridge this gap. Because we found that for some queer students of color, they didn’t feel like AACRC or EPC were spaces for them either. If they were in those spaces, they didn’t feel they were able to show up as their authentic selves. We started doing programming together, and I made sure to spend time in the AACRC and in EPS to make sure students knew who I was and what I did on campus.”
For some queer students of color…they didn’t feel they were able to show up as their authentic selves.
Two life changes in 2015 prompted Smith’s decision to return home to Columbus, where family members lived: the birth of her child and the passing of her mother. She landed a multi-faceted position — director of student and community engagement — at Bexley City Schools, a mere five minutes from her childhood home, and she took over the school system’s initiatives related to social-emotional learning, DEI, and bullying. Last summer she led the school district in crafting an anti-racism task force and related working groups to figure out next steps. Her accomplishments drew notice, and the Columbus School for Girls, upon her hiring, praised her “wide-ranging, student-centered approach to diversity, equity and inclusion work.”
Today, as the United States experiences a renewed racial awakening, and at a transitional moment when nearly 50 percent of all American children are children of color, Smith is well positioned to guide and teach. She also knows the challenges ahead. A chief equity officer is hired, after all, because a chief equity officer is required.
“It is sad that equity and equity work has been politicized,” Smith said. “There is this kind of emboldening that has happened during the last several years, so there is an underlying current for folks like myself who are equity practitioners and are trying to lead this work. I do think we need to figure out how to frame it in a way where folks are clear about the intention of the work. But there is also the reality that some folks, no matter how you frame it or explain it, will not be interested. They will feel as if they are losing something. So that has added stress to the work that I and others are passionate about and think is really important.”
Smith has made a personal, long-term commitment to transformative DEI. She was recently admitted into the Social Justice Education Graduate Certificate Program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “There is always something new to learn, and the opportunity to do and be better is ever-present,” Smith said. She is inspired by the late Audre Lorde, a self-described “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” who wrote, “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept and celebrate those differences.”
There is always something new to learn, and the opportunity to do and be better is ever-present.
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