When Alan Smerbeck was in Catholic middle school, a nun shared something that would have a profound impact on his life. The nun was an activist who taught him about sweatshop labor and the history of American intervention in Latin American revolutions. She’d even been arrested for protesting. She became a hero in the eyes of the 12 year old.
He says this is the lesson she provided.
“Sometimes the problem was not cruel people, but an unjust system, that inertia prevents well-intentioned people from acting, and that aligning one’s self with whoever has less power is usually a good idea.”
Her actions and words years ago, are principles Smerbeck continues to apply in his life and work today in supporting diversity initiatives at RIT.
Smerbeck is this year’s recipient of the Isaac L Jordan Sr. Faculty Pluralism Award. It recognizes faculty members for their significant contributions to enhance diversity at RIT and honors those who carry out the work and legacy of Jordan, RIT’s first chairperson of the Commission for Promoting Pluralism. Smerbeck calls it an honor and is grateful to those who nominated him.
“It’s always good to know that one’s efforts are seen and appreciated, especially when it comes to this kind of work in which a lot of effort often fails to lead to any particular outcome. That’s the norm for trying to make big changes,” Smerbeck said.
Smerbeck arrived at RIT in 2013 as an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology. He is now an associate professor and spends his time teaching, doing research and finding ways to remove barriers and improve life for others. In all of his work at RIT, he says he focuses on real, concrete behavioral change.
He created a 16-page handbook entitled “Gender Diversity: A Guide for Higher Education Faculty” which has been adopted by the Colleges of Science and Liberal Arts. Copies are available digitally to all faculty and given to new faculty during orientation. He partnered with Chris Hinesley of the Q Center to use the booklet in faculty trainings.
Smerbeck created the Co-op and Career Center for Psychology, and collaborated with Jessamy Comer and Kirsten Condry to develop a one-credit career development seminar as well. Other work includes: conducting research into autism spectrum disorders from a neurodiversity perspective, working with RITs Spectrum Support Program for students with autism, working as actor in RIT’s Diversity Theater, facilitating training in LGBTQ+ issues and mental health supports for the College of Science, serving on the Women’s and Gender Studies coordinating committee and helping to propose a gender andsexuality studies immersionand collecting data on misgendering, including a research project in collaboration with a transgender student, which he says, will be submitted for publication soon.
Outside RIT, Smerbeck works with homeless and runaway teens at The Center for Youth, participates in Rochester’s Black Lives Matter protests and has testified before Rochester City Council about police tactics.
His life has been impacted by that lesson from the nun and now that he is an educator, he has a lesson he shares with his students.
“That it’s not all academic, in both the literal and figurative senses. That everything we learn about, everything we discuss, has implications for politics, business, health care, criminal justice, and so on. And that students, as adults, have a say in those things. I explicitly address them not just as students, but as voters, jurors, taxpayers, consumers, and constituents of their elected officials. I want them to realize how powerful they are.”