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Home / 2016 Fall Magazine / An Interview with Regina Smith: Director of the Office for Inclusive Community

Regina Smith, Naropa
Photos by Marc Piscotty.

An Interview with Regina Smith: Director of the Office for Inclusive Community

by Billy Theime

Naropa Alumna Regina Smith (BA, English Language and Literature, University of Maryland; MFA, Poetry, Sarah Lawrence College; MA, Contemplative Psychotherapy, Naropa University) adds to a passionate, decade-plus long history of student advocacy in her current position in Naropa’s Office for Inclusive Community. Smith has supported students as a teacher (and still does at Naropa), academic advisor, counselor, and friend. Regina sat down with Marketing staff member and writer Billy Thieme for her first interview as director.

Billy Thieme What brought you to Naropa?

Regina Smith Well, primarily suffering. [LAUGHS] I think that’s probably what brings a lot of people into any place where they’re willing to completely change their life. I was living in Brooklyn, New York, and I was at a job
that  I had been at for eight years, and a relationship I’d been in for seven years. I had an extensive community, but I wasn’t very happy. I think that’s what brought me to Naropa— trying to figure out how to suffer less. And I was listening to the dharma talks of Tara Brach, who’s a Buddhist meditation teacher. I commuted four hours a day, so on my commute to and from work I’d listen to dharma talks— kind of the only respite in my life.

BT Was this in Brooklyn?

RS Yes. I was commuting from Brooklyn to my job in White Plains, and I was also looking at PhD programs, because I already had a Master of Fine Arts in Poetry, so I was looking to further my education. I was looking at programs that would bring together spirituality and psychology, and there were a number of programs out there, but all of them were studying these disciplines from the outside, you know, and I wanted to study them from the inside. I was exposed to sitting Zen, and I asked one of the other students where I could go for spiritual psychology, and they mentioned transpersonal psychology as a field—which I had never heard of. I Googled it, and Naropa came up. Eventually, I ended up coming here for the Contemplative Psychotherapy graduate program.

BT That’s what we’re finding as we hear from students—that people come from a place of suffering or transition, and are really realizing that the moment has come for them to actually claim their lives, and then questioning how they’re going to find a program that’s going to give them the hope they need, and that’s your experience, too?

Interview quoteRS There’s a line at the end of a Rilke poem [“Archaic Torso of Apollo”], where he writes: “You must change your life.” It’s the last line. And so that rang true for me. Another time, I was listening to a talk by Pema Chödrön and she was talking about how she was on a silent retreat, and, you know, she wasn’t able to talk, and she had in her mind another nun that was on the retreat. Something was going on between the two of them, but she couldn’t talk it out with this person because it was silent—and so she started to really obsess about this. This person and their interaction was so immensely uncomfortable, and at some point she realized that she had spent her whole life running from that very experience she was having. I remember hearing that as well, as a part of what influenced me particularly to choose this program, because there’s a lot of mandatory sitting, there are retreat requirements, and I wanted to … stop running from myself, and see what I was made of, or who I am.

BT What are your personal connections and passions around diversity?

RS I’m trying to go back, [LAUGHS] to, like, “Where did this start?” because I never intended to do diversity work, or to actually be in the field that I am currently in! It wasn’t like: “Yes!”

Just being a person of color in this country— and especially a person of color whose education is taking place in primarily white institutions and environments—you just kind of end up doing diversity work because your experience is markedly different from the experience of those around you. And you’re trying to make sense of your life and of the world. Some of the only things that start to make sense are the ways in which the culture is structured to silence you, or to identify you, or the feelings of outsiderness and loneliness—feeling a little “off” all the time—kind of can make you crazy, y’know? So trying to find a way to normalize that experience for yourself, in order to just survive.

I think you end up needing to learn more to contextualize your experience, and then—I think that I was already a really sensitive child, and really spiritual and poetic, and needing to be understood, and to articulate my experiences—and so I think those two streams coming together is what led me to want to really understand my experience, but then to be able to share it with other people. And then, later, I think the idea that I could transform my experience—or people’s understanding—came on line.

BT Did Naropa have anything to do with that—your ability to transform?

RS I also went to Sarah Lawrence College in New York, which is a small white, liberal arts college. It’s very similar in some ways to Naropa— we focus on spirituality, they have more focus on the arts—but some of the messaging, the branding, and who’s drawn to these institutions feels somewhat similar. Anyway, one of my friends who’s white asked me “Why?” When I decided to come to Naropa, she was like: “Why do you keep going to these really small white, wealthy enclaves? What is that about?”

Interview quoteI didn’t have an answer at the time, and then after being here for a while, and when I started to get into diversity work, I was able to reflect on that. I think I actually had to go to primarily white environments to really understand my identity as a black woman. Because I’m very fair skinned, I have curly hair—you know, I’ve never quite been fully accepted by the black community, and never quite been fully accepted by the white community—so I think I didn’t really know how to claim being black until it was unquestionable. And in primarily white environments, my identity is really unquestionable, because I’m definitely black when I am surrounded by white people.

It was in part a developmental stage that I had to go through in order to fully claim my blackness, but it wasn’t conscious. I didn’t do it—until after the fact—I was like: “Oh, y’know, it’s kind of like my spirit or something knew.” And then, in terms of Naropa’s education and how that’s enabled me to … transmute or transform my experience—yes, I think that’s what I studied and learned in the Contemplative Psychotherapy program (now MA in Clinical Mental Health Counseling: Contemplative Psychotherapy and Buddhist Psychology) around warriorship and around a kind of primordial confidence, and around the unquestionable right that I have to be here, and to exist. And around my basic goodness, I think all of those teachings for me did transmute—or help me work with—internalized oppression. And, particularly in the Contemplative Psychotherapy program, which is a cohort model, you’re training the entire time in being able to hold your seat, no matter what comes at you, the value of your voice, speaking your truth, and how to do it skillfully.

So all of those skills that I learned definitely helped. I can’t see myself being in the position I am in now without having gone through that program.

BT How do you believe community should work to foster and grow broad, natural, and healthy inclusive environments?

RS I don’t think I have an answer to that question yet, because I’m still trying to understand what community actually is, and what it means. I don’t know yet if I believe in real community. I want to believe in community, but I don’t know if I really do.

BT Does your lack of belief in community stem from your experience with diversity, or with the lack of diversity?

RS Yes, definitely! That’s why I think I’m still … curious about community, and I think that’s what we all really long for. I believe that there are other cultures that probably have those experiences that we western United States folks want, and I’m sure there are communities within the U.S. that are succeeding at it as well. I’m not sure how diverse those communities are, but I want to believe that we can grow something where we take care of each other. But I don’t think I’ve had enough experience with that personally. Not enough that I know how to do it, or what that looks like, anyway.

So I think it’s an open question that I live— trying to find community—and I think I used to try to find it more. Now I’m trying to actively co-create community, and I think that’s what we’re trying to figure out here. We might know how to do community, if it’s not diverse. But I think we don’t yet know how to have a truly diverse community in this country.

BT Can you articulate Naropa’s current status with regards to diversity, in your own words?

RS The first thing that comes to mind is a part of this quotation that I really like by TS Eliot [from the Four Quartets], where he writes “Do not hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing,” and I feel like that when it comes to where Naropa is regarding diversity.

Interview quoteIn some ways, I thought we were farther along than we are. I feel like privilege, and the ignorance that comes from having privilege is so pervasive and also invisible. They talk about it—or we talk about it—as “the water we swim in.” How do you work with something that’s that close? How do you make something that’s that habitual, unconscious, something that you can then take—aside from yourself— or see from a distance, in order to have enough perspective to do something about it? Is there a way to create change without suffering? And, if there needs to be suffering, how much suffering do we need? I feel like the community did suffer with, or as a result of, our student protests, but now that the immediacy of that situation has passed, I am able to see that it still didn’t trouble the waters— not as much as it seemed like it was troubling the waters when it was on.

Do we need to suffer more as individuals, or as a community, in order to really want to significantly commit and make this a top priority? Not just for “those people,” but for all of us?

I kind of vacillate between hopelessness and hopefulness, depending on the hour and the day. I don’t know if that speaks to where Naropa is as an institution, but I think we are at a crossroads, and we could go back to sleep—and by going back to sleep, eventually become irrelevant to the rest of the world. We’ll just be a little monastic, entitled, privileged community that really wants to make change, but ultimately isn’t doing it, in the long run. Or, we’ll wake up—or continue to wake up—and become increasingly more relevant. There is no reason why, with significant commitment, we couldn’t actually be change agents and be the model for other institutions. This could be how to “walk our talk.”

Interview Regina and BillyBT How do you think Naropa can offer a more inclusive campus environment?

RS There are different levels that we need to work on simultaneously. Like the intrapersonal. I think each individual needs to commit to deep, inward examination, identifying the places in which they’re holding bias, or privilege, or ignorance, or unwillingness, resistance, and working with those individually, which I think is not a simple thing. I mean, you’re basically asking people to unlearn who they think they are in order to buy into this collective identity that’s really kind of anti- the way Americans are taught to view the self. And, yes, the dissolution of the self—and that whole positive disintegration that is necessary—is painful. So few people, willingly, undertake that. The next level will be looking at our interpersonal relationships, and how we treat each other interpersonally, and looking at ways in which we take up space and use our power, and use our privilege, to either support others or—even if it’s not consciously—oppress others. And then there’s the institutional level, which includes looking at our policies and our practices, and our procedures and how we operate, for all of the places in which bias continues to influence how we operate.

Looking at the ways in which—like every other institution—we’ve been operating from a dominant ideology and then how can we really be willing to start rebuilding Naropa from the ground up? Not throwing out the things that we love, but I think in wanting to protect Naropa’s lineage and legacy, we really do pull back from deep examination of the ways in which we have perpetuated a very exclusive membership to this club.

BT If Trungpa was alive, from my perspective, I think it would be the same. That would be what he would say—”Why aren’t we doing this?” I mean, that is what our motto is about— tearing down, deconstructing, and rebuilding in a better right-minded fashion.

RS I agree that there are probably not enough people willing to be outrageous, to follow the ‘crazy wisdom’ legacy. I’m not deeply steeped in his teachings, so I don’t want to misspeak, but it just seems like people aren’t wild and crazy enough when it comes to wanting to create change. Myself included.

BT What, to you, is Naropa’s mission around diversity today?

RS I don’t know. What comes to mind, things that I think of, how we’re in this “cocoon” that we don’t want to come out of. It’s safe, and it’s cozy, and it’s habitual—and I feel like we still operate from a fear-driven place, and from some poverty consciousness. Those are like our anti-mission. So, I think our mission: “transform yourself, transform the world”! I don’t know if it gets any clearer than that! [LAUGHS]

What does it actually mean to “transform”? Does it mean that you just add a bunch of stuff to who you are already are? Like a sitting practice or some cool new language to talk about? I mean, transformation, again, goes back to this idea of positive disintegration, really getting down to the essence of self, and maybe some of it just reconstitutes. Really thinking about—not necessarily just what we want—but what the world needs. Being willing to suffer, in order to really get whatever it is we need to get in our bones, so that we show up in the world like a very different self. So we’re more willing to become vessels for change, and not just polishing our egos.

I also think we’re so afraid of being bad people, which is interesting at a school where one of the basic teachings is humanity’s basic goodness. If it’s not possible to be a bad person—if we’re not basically bad—then why are we afraid of what we’re going to discover if we look too closely or get too involved?

BT How do you see your position contributing to that mission?

RS The way I’m approaching the position is that it’s not humanly possible for any one person to do all that needs to be done to shift the culture of Naropa. It’s just not possible. I feel like my voice has always been present in the community, but it’s like my voice now has this temporary ability to be louder than other voices, and to actually be heard above the din. So part of my role is just trying to get as much high-impact things done in the time I have. I’m hoping that I’m being some sort of channel or vessel for greater energy.

BT Do you have specific goals that you want to achieve?

RS To start, training and awareness/consciousness-building, on campus for as many people as possible. I would say getting a wider array of candidates for jobs, too, and being more intentional around diversity in recruitment— definitely for staff and faculty. Also, beginning to shape a cohort-based scholarship program, where we bring in fifteen or so students who qualify based on socioeconomic need with a focus on the underrepresented folks, so more diverse students. That’s what I did before I came to Naropa. I was the assistant director of a scholarship program at another institution, and we brought in fifteen new students every year. I really would love it if Naropa had a version of that to diversify our student body.

BT Are there a few of those initiatives that you think are more urgent, that require immediate action?

RS The consciousness building, for sure. Once people view this as not “someone else’s problem,” I think everything else will be impacted. Once someone’s consciousness changes around these topics, and they view it as part of their mission, then this office or this role doesn’t have so much pressure on it, because then we’re truly creating community. And I think that’s going to happen. It can happen. I think diversifying the student body and the people here shift the consciousness. Once they get here, they want to stay here because no matter who they’re interacting with, they understand that that person gets it. That’s what keeps people here, and gets them here—creating a culture where they want to stay.