Growing up in the colonial Bahamas, Malinda Smith felt like she was living two separate lives. On some days, she stayed in a mansion with her godparents, where she learned to swim in their pool, listened to Bach and Tchaikovsky, and even attended parties with the governor general in attendance. Other days, she was living in her parents’ low income neighbourhood where children played hopscotch on the street and adults struggled to put food on the table.
While her parents had both been pulled from school to work as young children on the farm, her godfather had the chance to be a lawyer, and eventually the first chief justice of an independent Bahamas. “For the life of me, I couldn’t see what was different between these two communities except for things you had no control over—like where you were born, or the context into which you were born. Also, I learned there were decent people in both places,” says Smith, who is now an associate professor of political science in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Alberta.
Now, she works to reverse the inequities she saw growing up through her extensive research exploring issues of inclusion. She’s worked with other scholars on several books, on issues ranging from gender inequity to the ways minorities remain invisible—and two new books are set to come out in the next two years.
She’s been the co-chair for the Canadian Centre for Race and Culture (CRAC), a member of the coordinating committee for the Researchers and Academics of Colour for Equality Network, and a member of the steering committee for the Anti-Racism and Decolonization Network at the U of A. For three years, she served as the Vice-President of Equity and Diversity for the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences. She wanted to provide a place for diverse voices, and did so through Equity Matters, a blog that collected over 160 articles from diverse leading scholars around the globe.
“I couldn’t see what was different between these two communities except for things you had no control over—like where you were born, or the context into which you were born.” -Malinda Smith
Just last month, she was honoured with the first-ever HSBC Community Contributor award from the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion as a means of recognizing her work to affect change in the area of human rights within our country. This tops off a long list of recognitions in recent years, including the Centre for Race and Culture’s Anti-Racism Award (2010), the U of A’s Academic Women’s Association’s “Academic Woman of the Year” Award (2011), the Office of Safe Disclosure and Human Rights inaugural “Human Rights Education Recognition Award” (2013), and the national “Equity Award” from the Canadian Association of University Teachers (2015). And just a couple of weeks ago, she was elected president of the U of A’s Academic Women’s Association, alongside Métis anthropology prof Kisha Supernant as vice-president.
It’s not even halfway through the year, and Smith has already given six talks and three keynote speeches, including one she just completed for Athabasca University that examined the uneven progress made on issues of equity and division.
“Rather than a holistic approach where we talk about designated groups, we have now gone to separate and unequal silos. So, we do gender equity separately from gay and lesbian issues, which are separate from Aboriginal issues,” says Smith, further explaining that this separation has led to competition among groups, and an uneven distribution of resources.
Smith realized early in her career that the only way to really demonstrate that underrepresentation is a reality among many minorities is to prove it through research. She took data from all the faculties at the University of Alberta and analyzed it, looking at issues of gender equality for all groups, including Aboriginal women and racialized women. It was the first time in a university’s history that the data was analyzed in such a way, and the results indicated that women from minority groups were often being excluded from the push for inclusion.
“Rather than a holistic approach, we have now gone to separate and unequal silos. So, we do gender equity separately from gay and lesbian issues, which are separate from Aboriginal issues.” – Malinda Smith
For Smith, inequality was obvious from an early age, having grown up in a colonial context — girls were treated differently from boys, there were racial inequalities and there were large socioeconomic divides. In the sixth grade, her strong marks on the national exams meant she could attend Queen’s College. She later secured a field hockey scholarship, allowing her to attend the University of Idaho before pursuing two masters at Western Michigan, and finally, a PhD at the U of A while continuing to play field hockey.
While she’s proud of her success, she is quick to point out the ways in which she believes her own experience was influenced by outside factors. If it weren’t for her opportunity to attend a private school, the chance to secure a field hockey scholarship, or the opportunity to have the guidance of excellent mentors, she says, she would not be an academic.
Smith is adamant that outside factors are the undercurrent of all of our stories — but she’s very hopeful for more equality in the future. She now sees not only colleagues, but students as well, who are engaged and pushing for positive change. Like Smith, many students are calling for more diverse curriculums that give voice to minorities, and insisting for in-depth exploration of the way we view equality.
“Even though these groups are small, they are mighty, and they are forcing all of us to think more critically — by not just rethinking how the university works, but also how society works and how politics work,” says Smith.
Watch Smith’s acceptance speech for the HSBC Community Contributor Award: