Social Advocacy According to R-MC Alum Sean Smith
Reily Risley '21
On Sept. 26, Sean Smith ’14 gave a talk on social advocacy for minority groups. He began the event by taking a seat instead of lecturing on a podium because he wanted to create an atmosphere of open dialogue. Smith had first held a career in law enforcement before he decided to attend college. At Randolph-Macon, Smith majored in Women’s Studies and minored in Sociology and Black Studies.
R-MC enabled Smith to intern with Hanover Safe Place. Hanover Safe Place is an organization that provides services for victims of domestic and sexual violence. The opportunity jumpstarted his career in advocacy and led to him working in the Richmond Court Systems.
Within the court systems, he was able to connect with victims of violence and help lessen the burden of navigating the lengthy and complicated stages of the larger U.S. court system. After working in Richmond, he moved to Baltimore to work for a non-profit organization called House of Ruth Maryland, a domestic violence center. There, Smith was a young black man while working for a predominantly white organization.
After working for the House of Ruth Maryland, Smith started as a project coordinator at Morgan State University, a historically black college. A project that Smith has been working on, the Violence Prevention Program, is a peer education program designed to have students helping other students. Smith also owns his own business, Humanistic Perspectives LLC. According to the website, the mission of Humanistic Perspectives is “to build capacity between communities, individuals, & organizations in order to provide practical solutions to pervasive social issues.”
Smith spoke of a prevalent issue that is of significant importance to his work and one that is often overlooked: obtaining a restraining order. The process begins with an emergency order being granted which lasts for five business days or one calendar week, whichever is shorter.
If necessary, one can apply for a preliminary restraining order until the processing is completed for the permanent one. However, to attain the permanent restraining order, the issuant must attend a hearing in which the court requires them to face their abuser.
Troublesomely, that is not the end of the process. The order needs to be renewed every two years, and this includes additional hearings. The reason this problem is important to Smith is because the issuant should not have to repeatedly be reminded of their abusive past. He concluded that this could result in needless trauma.
Beyond discussing his work, Smith talked about the importance of conversation and advocacy. Dr. Kimberly Borchard, a Randolph-Macon professor of Spanish, asked for advice on how faculty, staff and students can help victims of violence. He advised that faculty and staff should foster office and classroom environments in which students can be comfortable enough to share their traumatic experiences. To illustrate the importance of this forthcoming approach, Smith then told a story about his time conducting interviews for the peer education program at Morgan State University. Of the fifteen students he interviewed, half had had traumatic experiences by the time they were in high school.
Therefore, by opening up the table to students at Morgan State, conversations were held that focused on difficult topics like trauma, violence, and mental health. If other places created similar environments about how to handle these matters, how to talk about them, and how to prevent them. “Have better conversations with people to find out what their collective experiences are,” Smith advises the audience.
He also provided advice for students who are looking towards careers in social justice. He urged them to thoroughly research who they want to work for and to pay attention to how victims are talked about when they are not present. Smith believes that it is important to be willing to put your career on the line and point out injustices because that is how change occurs.
“The work that we do is to serve the victims, not ourselves,” Smith restated, “It’s important to me to just continue listening to the stories.” Smith concluded by urging everyone to pay attention to others around them, because we never know what someone is going through.