By Jandean Deocampo
After 30 years of fighting for student welfare and support, Leslie Smith, City College’s associate vice-chancellor of governmental relations, has retired on Aug. 10 to pursue her art.
“It’s a rough decision, because the community colleges are such a wonderful institution,” Smith said, expounding on her reasons and her future plans. “I was originally a studio art major. I plan to become a full-time artist.”
A graduate of UCSB, Smith also went to Tulane University and visited the Louisiana Delta and Mexico before settling back in California. She built her long career at City College, focusing on equality of opportunity and student welfare.
Leslie Smith had always had a passion for equality. Born and raised in Livermore, Calif., she grew up in a household where social justice was held in high esteem.
“My father was a poli-sci major in Berkeley,” Smith said. “We did not talk about what the neighbors were doing. We talked about how you stand up and fight for your rights.”
Smith attended UCSB with a focus on studio arts and then switched her major when she realized she had only taken one art class—Ceramics.
The field of Cultural Anthropology drew her in, influencing her later major: Pre-Columbian Culture of the New World, which was based on a strong interest in Mesoamerican culture.
“I was just fascinated by that concept,” Smith said, recalling the first time she was exposed to the idea of “universals” in human cultures during a lecture. “What do all cultures have that are similar? And what are the differences?”
The anthropology course was just one piece of the puzzle. Smith had always been fascinated by other cultures, having a diverse heritage herself.
“My family is Choctaw,” she said. The Platon family moved to America three generations ago, intermarrying with the Choctaw natives in Oklahoma and changing their names to Plato, Smith’s middle name. From a very young age, Smith was aware and proud of her heritage. “So I had that consciousness.”
Throughout her career at the school, Smith held several positions, including Faculty Council President for the Downtown Campus and Elections Officer for the Academic Senate before moving into her most recent role in Governmental Relations.
Smith fondly remembers orchestrating the Missing Students Project in 2004, where thousands of students participated in the symbolic and artistic exhibition of 100 human sized statues in Sacramento that represented those students who couldn’t attend community college.
“’Keep the doors open, and keep the fees low,’” Smith said, quoting the motto of the day.
Students participated in yet another advocacy project in 2011—called The Student Success Stories project—under the guidance of the Governmental Relations office that focused on showing the positive effects of community college through students’ own voices.
“It resonated,” Smith said. “70 different art departments picked it up.”
After a busy career promoting artistic activism and student empowerment, Smith will now focus working on her own sculptures.
“Governmental Relations at City College and my leadership has always focused on empowering the students, building coalitions, going for the best policy,” Smith said and is hopeful that leaders will step up to help City College in its current crisis.
“I completely believe in the power of the visual,” she said, citing artistic expression as a tool of empowerment. “I want to encourage students to be passionate, to care and to become involved, and to become aware.”
Follow Jandean Deocampo at @bananaisafruit.