Jesús Gregorio Smith poses for a portrait near the front steps to Main Hall.
Portrait on Main Hall Green: Jesús Gregorio Smith

About the series: On Main Hall Green With … is an opportunity to connect with faculty on things in and out of the classroom. We’re featuring a different Lawrence faculty member every two weeks — same questions, different answers.

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Jesús Gregorio Smith, who joined Lawrence University in 2017 as an assistant professor of ethnic studies, helped to launch Ethnic Studies as a major.

He’s taught classes on such topics as research methods in communities of color, sociology of black Americans and sociology of Latinx. He has organized the annual Continuing Significance of Race undergraduate conference. And at last year’s Cultural Expressions, Lawrence students presented him with the Beta Psi Nu Faculty Excellence Award.

Smith also is a finalist for the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation’s 2020 Career Enhancement Fellowship for Junior Faculty.

A native of El Paso, Texas, Smith earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and master’s in sociology at the University of Texas at El Paso, and a Ph.D. in sociology from Texas A&M University. His initial thesis work looked at race and sexuality on the U.S.-Mexico border and the implications it has on dating and sexual health. At A&M, he broadened that work to examine online dating, sexual racism, and HIV/AIDS in quantitative and qualitative fashions. 

A book he contributed to and co-edited, Home and Community for Queer Men of Color: The Intersections of Race and Sexuality, was recently published through Lexington Books.

IN THE CLASSROOM

Inside info: What’s one thing you want every student coming into your classes to know about you?

I want you to know that my goal is to touch, challenge and change every one of you in a different way. When you teach students about race and racism, often times you get young — or older — people who are deeply miseducated and undereducated on the U.S.’s racial history. As a result, many people misunderstand the racial present. So, it is my job to walk you through that history, and it can be painful, difficult and depressing much of the time. Yet, it can also be inspiring, powerful and influential other times. So, as long as you walk into my class with an open mind and heart, you may be challenged on old beliefs you may have held that were misguided, you may be touched by hearing a story from one of your fellow classmates of color who experienced something similar to whatever we are reading that day, and you may be changed forever from learning about something that is painful and important to know. If you put in the work, you will rise to the occasion and come out a better person for it. That is a big challenge for me, but I never back down from a challenge.

Getting energized: What work have you done or will you be doing at Lawrence that gets you the most excited?

Since being at Lawrence there is so much I have accomplished and done that I am excited about. My Intro to Ethnic Studies class works with Beth Zinsli, the director and curator of the Wriston Art Center Galleries, to put together these historical and artistic exhibits on race and ethnicity. The class is broken into four groups, and each group covers a different stairwell on each floor of Briggs Hall with a different topic. Each year it is so awesome to see what the students produce. This past year, for instance, a group focused on ethnic hair and how it relates to identity, and they interviewed several students about their hair and even created a video that played on a loop about ethnic hair. A professor took her class to check out that exhibit because it went with a topic she was teaching in her class. Last year, a group looked at the injustices of the criminal justice system in the lives of people of color and imagined what their mug shots would look like if they were victimized by a system stacked against them. It was so powerful it brought a faculty member to tears. It’s become a highlight of the Ethnic Studies program here at Lawrence.

Going places: Is there an example of somewhere your career has taken you (either a physical space or something more intellectual, emotional or spiritual) that took you by surprise?

I am a gay, Afro-Latino man from El Paso, Texas. The last place I’d imagine my life ending up is Appleton, Wisconsin! Yet, my partner, Michael Reed (animal and psychology lab technician), and I have made it a home. I have grown really close with some faculty of color (Thelma Jimenez-Aglada in Spanish, Sigma Colon in History, Israel Del Toro in Biology, and John Holiday in the Con) who help it feel like a home away from home. We have done so many fun things like walk across Lake Winnebago when it is frozen, attend a bunch of shows for really cheap at the Fox Cities PAC, and catch all the live music in the area like Jazz at the Trout or Mile of Music. My partner keeps a calendar of events so he can show me how busy we are all the time. I didn’t believe him, but now he has evidence that five times out of the week, we are usually doing something fun.

OUT OF THE CLASSROOM

This or that: If you weren’t teaching for a living, what would you be doing? 

If I wasn’t teaching, I would undoubtedly be a civil rights lawyer or a medical doctor for Doctors Without Borders. I say undoubtedly because I honestly can see myself getting another degree while I am a professor so I can make a bigger impact in my community. So, don’t be surprised if you find out I am taking online law classes somewhere.

Right at home: Whether for work, relaxation or reflection, what’s your favorite spot on campus?

I like working with my writing group in Youngchild 218. It’s nice and secluded and we don’t often get bothered. I also love the large wooden area by Briggs when it is open. It is just a nice place to chill and look at the water. I’m a Scorpio, which is a water sign so I love looking at the water and being by water.

One book, one recording, one film: Name one of each that speaks to your soul? Or you would recommend to a friend? Or both?

One Book: I love the book Annihilation. We read it in our book club and it is one of the weirdest, creepiest and most beautiful books I have ever read. It’s about this pristine part of nature that looks too good to be true, and it is. On the surface it is a scary book about this nightmarish landscape and potential predator, but underneath the surface is this beautiful meditation on life, relationships, nature, and regret. It is worth a read. The movie starring Natalie Portman is pretty good as well.

One recording: I love the song Iphone by Dababy and Nicki Minaj from his 2019 album Kirk. The bars in the song are deliriously good — Nicki kills it, man — and I feel like Dababy is having a moment right now in hip hop that is unforgettable. He reminds me of Nelly from when I was younger, just a young southern rapper who puts on a helluva performance. 

One Film: I saw the film Hustlers with a bunch of friends. It’s a JLo movie so I wasn’t expecting anything good, but it had Cardi B and Lizzo and a bunch of women of color headlining, so I gave it a shot. It was awesome.

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu