Making change happen: UNI alum and instructor is a leader on campus and beyond

Belinda Creighton-Smith has never let adversity stand in her way. To become a pastor, community leader and inspiration to many on campus, she’s had to overcome the death of her son during her graduate studies and five-hour commutes to start her education.. 

She now has a doctorate in education and is taking her determination to a new role in her fight for diversity on campus at UNI, as a member of UNI President Mark A. Nook’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Advisory Committee.

The UNI instructor in the department of social work will bring her considerable community leadership experience, as well as her dissertation research on the experiences of students of color in predominantly white higher education institutions, to the committee as part of its mission to improve issues of diversity and inclusion at the university. It’s an endeavor Creighton-Smith is eager to undertake, no matter how difficult the conservations become.

“We can’t really begin to deal with the issues until we name it and address it head on. No matter how difficult and how painful the process, it takes that painful work and those uncomfortable conversations to make change happen,” she said. “It’s going to be important for everyone to hear and to bring our expertise to the table and to bring the stories of other communities.”

People close to her are confident that she will help guide the committee to confront the realities of racism on campus.

“I’m glad Belinda’s on that committee because she’ll be very outspoken,” said Christopher Edginton, a professor emeritus who worked closely with Creighton-Smith.. “She has a very strong commitment to social justice. She walks the talk.”

Former student Ryan Frank, who is one of the founding members of the Racial and Ethnic Coalition (REC), a student group on campus created to help combat racism and promote equity on campus. He said Creighton-Smith’s work was instrumental in guiding the group’s work.

“I have confidence that Dr. Creighton-Smith will be an absolute advocate for students on that committee,” Frank said. “I am hopeful that with the current conversations around racism and white supremacy going on in our country, we can genuinely engage in actionable change.”

Creighton-Smith’s passion for service is something that’s always been a part of her life. She grew up in a religious household and that inspired her not only to connect to her faith,  but to care for others in a number of other ways.

“My family, we have always been in the church. As a child, we would play church and of course I was the preacher and my siblings were the congregation,” she recalled. “Eventually I began to sense a real yearning to just know more about God and develop more my relationship with God and I found myself being drawn to the kind of work in human services where I could minister or serve individuals.”

She was able to connect to her faith by becoming a pastor at Faith Temple American Baptist Church in Waterloo, and she’s served her community in other ways, as well. She’s worked for the Northeast AIDS Coalition, a program of the American Red Cross, as a family support worker for Waterloo Schools, and has served in the Army Reserve. It’s been fulfilling work, but it wasn’t an easy road.

Before becoming a pastor, Creighton-Smith juggled her work with Waterloo Schools with seminary school at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City. Twice a week for five years, she’d make the five-hour commute to attend classes. It was a struggle, but her passion for the work carried her through.

“I stay motivated by my faith and by those that I serve and those who serve me,” she said. “I focus on serving others, whether it’s in the classroom or in the parish, and it has served me well.”

Her work as a pastor also encouraged her to serve in other capacities. After becoming a full-time pastor, Creighton-Smith decided to go back to school. In 2012, she came back to UNI for a doctorate of education. Immediately, her professors took note of her passion for her studies.

“She was with a very vibrant dynamic cohort group of doctoral students. She not only led with her cohort group but she leads in the community,” Edginton said. “Belinda is a very genuine, authentic, sincere and kind person as well as a highly driven and self-motivated individual.”

Her professors also helped her cope with personal tragedies. Shortly after starting her doctoral program, one of her sons died by suicide. She was devastated and considered quitting her program.

“My whole life was shattered. I remember going through that semester just going through the motions and operating in a fog,” she recalled. “I was blessed with professors who not only encouraged me but supported me. Somehow by God’s grace and by the support that God placed in my life I was able to get through it.”

Now, she’s successfully completed her doctoral program and is helping to encourage a new generation to make a difference. Creighton-Smith teaches classes in social work and has inspired many students to get involved in activism on campus and beyond. One of those students is Ryan Frank, a senior social work and Spanish double major, was inspired in several ways.

“Dr. Creighton-Smith … has helped me better understand how systems of oppression work and how they impact different marginalized identities,” said Frank. “I tend to refer back to her work a lot in regards to white fragility, recognizing racial bias and how implicit bias is so deeply ingrained into all of us and what we need to do in order to dismantle that. That’s something that I take with me everyday in my personal life, not just in my professional life.”

Creighton-Smith has experience organizing on campus. As a student in Waterloo Schools in the 70s, she helped organize a walkout and protest when students of color raised concerns about how they were being treated by faculty and administrators on campus. She also got a first-hand look at organizing on campus at UNI — her mother played a role in helping the UNI 7, a group of Black UNI students who fought for racial justice on campus in the 70s.

“Our home was oftentimes the meeting place for some of the college students who were at UNI part of the UNI 7. We were blessed to be sitting in the wings as they would discuss different things that they were gonna’ do,” she said. “As a child, my mother was actively involved in civil rights work, so all my life I was a part of it. We were pioneers.”

Her mother’s passion for equality obviously rubbed off on her. And not only is Creighton-Smith passing that passion on to a new generation through her teaching, but she’s passed that passion on to her  five children, as well. One of her sons, Rastafari Immanuel Smith ‘17, has even gone on to become an elected official, serving on the House of Representatives for Iowa House District 62. He said the example Creighton-Smith set inspires his work today.

“My mother has this ferocity when it comes to somebody picking on or trying to belittle or harass someone. She has little tolerance for it,” he said. “My mom imparted that it is our job to try to eliminate that and to educate people to be better. That’s something I’m working towards. I’m trying to mimic and mock what she does. I know if I can follow that, I’m good.”