Of the nearly 100 student-run organizations at Smith College, nine groups are devoted specifically to recognizing cultural diversity among students and promoting multiculturalism on campus. These nine groups include the Asian Students Association, the Black Students Alliance, Ekta, International Students Organization, Indigenous Smith Students and Allies, Korean American Students of Smith, Multiethnic Interracial Smith College, Nosotras, and the Smith African and Caribbean Students Association. These groups are collectively referred to as Unity, a network for students of color on campus. The coalition was formed in 1990 as a result of their shared efforts in establishing a multicultural center on campus. Beginning in 1983, the cultural groups engaged in dialogue with the administration for several years to find an appropriate space for their center.
In 1973, the Black Students Alliance began using Lilly Hall as their meeting place, naming it the Mwangi Cultural Center. Ten years later, the administration proposed to make Lilly Hall a Multicultural Center so that the Black Students Alliance would share the building with the Asian Students Association and Nosotras. While the three groups were supportive of each other and recognized their mutual need for space, the Black Students Alliance wrote a letter to then president Jill Ker Conway, explaining that because Lilly Hall was also being used to house the offices for the School for Social Work, there was not enough room in the building to accommodate everyone. They stated that each group deserved its own space and that placing three groups on the first floor and in the basement of Lilly Hall would only foster tension between the minority organizations. In her reply, President Conway agreed that Lilly Hall rightfully belonged to the Black Students Alliance and that “under no circumstance [would any change be approved] in the mission and use of the Cultural Center unless that change has the informed consent of the black community at Smith College as expressed through the Black Students Alliance” (Smith College Archives, Box 76, Folder 5. Memorandum: March 1983). Despite this assertion, she explained that there was very limited space on campus and that the school would not have any more room available for the other minority organizations until the following year. The administration and the cultural groups made an agreement in which the Black Students Alliance would loan out the space in Lilly Hall to the other organizations on a three-year trial basis. After those three years, “the general success of the arrangement [would] be assessed” (Smith College Archives: Box 76, Folder 5. Memorandum, May 1983).
However, after the three-year trial, no review took place. In 1989, the Black Students Alliance wrote to the administration again, explaining that the limited space in Lilly Hall and the growing number of cultural organizations housed in the building was having a negative effect on the relationships between the groups. They wrote that the situation had “ghettoized and segregated these students in a negative way and reduced the effectiveness of the center and set up tensions and potential conflicts which have added to the pressures and stress experienced by these students…There are now seven cultural organizations who use the shared spaces in the center: ASA, BSA, Ekta, International Students Organizaton, the Korean Students of Smith, and Nosotras” (Smith College Archives: Box 76, Folder 5. Memorandum, May 1989). Many of the minority students felt that they could not claim the cultural center as their own and instead of insisting that the school find separate spaces for each of the various organizations, they requested that the school grant all of Lilly Hall to the organizations rather than just the first floor and basement. Once a year had passed with little progress, the cultural organizations shared their concerns with President Mary Maples Dunn in September of 1990. In response she assured all of them that she was working with the College Planning and Resources Committee and the Space Committee on “a master plan for space utilization on campus” (Smith College Archives: Box 76, Folder 5. Memorandum, September 26, 1990). On October 7th, when it was clear that little progress had been made, the Black Students alliance wrote to President Dunn again, explaining that it was essential that each group have enough space to function and serve its purpose on campus (Smith College Archives: Box 76, Folder 5. Memorandum, October 7, 1990).
On Wednesday, October 24th, the cultural organizations sent a campus-wide memo, asking for support and participation from their peers during a rally scheduled for Friday the 26th to resolve the space issue on campus (Sophian. “Cultural Organizations Plan Rally and Sit-In,” Erika Krasik. Vol. 40 No. 13. Thursday, October 25, 1990). At that point, the cultural organizations had begun to refer to themselves collectively as Unity in recognition and celebration of their solidarity. In the memo, they described why it was so important for them to find better space on campus: “We…need a cultural center that can be a ‘home’ away from the ‘house’ for us. We need a space as promised, where we can be with women of our backgrounds, where we can cook our food and speak in our languages. Our houses cannot possibly provide us such space or support” (Smith College Archives. Student Demonstrations. “Space for Multicultural Organizations, 1990”).
Many people came to support Unity at the rally. Students from the Five College area, Harvard, MIT, Wellesley, Brown, Yale, Columbia, and the East Coast Chicano Students Forum participated. Other student organizations at Smith were also involved in the rally. Cabinet members from the Student Government Association drafted letters and met with administrators in support of Unity. They helped the cultural organizations draft resolutions and petitions, and the SGA senators distributed the petitions to all of the houses several weeks prior to the rally (Sophian. “Cultural Organizations Plan Rally and Sit-In,” Erika Krasik. Vol. 40 No. 13. Thursday, October 25, 1990).
Immediately after the rally, the students from Unity began a sit-in at College Hall, the original plan being to occupy the building until Monday at noon. The students were permitted to stay in College Hall “…as long as they vacated the offices by 5 pm and did not destroy property. Over the weekend, they camped out in the building’s hallways” (“Lack of cultural center spurs Smith sit-in.” The Boston Globe. Monday, October 29, 1990. Jean Caldwell.) President Dunn spoke to the protestors in College Hall on Sunday, October 28th to negotiate and come to an agreement with the students. Anuradha Aiyengar of India commented on the exchange, saying that the “…students will look at any contract Dunn offers but won’t accept such a document unless it identifies a specific space to be given to the cultural organizations…If no solution comes this week, the students will meet again…to decide whether to begin a hunger strike” (“Lack of cultural center spurs Smith sit-in.” The Boston Globe. Monday, October 29, 1990. Jean Caldwell). During their conversation in College Hall, President Dunn suggested that “one member from each of the seven cultural organizations on campus form a task force to work with the [space] consultants” (“Lack of cultural center spurs Smith sit-in.” The Boston Globe. Monday, October 29, 1990. Jean Caldwell). Although she was willing to continue discussions with the students and resolve the space issue, she remained firm in her assertion that the school could not guarantee additional space before September 1st of the following year.
After the conversation between President Dunn and the protestors, the sit-in was extended to Thursday, November 1st when the leaders of the cultural organizations planned to sign an agreement with the college administration. The college was prepared to offer Hampshire House of Bedford Terrace as a temporary site for the multicultural center while a task force consisting of the heads of the various cultural organizations met with representatives of an architectural firm to study the campus and find an appropriate place to house the organizations permanently. After the initial meeting between the heads of the organizations and the architectural firm, the architects submitted a proposal to President Dunn who promised to meet with the organizations no later than January 25th to discuss the plans. (“Smith offers space to ethnic groups: Multiculture center to be developed.” Philip Crawford. Daily Hampshire Gazette, 11/2/90). They reached an agreement that the new permanent space for the multicultural center would be determined and ready for occupancy by the fall semester of 1991.
The organizations were eventually moved to the building then referred to as Carriage House. Soon after their occupancy of the new space, the organizations renamed it Unity House as a celebration of their solidarity during the struggle to find adequate space on campus. Today, Unity House continues to be a shared space for the nine cultural organizations at Smith, housing general body meetings of the various groups and events open to all Smith students. Although it is primarily meant as a support system for the minority students on campus, it also sponsors “a variety of educational, social, and community service activities” (http://www.smith.edu/oma/unity.php) that are inclusive and intended for everyone on campus.