Smith Jackson: 'The youth of today have the power to effect change'

Read the remarks of Smith Jackson, vice president of student life and dean of students, after being presented with the 2017 Civic Engagement Professional Award from North Carolina Campus Compact on Feb. 8.

This week, North Carolina Campus Compact celebrated Elon’s G. Smith Jackson and the work he’s done to boost engagement during his more than 20 years at the university by presenting him with the 2017 Civic Engagement Professional Award.

​As vice president for student life and dean of students at Elon, Jackson has been a leader on campus to promote a vision of service, support the engagement of faculty and students, and form innovative partnerships between the campus and the broader community. He’s been a champion of civic and community engagement as he has served Elon during the past 24 years, and this top honor comes as he prepares to step down at the end of the academic year. 

The Compact recognized Jackson at its annual Presidents Forum on Feb. 8 at N.C. A&T State University in Greensboro, N.C., which offered Jackson an opportunity to express his gratitude and offer insights from his career at Elon before a crowd that included more than 35 presidents and chancellors, along with scores of higher education administrators. 

Jackson reflected on why he believes so strongly in the work he performs at Elon, and how his upbringing in southeast Alabama during the 1950s and 1960s helped form his sense of justice and freedom. 

Find below the text of Jackson’s remarks upon receiving this top honor: 

I cannot think of an award for which I could be more honored and humbled to receive. And I cannot think of another place where I would rather receive it than in this arena of chancellors and presidents who are committed to fulfilling the public service missions of their institutions, and working to address the pressing social issues in their communities throughout the state of North Carolina. 

And I am especially pleased that my president, Leo Lambert, is here today. Leo, I remember well the meeting of presidents and chancellors you invited to campus 15 years ago to discuss their interest in forming a state compact. You concluded the meeting saying you would host the state office at Elon for three years, after which time the group would decide whether or not to continue the compact and where it might be housed.

That was 15 years ago, and we’ve never looked back! I am also glad that my dear friend and colleague John Barnhill is here today. John was the founding executive director of NCCC, with his first office a small space in my office suite. John, we can be very proud of our work together in those early years of the compact and what it has become today.

Receiving this award has caused me to reflect deeply.  I would like to share four personal reflections on why I believe so strongly in this work.

First, I am motivated every day when I wake up knowing that I live in the greatest nation in the world, a country where I enjoy freedom of thought, expression and religion. I did nothing to earn this privilege, but I am thankful for my good fortune. This inspires me to want to protect these freedoms and to further our democratic ideals.

Reflection Two:  Where and when I grew up had a profound effect on me. I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s in southeast Alabama. I saw on TV at age 13 the Birmingham bombings that killed four innocent children while attending church – I felt shock and deep sorrow. 

I saw the hatred and brutality on the Pettis Bridge by armed police – I felt perplexed and a strong sense of unfairness. And I saw George Wallace stand in the schoolyard door at the University of Alabama to block African-American students from entering, and this angered me. I knew even in these early years that these acts were contrary to my beliefs because people were being treat differently, not because of what they have done, but simply because of who they are.

My third reflection is I truly believe in the power of knowledge and education. As Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world.” Knowledge is the path from darkness and despair, to light and hope. I believe in the power of education starting early in one’s life and extending across the lifespan. And in particular, I believe colleges and universities can be beacons of hope and enlightenment, and prepare students to live lives of service and to balance the scales of justice. 

My final reflection is that I know that the youth of today have the power to effect change, as they always have, as we were reminded last night in the re-enactment of the Woolworth lunch counter sit-ins. Often in recent years I have heard many of my generation say we hope the youth of today can do a better job than we have in coming together to address important issues of society. I believe they can and I believe that they will, because they already are. 

For these reasons, I hope I have contributed to this important work to make our campuses shining examples of civil societies where we provide students with opportunities to learn and practice the skills and habits of democratic citizenship, and gain the humility needed for true community engagement in order to serve humanity and create a more just world. The work of the compact gives me great hope and inspiration.

Thank you for this incredible honor of being named to this distinguished list of Civic Engagement Professionals of the Year.