The College of Education is proud to announce that University of Utah Professor William A. Smith will receive the 2023 Albert B. Fritz Civil Rights Worker of the Year Award on Friday, Oct. 27, 2023, from the NAACP Salt Lake Branch Life Membership and Freedom Fund.
Smith is a professor in the Department of Education, Culture & Society, the Division of Ethnic Studies in the School for Cultural and Social Transformation and chief executive administrator for Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion at the Huntsman Mental Health Institute.
This prestigious award recognizes dedicated service to the community and humanity by an individual and is named for Albert B. Fritz, a civil rights leader and former president of the NAACP Salt Lake Chapter
Smith was a student member of the NAACP during his undergraduate and graduate studies at Eastern Illinois University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and became more deeply involved with the Salt Lake chapter as a professor at the U. From 2007-2013, Smith served as associate dean for Diversity, Access, & Equity in the College of Education and often supported the Salt Lake branch’s annual meetings. Since then, he’s worked with Jeanetta Williams, president of the Salt Lake chapter, in different capacities.
He never expected to win an award from the chapter himself: “You never know who’s watching you,” Smith said. “You don’t do these things for the awards, you do it to uplift people in society. I was very surprised to receive the news.”
On the day of this year’s award ceremony, Smith will be in New York City to launch the Huntsman Mental Health Institute’s Grand Challenge Summit Meeting on Children, Youth, and Families. The summit is part of a nationwide collaborative launched last year to eliminate mental health and substance use disorder stigma. Smith will accept the prestigious Albert Fritz Civil Rights Worker of the Year Award in a pre-recorded speech during the NAACP’s annual banquet, at which Associate Dean Mary D. Burbank of the College of Education will deliver remarks as this year’s invited speaker.
“The award means a great deal to me. This is the oldest civil rights organization in the country and Salt Lake’s is one of the older branches,” Smith said. “Having that recognition from such an esteemed organization brings great pride, joy and humility.”
Dean Ruma Chopra of the School for Cultural and Social Transformation said the award is well deserved given Smith’s many contributions on the U campus, in the community and beyond Utah.
“As an educator and mentor to students and co-founder of the African American Doctoral Students Initiative Program at the U, William Smith has had a profound and lasting impact on our students and our programs,” Chopra said. “His scholarship on racial battle fatigue has extended that impact broadly by putting a name to the psychological and health impacts caused by racism and micro-aggressions. We are delighted he has received this award.”
Of Smith’s award, Verónica E. Valdez, current chair of the Department of Education, Culture & Society in the College of Education—a post which Smith held himself from 2016-2022—said, “Professor Smith has been a consistent change agent and advocate for students, not just in his research around racial battle fatigue and micro-aggressions but in those things we don’t hear about, in the service he does for organizations that support students on campus.
“It’s the work he’s done not just in the local community, but nationally, to bring attention to students of color and those that are underserved,” Valdez said. “It’s the many ways in which he’s mentored generations of students and faculty. All these things combined make him such a force for change. I think that’s illustrated in the remarkable appointment he has right now working with HMHI. It’s the culmination of the work he’s done all along.”
Smith is an internationally renowned scholar and researcher prominently known for coining the term “racial battle fatigue” to describe a theoretical framework that explains how social environments perpetuate physical, emotional and mental stressors experienced by people of color in the face of systemic racism. The framework serves as a platform from which students and teachers may affirm, discuss and improve their experiences on college campuses, as well as strategies through which white allies may offer support.