Yvette Joy Harris-Smith is a Black American with a history of inhabiting disparate worlds.
As a child, her family moved from rural North Carolina, where they worshipped and socialized in a mostly White Pentecostal Christian community, to Queens, New York, where their social circle was mostly Black.
In college, she spent a year in Africa, living in a Muslim household. And later, she earned graduate degrees from both predominantly White and Black institutions.
Now, as a senior lecturer at Princeton Theological Seminary, Harris-Smith encourages her students to develop a spirit of openness so that as ministers they can navigate an increasingly diverse society.
“I try to get students to open up their minds, step outside their comfort zone and consider the narratives of others,” says Harris-Smith, MDiv’10, whose courses focus on effective communications in ministry. “I want them to think beyond their own corner of the earth.”
She has also taken that mission to the broader public through an acclaimed book that she co-authored with a fellow Princeton Seminary alumna, The ABCs of Diversity: Helping Kids (and Ourselves!) Embrace Our Differences (Chalice Press 2020).
Harris-Smith and Carolyn B. Helsel, ThM '10, MDiv '04, write in a tone that is empathic but frank, as they assert that America is experiencing growing pains from ethnic and cultural change that has been generations in the making.
“There is no going back!” they write. “This is something we need to recognize, accept, and learn to navigate.”
Readers are offered a path to do just that by becoming more open, informed, and articulate on issues of diversity, including race, gender and sexuality, religion, and nationality.
The practical, you-can-do-it-too approach — aimed especially at parents and teachers — has drawn favorable reviews, and the book was cited in a story about antiracism books by The New York Times.
The collaboration between Harris-Smith, who is Black, and Helsel, who is White, also sets the book apart. Helsel is an associate professor at the Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.
“You have a lot of people talking about diversity,” Harris-Smith says. “But you don’t often have a Black woman and a White woman doing it together.”
For Harris-Smith, a former New York City school teacher whose three graduate degrees include a PhD in communications and culture from Howard University, writing the book provided an opportunity to channel her varied life experiences.
She spent her senior year of college, for example, in the West African and predominantly Muslim nation of Senegal, where she recalls being initially taken aback by the crowds that gather for Friday prayers. But she grew to respect the worshippers’ humility and commitment.
“It made me pause and think about my own faith tradition,” she says. “We Christians like to say we serve the one and only God, but we don’t do anything like this, where the world just stops.”
Harris-Smith’s respectful response to what she was witnessing in Senegal reflects the empathy that she encourages among both her students at Princeton Seminary and the readers of her book.
“Some people want to get abstract with these issues,” she says. “But I am a practical theologian and I believe we have to help people figure out how this all works in their day-to-day lives. How do they live it out?”