Union Theological Seminary President Rev. Dr. Serene Jones today announced the appointment of Rev. Karmen Michael Smith ’19 as the first Director of Union’s Center for Community Engagement and Social Justice (CCESJ).
“Union has had the pleasure of working with Karmen over the last several years in his role as Assistant Director of Recruitment and Enrollment. Karmen has impressed us not just with his excellent track record in this role but also by his initiative and leadership of the Justice, Equity, and Inclusion committee at Union. As a Union alum and staff member, Karmen brings a wealth of experience and will be instrumental to Union’s efforts to advance justice, equity and inclusion in and outside of Union,” said President Jones.
The Director, Center for Community Engagement and Social Justice will work with the leadership and a diverse group of stakeholders including students at Union to envision, execute, and realize success for strategic initiatives for the Center for Community Engagement and Social Justice including leading the seminary’s organization-wide anti-racism work and Justice, Equity and Inclusion (JEI) Committee, as well as creating and building sustainable relationships with key social justice and social service organizations in New York City and beyond for the purpose of increasing Union’s involvement in, and support of, social justice work.
In this role, Karmen will also be responsible for developing non-credit bearing public programs that address a wide range of social justice issues, creating an environment where community activism and engagement of pressing social justice issues is integrated into the life of Union and the local community, as well as providing support as appropriate to Union’s new MA in Social Justice and new certificate programs related to Social Justice.
Born and raised in Texas, Karmen Michael Smith is theologian, artist, social justice advocate, and Lizzie Mae’s grandson. Karmen worked in finance for Ernst and Young before transitioning to the creative sector with jobs at Apple, Inc. and Atlantic Records. Karmen has had a rich career as a singer/songwriter/producer, and has shared the stage with Patti LaBelle, Yolanda Adams, India.Arie, and Kirk Franklin to name a few. Karmen remains an advocate for the performing arts.
Karmen is an alum of Amarillo College (Amarillo,Texas), Bronx Community College (Bronx, NY), and Five Towns College (Long Island, NY). Karmen holds certifications in music engineering, leadership, marketing, and diversity, equity, and inclusion. Karmen graduated from Union Theological Seminary in 2019 with a Master of Arts. He is the founder of Figur8tion and a preaching pastor at Poor Culture, a digital faith community.
This position is funded from proceeds from the campus renewal project and upon accepting the role as Director of the Center for Community Engagement and Social Justice, Karmen shared:
“I am humbled by this opportunity to serve as the first director of the CCESJ. I am grateful to President Serene Jones for her confidence in me, Rev. Fred A. Davie for paving the way, and for the overwhelming support from the rock star faculty, gladiator staff, and brilliant students. To be chosen and not simply appointed is an honor. And, that this moment has happened at my alma mater, Union Theological Seminary—where scholarship and faith come together to reimagine justice—makes it even sweeter.
As a Black queer man growing up in small-town Texas, the world told me that to serve as a leader meant that I would have to do so from the background. I could never aspire to be like MLK Jr., but I could be like Bayard Rustin. I could never lead the church, but I would be permitted to lead the choir. Had it not been for my mother’s fierce resistance to anyone or anything that would have me believe I was anything less than God’s child, I might not be here today.
So I am honored to be the first director of the CCESJ, proud to be a Black queer leader, and excited to advance the causes of social justice. In the legacy of Bayard Rustin, I hope to inspire the next generation of “angelic troublemakers” to believe that all things are possible.”