We recently talked with Anderson Smith, our newest addition to the Teaching Artist Spotlight series, and one of the newest members of the Justice Arts Coalition Board of Directors. Dr. Smith has a strong commitment to social justice, equity, and inclusion while supporting ways to question and change inequitable societal norms. Working with adults in and out of prison has been personal for him, since he has directly felt the impacts of incarceration on his own sister and father. Anderson speaks on the current effects of protest and pandemic on carceral settings, the role of creativity and reflection during this time period, and the ways in which he believes the intersection of art and justice might help to both foster change and usher in light to our communities.
JAC: As we navigate this unprecedented time across our national landscape, both concerning Covid-19 and anti-racism protests, what challenges have emerged in your work with artists, specifically those who are impacted by the criminal justice system?
AS: It has been extremely challenging for me because I have been a Teaching Artist with Rehabilitation Through the Arts since 2015; however, I had to take a break from facilitating while I was working on my dissertation. This summer would have been my first time back from a year-long hiatus. So, of course when the word got out that no one would be allow in, I was disappointed, but also optimistic. This pandemic has provided a stillness to where we are able to take a step back from our craft to figure out new and exciting ways to be impactful. Now I have shifted the focus from teaching in prison to teaching other facilitators on creative ways to teach by incorporating spoken word poetry into their lesson plans.
JAC: What action do you feel is necessary to alleviate the safety concerns that incarcerated people face, in light of the Coronavirus crisis?
AS: I think that people should practice social distancing as best as they could, but that is obviously difficult for people living in close quarter with each other. If possible, get as much air and sunlight as you can. This is just one layer of the issue, in my opinion. A much deeper layer that many are not talking about is: mental health. This is a period where I feel people should write, and share with each other the most because everyone is experiencing and coping with the pandemic differently. We should use this moment in time to slow down and see in what ways we can learn from each other.
JAC: As you know, the JAC is focused on ways in which art can connect those in the prison system with those on the outside. How has this relationship been jeopardized by COVID-19? How have you been keeping connections active during this time?
AS: This question I feel is similar to the first in that the most immediate relationship that has been jeopardized is that in-person, I could see the white in your eyes, connection; however, through program such as Zoom, I’m able to speak with other facilitators and use this time for us to pool our skills and resources to be most impactful when we are allowed to return to in-person facilitation.
JAC: The JAC, as it grows, will continue to seek out and implement a vision of how to better support teaching artists. In your view, what does a supportive network need to include?
AS: A supportive network should have the following (in no particular order):
1) Tangible resources for TA’s to reference. These resources should include everything from tips on engaging participants, to sample lesson plans, to book recommendations by other TA’s such as Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, to name a few…
2) Town Hall meetings is another big one for me. TA’s need to be able to speak with one another organically so that the free flow of ideas could occur. This is also a great way to problem solve and debrief.
3) Support could also come in the form of recognition. How are we celebrating those that
volunteer their time, body and emotion? This is certainly a labor of love and at times could be very draining work.
I’m sure I could think of a lot more, but these are my top three.
JAC: What has been the most rewarding part of your experience working with incarcerated artists?
AS: I get to see first-hand raw talent and it is nothing short of amazing. I am almost envious of the time that they have to perfect their craft. What is perhaps most rewarding is to see a writing prompt develop into a full-blown poem or story. I get to see thoughts become tangible things.
JAC: As our art networks look to the future, how do you hope the pandemic, as well as this period of protest, will alter the public’s understanding of the justice system?
AS: I am hopeful that this period in history would remind people simply of humanity and the value of life.
JAC: How did you become involved in this work? What was your path to where you are today?
AS: The topic of mass incarceration is clearly a personal one for me, since I’ve directly felt its impacts on my family. Not only was my father incarcerated in the late 1980s, ripping his presence from my life at five years old, but he was also deported back to Jamaica after serving an 18- to 25-year sentence. I met my father for the first time since his incarceration in 2013. Moreover, many of my siblings on my father’s side chose a path of crime, which led to my sister, in 2002, eventually becoming the youngest in the family with a convicted felon label. She served time as an adult while she was still a minor. I provide these details to highlight my role as an insider, aware of the effects that incarceration has on a family and on the mind; I know their pain, because I’ve lived with it. I have also seen how the system can break a spirit and make someone feel less than human. Had it not been for my mother’s constant reminders of the importance of my identity and my responsibility to society, I, too, might have shared my relatives’ fate.
JAC: What led you to JAC, and how has your experience with JAC served your own work?
AS: I’ll tell you a true story… I received my call to further action in the spring of 2018. I was taking a cab to a training session for work, and the driver asked if I was a student or a teacher. During our small talk, I revealed to the driver that I taught English in prison. That was when the conversation seemed to shift. He wanted to understand why I would waste my time teaching people that would never be able to contribute to society. He said, with a thick Middle Eastern accent, “Don’t give them hope, because you don’t create policy, and they will be angry with you, and they will say that you gave them these tools
that they could do nothing with.” Before I got out of the cab, the driver turned and said, “Don’t try to help unless you can go all the way.” That conversation was a defining moment for me, and served as a call to action. So in many ways I see JAC as a way for me to go all the way and offer all of the talent and skill I have to help do this work.
Born and raised in the Bronx, New York, Dr. Anderson P. Smith received his Ph.D. in English Education from Columbia University. He has taught creative writing in both medium and maximum-security prisons in New York, as well as New York City’s main jail complex, Rikers Island. He holds a Master’s in Philosophy and Master’s in Education for the Teaching of English, and a Master’s in Fine Arts for Creative Writing, with a Bachelor’s degree in Communications. As an insider, aware of the effects that incarceration has on a family and on the mind, he understands their pain, because he’s lived with it. His research agenda explores ways in which literature can be in service to people with criminal conviction histories. Anderson was a 2018-2019 Beyond the Bars Fellow, and serves as a Teaching Artist with Rehabilitation Through The Arts (RTA). He can be reached via email at email@example.com.