Education about the history of racism and sexism in the United States: We have to have a thorough understanding of why there is even a need for inclusion, representation, and equity before we can commit to it. We need to know how we got to this point and how patriarchy and racism have impacted the lives of women and people of color.
As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Richard Smith.
With an affinity for policy solutions, motivational speaking, and supporting unheard BIPOC voices and allies through restorative education and community empowerment initiatives, Richard Smith is driven by healing equity in his many roles. After a complicated early childhood that exposed him to abuse and neglect gave way to time in prison, Smith emerged transformed, having immersed himself in the cultural history of Africa and the achievements of BIPOC intellectuals and activists. To date, Smith has taken the TEDx stage; guest lectured at colleges and universities on issues such as systemic racism, trauma, and healing; and received numerous awards and fellowships — Citizens Against Recidivism Award, New Leaders Council Fellowship, Justice Leadership USA Leading With Conviction Fellowship, and the Robert Wood Johnson Forward Promise Fellowship for Leaders.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
Mychildhood was complicated. My father was shot and killed before I was born, and as a result, my mother suffered from substance abuse. Her struggles became our demons. We were nomadic, moving frequently, mostly in NYC, because she couldn’t pay rent. When things got especially rough, I would live with other relatives — mainly my grandparents in Upstate New York…or North Carolina…sometimes New Jersey and Georgia. The burden was not always welcome and often resulted in mistreatment and abuse.
The unaddressed trauma of childhood sexual abuse that I didn’t understand or even have words for put me on a path of self-destruction. As I hit early adolescence, I eclipsed any semblance of my childhood and tried to emulate hyper-masculine role models in order to compensate for my fears of being labeled as effeminate or gay. Returning to a volatile mother in an unsafe home was futile, so at the age of 15, I became an adolescent drug dealer and full-time couch surfer. I discovered a side effect of selling drugs to survive was status; being recognized as mattering was intoxicating.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
The book that had the greatest impact on my life is entitled Makes Me Want to Holla by Nathan McCall. It is about a BIPOC man who grew up in Virginia in a pretty stable home but eventually was lured into the street life, which led to incarceration. During his incarceration, McCall engaged in an intense introspection that helped him gain a deeper understanding of himself. He treated prison like college. Through newly realized self-discipline, reading, and studying, he expanded his worldview. As a result, McCall developed a racial and political analysis that he went on to write about after his release. He became a published author and award-winning journalist. His story resonated with me because I embarked on a similar journey during my incarceration. Seeing how McCall’s journey led him to success despite his incarceration and having a felony conviction on his record was very inspiring. It gave me hope.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
A Cornel West quote, “You must let suffering speak if you want to hear the truth,” takes me back to Natural Psychology and Human Transformation by Dr. Naim Akbar — another powerful, life-changing book I read while incarcerated. The book is about the indigenous and spiritual origins of psychology and how psychology was originally the study of the soul. In the book, Dr. Akbar uses an analogy of the transformation of a caterpillar becoming a butterfly to capture the transformative or evolutionary process of humans, specifically focusing on Black men.
I studied that book and every other book written by Dr. Akbar and any book referenced in his work. I have incorporated spirituality and the perspective of boundless potential and human possibility for transformation in every aspect of my work, from programs that I have developed to address the needs of children and families impacted by mass incarceration, trauma, and oppression to the lectures I deliver at colleges and conferences throughout the country. Once I let my painful experiences speak, my truth became transformative.
How do you define “leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I found myself hoisted into leadership roles from a very young age by my peers and family and have understood it to be something innate for me. It wasn’t until I started to fill leadership roles in a professional context that I started studying different types of leadership styles, the characteristics of different leaders, and ways to enhance leadership qualities. Joseph Raelin’s “leaderful practice,” in particular, captures my view of leadership the most. He highlights the four Cs — concurrent, collective, collaborative, and compassionate — in his definition of leadership. This resonates with the way that I have organically approached leadership. In my leadership roles, I have always worked to build an organizational culture that fosters a shared or collective leadership where everyone views themselves as a leader able to lead at different times and even simultaneously without diminishing anyone’s position.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
Community is vital to my mental, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing. I have a community of healers, spiritual guides, and transformational life coaches who help keep me grounded and centered in my truth and purpose. Before any high-stakes situation, I will call one of these people in my life and talk with them about my anxieties or simply about how their day is going. It’s a way to seek reassurance and comfort, and it gives me a necessary boost of confidence. These allies never fail to remind me of the need for joy, love, and laughter in my life. I’m a verbal processor, so I spend a lot of time communicating with them. Meditation is also a critical part of my daily routine.
Okay, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality, and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
The social conditions of racism and patriarchy in our country have been fanning the flames that have led to this boiling point. Our attempts to legislate morality during the civil rights movement did not succeed in its attempt to get at the root cause of structural inequality. We shied away from engaging in the painful process of collective healing as a nation, and I’m not talking about a healing process exclusive to historically marginalized people in the country but even those who have perpetuated harm and their oppression. Perpetrator-induced (also participation-induced) traumatic stress (PITS) is just as real as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). And they both can be experienced collectively and persistently. Therefore, it is just as triggering for those who have intentionally and unintentionally participated in the perpetuation of structural racism and sexism to engage in authentic dialogue as those who have experienced their harmful effects. I also believe that oppression is non-binary. It’s fluid because we are both oppressed and oppressors in different aspects of our lives. I recently started connecting with allies who advocate for disability justice work and learned how as an able-bodied person, I have been complicit in perpetuating their unjust treatment. And I think Dr. Ibram X Kendi’s theory on anti-racism is universally applicable. The same way that if I am not actively engaged in calling out and/or working to change policies and practices that discriminate against people of color, I’m racist, not advocating on behalf of people who are differently abled means I’m an ableist.
Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote diversity and inclusion? Can you share a story with us?
All my work is centered on diversity and inclusion. I spend a substantial amount of time training administrators and staff of nonprofit and government agencies who work with underserved survivors of violence and formerly incarcerated people. The folks who reach out to me are mainly looking for support with developing strategies on how to engage and best serve their participants, who are overwhelmingly people of color. Most of the time the organizations that I work with are expecting me to help staff become culturally competent and to learn about best practices for engaging people of color. However, my approach is always to start with looking at the diversity of the staff and how that shapes and informs the culture of the organization. I then engage them in a discussion about how diversity and inclusion are not simply about hiring more women and people of color but creating a culture that values and encourages the diverse perspectives and beliefs of women and people of color. Oftentimes I find that there are diverse racial, gender, and ethnic people on their staff, but they are silenced and their views are not considered equal to their counterparts’ views. We also get into conversations about internalized oppression and how women and people of color have internalized racist and sexist views in ways that cause them to assimilate to the white male value system and diminish their own perspectives.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Diversity is essential to fostering racial and gender equity [in career succession]. It is not sufficient to say that an organization offers equal opportunity while certain groups have historically had unearned advantages and others were denied access to the same professional opportunities. So there must be a conscious effort to recruit folks who come from different racial and ethnic backgrounds.
I also believe that diversity is vital to solving the “wicked problems” of the world. Wicked problems are “difficult to solve because of the incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize.” Solving wicked problems like mass incarceration requires people who have diverse perspectives based on their cultural (lived) experiences, orientations, positionality, and worldviews, not just their educational and professional backgrounds. For instance, an African-American woman may offer insight why a woman of color who is experiencing domestic violence wouldn’t call the police on her partner even if she was being harmed because of a cultural distrust of police.
Okay. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take to Truly Create an Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”? Kindly share a story or example for each.
- Education about the history of racism and sexism in the United States: We have to have a thorough understanding of why there is even a need for inclusion, representation, and equity before we can commit to it. We need to know how we got to this point and how patriarchy and racism have impacted the lives of women and people of color.
- Encourage and support people of diverse backgrounds with taking on leadership roles: Leadership in the nonprofit, private, and public sectors must be representative of our country’s diversity.
- Creating brave spaces for people from diverse backgrounds to tell their stories: We have to do more than create safe spaces that protect people from discrimination and harm. We have to create spaces where people can feel comfortable and confident in telling their stories.
- Greater emphasis on equity instead of merit: A lot of exclusion and discrimination have resulted from merit that is rooted in racist, sexist, and xenophobic views. Equity is needed to level the playing field.
- Increased awareness about the true value of diverse perspectives: Once we truly recognize the value of women and people of color’s contributions, we will be more inclined to seek them out.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
My optimism is contingent on how much we are willing to sacrifice to bring about equity but my commitment to educating about anti-racism will remain unchanged because we’re worth it — for all of us. I think that part of the reason why social change and equity haven’t occurred is that many of us benefit from the status quo. The status quo is driven by systems of oppression and inequality, and it gives some people unearned advantages. And this is not simply a problem in our country; it’s global.
Is there a person in the world, or in the U.S., with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I wish that I would have been able to have lunch with U.S. Representative John Lewis before he passed. He was truly an unwavering champion for the people and for human rights.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!