Richard Smith is a true agent of change and the type of people we desperately need during these hypersensitive times. Richard has over ten years of experience developing and implementing community-based programs for underprivileged communities. He’s worked with at-risk youth as a case manager and program director in Boston’s Capital District and helmed the development of re-entry programs at the Center for Law and Justice and Treatment ALternative for Safer Communities. Richard has also taught Criminal Justice and lectured on issues like mass incarceration, education in low-income communities, and racism.
In this in-depth interview, Richard talks about his tough upbringing, which played a part in him taking the role of an educator and agent of change in an effort to prevent generations to come from going down the darker paths he has been acquainted with in the past. He also addresses the importance of mental health awareness in the BIPOC community and how his outlook on life has changed over time.
I've read that you had quite a tough upbringing. Can you tell me about that?
My childhood was nomadic and untidy. My father was shot and killed before I was born, and my mother suffered from substance abuse which led to housing instability. This instability caused us to move frequently from apartment to apartment because she couldn't pay rent. When things got especially rough, I would stay with other relatives, mainly my grandparents, in upstate New York or North Carolina, but sometimes in New Jersey and even Georgia. I was not always welcomed and when I wasn't, I was subjected to mistreatment and abuse.
I’m a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. And for many years my trauma-response was to lash out with anger and aggression. This was particularly the case with authority figures whom I felt were abusing their power and treating me unfairly. So similar to too many young men of color, I had a hard time in school. I was eventually labeled emotionally disturbed, kept back two grades, and eventually tracked into Special Education classes. Feeling misunderstood, inappropriately labeled, and embarrassed by being in the “retarded classes,” I eventually dropped out of school in the 8th grade at the age of fifteen. The streets became my classroom and I sought out the “OGs” who appeared to be the coolest and toughest as my teachers. They understood my pain and anger and saw me as an up-and-coming “OG” because I had “heart” and knew how to play it cool when faced with dangerous situations. The path to becoming an “OG” resulted in me being homeless, shot, jailed numerous times, and ultimately sentenced to a decade in prison. I understand now that what I experienced was the “school to prison pipeline” that funnels too many Black boys, with unaddressed trauma, from “dropout factories” to prisons.
You've spent some time in prison and stated that it helped you "find your voice." How so?
I don't like to ever give prison credit for positive changes that have happened in my life. First and foremost because putting people in cages is inhumane and no one deserves to be treated like animals. The men that I was incarcerated with, like myself, were very wounded brothers who had internalized so many anti-black messages that they in turn learned to loathe themselves and anyone who looked like them. Secondly, I never want to give people the impression that prison saves people. It doesn't, and that narrative can easily be manipulated and used to justify the perpetuation of mass incarceration, particularly of poor people of color. What saved me were the compassionate and loving brothers who were able to, despite harsh and inhumane prison conditions, heal themselves in prison and during their healing process, help to facilitate my healing journey. It was these men who understood that my rough exterior was a response to trauma and fear and not an accurate reflection of who truly was as a person. They were real pedagogues who understood, intuitively, that education was a process rooted in hope and love. Because they had gained knowledge of themselves and their true potential, they believed in my potential. In other words, because they had learned to love themselves, and Black people in general, they had the empathy that was needed to reach me. Years later, when I worked in education, I realized that the empathy these men had is what made a good educator whereas many educators, especially those who are not of color, struggle with immensely and show low cultural competence.
Did your outlook on your upbringing change at all over time? How important is changing your thoughts in changing your life?
Changing my perspective was a critical part of my transformation. Before I could even change my thoughts, however, I needed access to information that could offer me an alternative perspective. I needed to be made aware of the different ways in which Black folks existed beyond what I had observed in my community. I grew up in the eighties during the height of the crack epidemic and the "war on drugs." During this time, Black and Brown communities and families were being ravaged by substance abuse and mass incarceration. Negative behaviors became normalized, and it influenced the way that I viewed myself and others who looked like me (i.e. black men). Tragedies such as being shot, stabbed, or incarcerated were viewed as a rite of passage from boyhood to manhood. It was through reading and learning about how Black civilizations thrived before the conquest and colonization of Europeans that I was able to develop a better understanding of who I am and what my true potential is as a Black man. My outlook matured as I started to understand the psychological and social impact of slavery and white supremacy on the lives of Black folx and the current conditions we face. The knowledge helped me to realize that there isn't anything innately wrong with us, but that we have experienced, and continue to experience historical and race-based trauma. It also helped me to think about myself and others differently. I became more hopeful and more confident about my ability to create a better life for myself and to help others do the same for themselves and their communities.
A man's mental health has become quite the topic of conversation in the BIPOC community over the past couple of years? Why do you feel it's been almost taboo for so long?
I think that mental health cannot be talked about without framing it within a sociopolitical context. Men of color must have an awareness of how the ideologies and practices of patriarchy and white supremacy influence the way that we view ourselves and others. Psychology is impacted by social reality. For instance, a Black child who is responding with resistance to an academic setting saturated with racist and discriminatory practices will get diagnosed with Oppositional Defiance Disorder. One of the main areas of my work is helping mental health professionals understand the importance of this as well. I also challenge the whole mental health profession because I understand that "healthy" is a concept that has been defined by a Eurocentric worldview and fails to consider the cultural norms and values of people of color.
Furthermore, Harriet Washington does an excellent job of breaking down the traumatizing history of Black folx experiences with racist medical institutions in her book "Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present." Since slavery, Black folx have been mistreated and even tortured within medical institutions, which includes psychiatry and psychology. Historical facts have documented this from the Tuskegee experiment to sterilization programs in prisons. This is why there is a historical distrust of medical institutions that have harmed us in the past and that continues to harm us.
You've said you want to be "the voice of the voiceless" what do you mean?
I have stopped saying that because it's not accurate. Everyone has a voice. But certain people in our society have had their voices silenced, and I would like to use my voice to amplify their voices and advocate for their voices to be heard.
What forms of oppression have you seen the BIPOC community go through within society and what are some appreciate steps for change?
We have experienced every form of oppression. The question should be what forms of oppression have I not seen BIPOC people go through. Or do you remember a time when BIPOC communities were not experiencing oppression? Oppression has been so persistent with us that it's stitched into the fabric of our culture, to the point where things like the "The Talk" and "Code Switching" are standard conversations we have with our children to teach them to appear less threatening to white people to protect them from being killed by police. What I find just as important is raising awareness of internalized oppression and the root causes of the pain that we cause each other. We are currently rebelling against the brutal attacks of Black and Brown people while we also deal with how internalized oppression manifests in the violence that we inflict on each other. Throughout the country, there has been a surge in violence in our communities that is taking the lives of so many of our people. Racism and sexism have been imposed on us for so long by the dominant group that we have internalized them and have developed ideas, beliefs, actions, and behaviors that support racism and sexism. The reality of internalized oppression is why I appreciate Dr. Ibram X Kendi's perspective on antiracism. It's often a subconscious process that extends beyond interpersonal violence in urban communities of color and makes people of color complicit in the perpetuation of systemic oppression.
What are some ways you help out the BIPOC community? What are some programs that you are involved with?
My work is focused on healing within the BIPOC community. Primarily, I am concerned with, raising awareness about the impact of historical and intergenerational trauma on the lives of people of color. I learned about trauma nearly twenty years ago, and since then I have incorporated a trauma lens in all of my efforts. From helping first-generation college students understand the impact of historical trauma on their lives and their educational experiences in developing reentry programs for formerly incarcerated people to transition back into the community. Today, I support organizations throughout the country to enhance their services to address the healing needs of BIPOC people. I have provided training and technical support to grassroots organizations in Flint and Detroit Michigan, Little Rock Arkansas, Minneapolis, Boston, New York City, Newark, Washington DC, Chicago, and more. I have developed a "healing wounded healers" training to support service providers whose work is driven by their personal experience of violence and trauma. I also present at several national conferences each year on trauma and healing, mass incarceration and the prison industrial complex, and racial oppression. I am one of the national partners for the US Department of Justice-funded resource center created to provide support to organizations that serve underserved survivors of violence.
What advice have you given your children when it comes to navigating today's world?
The advice that I give my sons is to enjoy their childhoods. My children are young (7 and 8), and I want them to not grow up so quickly as I did. They have their entire lives to deal with white supremacy and other forms of oppression. My main focus is on encouraging them to practice compassion and empathy. I highlight the suffering of others at times so that they do not think that everyone is as fortunate as they are. One of the most significant experiences that I had with my sons was visiting the Legacy Museum and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice (the Lynching Memorial) in Montgomery, Alabama. I am incredibly grateful because they are growing up to be sensitive and thoughtful boys who care about other people's wellbeing. However, no matter how much I try to shelter them, they hear and see what's going on in our society. They are watching and paying attention to me and the things that I talk about in the work that I do. Recently, my son had to write an essay on activism for school, and I was shocked to learn that he knew and understood the concept so well. What shocked me most, however, was how he ended his essay by saying that he is willing to die for his people. I felt proud and heart-broken at the same time. Our babies shouldn't have to think about being martyrs at 8 years old.
What's next for you?
My goal is to develop The National Healing Justice Institute. The National Healing Justice Institute will be a national learning community and training institution that provides knowledge and technical support to individuals, communities, and nonprofits in the field of social justice. It will be a one-stop shop where members can access information, share information, and connect with other activists, organizers, and advocates who are incorporating healing practices into their organizational cultures to create communities of healing for their staff.
This work is really important because as social oppression and structural violence intensify, its impact on the minds, bodies, and spirits of those who are the most entrenched in the battle will be greater. The work often requires folx to relive their trauma by sharing their stories to serve others who are experiencing trauma like their own. In some instances, these wounded healers are even working in the same communities where their harm occurred and even working with some of the same people who caused them to harm in the past.
There has been a shift to emphasize the value of directly impacted folks (people who have survived violence or have been incarcerated) leading the movements for criminal justice reform, racial equity, and healing justice. However, those who are the most impacted often need the most care and support with addressing their trauma. The National Healing Justice Institute will help them help themselves as they push forward for the movement for social justice.