March 3, 2014 at 1:34 pm

Q&A With Clint Smith – Spoken Word Activist and Educator

Clint Smith is a 25-year-old activist and spoken word poet from New Orleans with a resume beyond his years. He’s a Teach for America alum who is currently teaching English at Parkdale High School in Maryland. He’s won multiple awards as a poet and educator including being named the 2013 Christine D. Sarbanes Teacher of the Year by the Maryland Humanities Council. In 2012 he served as a cultural ambassador to Swaziland on behalf of the U.S. State Department, conducting workshops on HIV/AIDS prevention.

More recently, on Saturday, March 1, 2014 he brought down the house at the TEDxManhattan Conference where he received a standing ovation for the poem “Place Matters” that began his talk.


On Monday, March 3, I caught up with Clint Smith who was enjoying some free time as a result of a snow-day. The following transcript has been edited for clarity.

Tove Danovich: What first drew you into poetry?

Clint Smith: I started doing slam poetry in the summer of 2008. I lived in NYC and had a summer internship between my sophomore and junior year of college. My friend invited me to a poetry café and I went. I wasn’t really familiar with spoken word as an art form beforehand but I was completely blown away by the experience.

My poetry is me trying to reconcile my own life and opportunities I’ve had with opportunities my students aren’t given and how profoundly unfair that is. 

 The first poem I heard was about a woman living with cerebal palsy and after she went onstage the way I thought about disability was completely changed. This person was becoming very vulnerable and bringing me into their life as a means to understand who they were and what they experienced. It was so powerful and I’d never been so drawn into and so emotionally captivated as I was by all the poems I heard.

I wanted to be a part of that. I’d always loved writing but was never much of a performer. I started writing and was lucky enough to have friends who were kind and humored me in my early stages. I kept reading and writing and watching and trying to get better every day.

It’s been an incredible way for me to speak to the experiences I’ve had wherever I’ve been and now, as an educator, it’s a really fantastic way for me to speak to the lives and experiences of my students. Like I said in the poem from the talk it’s “a way to humanize them” and their lives in a way that students of color, particularly low-income students of color, aren’t often discussed. I’m trying to break them out of that.

TD: You use spoken word as a way to address social issues in many of your pieces. Even your piece “Memoir” isn’t about your own life but rather another person’s journey and struggle with immigration policy. How did you land on poems as a vehicle for change?

CS: Everything I write, even when it’s not directly about me, is informed by my students. Everything is seen through the lens of my own life experience. “Place Matters” very much came about when I realized that the way I grew up wasn’t the way my students were growing up. I had a grocery store down the street and took that for granted.

“Memoir” wasn’t something I thought about until I had a student that said, “It doesn’t matter if I have a 4.0 and 2400 on my SATs. I don’t have a social security number so I can’t go to school.”


My poetry is me trying to reconcile my own life and opportunities I’ve had with opportunities my students aren’t given and how profoundly unfair that is. A lot of my poetry deals with my students and the stories of other folks but there’s also poetry that speaks specifically to my own life.

My profession and my work could not exist without poetry and poetry couldn’t exist without the work. I love opportunities like TED because I get to bring my poetry to folks who may not have experienced it before. It’s this new dynamic art form. It gives the issues a voice and a larger platform though it is by no means the only way of discussing social issues.

Clint Smith TedxManhattan Instagram

Clint Smith receives a standing ovation at the 2014 TEDxManhattan conference

TD: Have you ever felt any limitations from using art as activism? Obviously it’s hard to fit a lot of statistics and footnotes into a poem.

These schools need to serve as incubators of democracy in a way that they’re failing to.

 CS: The goal of my work is to humanize the research and the data. Often we get so caught up in the statistics and the data and the budgets and things that are more meta and quantitative there’s no space. We lose the sense of why we’re engaged in the work to begin with. Why, you know, 9 billion dollars in SNAP benefits are taking food off someone’s plate. Why not passing immigration reform is spiteful and putting a ceiling on the human capital our country could be accruing and more importantly the lives of these kids that are doing everything right.

I’m starting graduate school and getting my doctoral degree in education at Harvard next year and my hope is to mesh narratives and storytelling with research. I don’t think they need to be mutually exclusive. We need research and we need to present it to the world in a dynamic way that lies outside the realm of publications and policy journals and things that folks who have busy lives aren’t going to have access to much less read.

TD: Other than getting a PhD, what’s next for you?

CS: My big interest lies at the intersection of education and civil empowerment. I run an organization called Collective Voices for Justice that trains kids in the principles of community organizing. My big passion is getting more kids that are trained in a purposeful, in-depth understanding of advocacy, organizing, and what that is and why it exists in our lives.

These schools need to serve as incubators of democracy in a way that they’re failing to. A lot of work I do in my own classroom lies at that nexus. What I plan to focus on is that nexus and how our public schools and, in particular, our low-income schools can instill that sense of agency in our kids and show that them that their voices not only matter but are paramount to what a successful democracy looks like.


You can follow Clint Smith on Twitter @ClintSmithIII.