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.


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Under this bill the accused will not be there to give any explanation to the magistrate with regard to the evidence that has already been recorded ex parte…I ask… whether that will be a trial or a farce”Jinnah was talking to British imperialism in the assembly where the government had moved a bill seeking legal cover to try Bhagat Singh and his comrades as it saw fit This in Jinnah’s words was a declaration of war on Bhagat and his men a travesty of law by a power that was pursuing every possible course and method to kill or transport its victims And even if the farce was given legal cover “No judge who has got an iota of a judicial mind or a sense of justice can ever be a party to a trial of that character and pass sentence of death without a shudder and a pang of conscience”Jinnah was not talking then to the state he founded and which the army re-founded ideologically and physically in collusion with – in coercion of – the politicians – and in suppression of the people But who is Jinnah talking to now “Rightly or wrongly youth today in India is stirred up… however much you deplore them and however much you may say that they are misguided It is the system this damnable system of government which is resented by the people” If a change of word is necessitated here by the vagaries of time how many of us will fail to agree that it is certainly not the word ‘damnable’ In certain areas the youth in Pakistan have been driven to damn the system in their own language of bombs and bullets ‘Rightly or wrongly’ – as Jinnah would sayToday Jinnah’s speech must be read in its entirety and not solely to appreciate that Jinnah defended Bhagat Singh It must be read to complement the secular and liberal image of Jinnah reflected most beautifully in his speech of August 11 What would be Jinnah’s advice to the serene liberalism of our times whose sensibility is bruised only when the natives behave in strange ways that defy and obstruct the march of Reason“You may be a cold-blooded logician I am a patient cool-headed man and can calmly go on making speeches here But remember there are thousands of young men outside This is not the only country where these actions are resorted to It has happened in other countries Not youths but grey-bearded men have committed serious offences moved by patriotic impulses”The reference to ‘bearded’ men takes on an amusing yet surreal quality in our country where the beard has almost become a term of abuse in liberal attempts at demolishing dogmas It is also significant that Jinnah does not find relevant the question of ‘patriotic impulses’ being misguided or otherwise What concerns him is the root cause What makes him angry is the inability to see the cause“Will you open your eyes Will you have a little more imagination Have you got any statesmanship left Have you got any political wisdom This is not the way you are going to solve the root cause of the trouble”What is the root cause“…Is there today in any part of the globe a civilised government that is engaged day in and day out week in week out month in month out in prosecuting their people Do you not realise yourself if you open your eyes that there is resentment universal resentment against your policy against your programme” Words of striking relevance again not only to our land of the detention cell and the mutilated body but also to the age of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo of war rendition and water-boarding Much of the local liberal critique of the state of Pakistan can gain some much needed insight by expanding its horizon beyond a province or two and reading the word ‘universal’ as it should be read in the ‘Global Village’ we are constantly reminded of The government of the Empire in India as elsewhere did not see the point then The Empire of today does not see it now For this is insight of the inconvenient kind which the Empire can gain only at its peril Far more profitable has been the imperial midwifery in the birth of a whole layer of intelligentsia without radical conscience and critical intellect This layer will not lend its ears to any talk of ‘universal resentment’ against the Empire because that will mean bringing in a lot of old Leftist nonsense such as the plight of the Palestinians the fight of the Kashmiris the rape of Africa coups and assassinations in Latin America exploitation of the working classes and ruthless destruction of cultures and communities across the continents in an imperial epic of war and genocide Their peasant-like understanding of a ‘global village’ will not admit that what the Lord of the Manor does will one day stir the villeins whose savage villainy will only accord with their own superstitions and not with the science of sociology This is a science that never existed for the serfs and has been turned into metaphysics by the liberals who make up a modern Inquisition that cries wolf each time it detects a tendency anywhere to understand savagery in terms other than the ‘Evil’ of this or that religion and its sects of the mountain here and the desert there Our secularists shirk from the root causes because confronting them was the sin of the secular radicals of yore But what does secularism mean if not ‘this worldly’ They remain in the realm of theology with their dreams of tearing down monasteries and their passion for exposing irrational and inhuman dogmas A critique oriented only to religious institutions beliefs and practices is woefully inadequate To end irrationality and unreason an irrational and unjust society has to be abolished But our modern obscurantism will not bite the hand that once fed religious obscurantism It is now the hand that rocks their cradle and it has always ruled the world Its proponents are ecstatic in mocking religion and at the same time excellent at modifying it as need be In love with peace and moderation they are enthralled by the possibilities offered by the war on terror of civilising the savages that remain undisciplined by the Empire and its gospel of neo-liberalism We leave our liberals asleep in their cradle and listen to Jinnah who – as it were – is speaking through the ages to the army that among others is facing the Baloch and pushing the PPO and to the political government that is missing in the matter of the missing and the mutilated“Don’t you think that instead of trying to proceed with an iron-hand and pursuing the policy of repression against your own subjects it would be better if your realised the root causes of resentment and of the struggle that the people are carrying on Try and concentrate your mind on the root cause and the more you concentrate on the root cause the less difficulties and inconvenience there will be for you to face and thank heaven that the money of the taxpayer will not be wasted in prosecuting men nay citizens…”We celebrate the birth of Jinnah on the same date as we celebrate the birth of Jesus In Dostoevsky’s famous parable ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ Jesus – when he returns to Earth in the days of the Inquisition is imprisoned interrogated and threatened with the stake because of the danger he poses to the Christian establishment Can we see Jinnah posing a certain kind of danger if one fine evening he descends on the arid terrain of Balochistan As we try to see Jinnah in our mind’s eye his words reverberate for real He goes on: “men nay citizens who are fighting for the freedom of their country” Freedom – the very word jolts us back to Bhagat Singh For it was he who insisted that freedom – as it was being understood and fought for by reformers constitutionalists communalists and pacifists – would be the prelude to a new phase of slavery oppression and exploitation It was he who till the last moment in his death cell was busy exploring possibilities of a struggle to avoid such an end for his people – for usBut we are not done with Jinnah yet We have to see how the constitutionalist was moved by the ‘soul’ of the ‘terrorist’ This is the fifth part of a series on Bhagat Singh The previous four parts appeared on March 23 March 24 March 30 and April 13To be continuedThe writer is editor oped The News Email: redzain@yahoocom It is also satisfyingly non-revolutionary for the liberal ear but could still turn out.相关的主题文章:

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  44. Pingback: Clint Smith : Teacher / poet / activist | Why choose only one ?

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