How Brittany Smith went from Harvard student, to prisoner, to prisoners’ rights advocate

How Brittany Smith went from Harvard student, to prisoner, to prisoners’ rights advocate


– Okay, so thank you so much for taking some time to talk to me Brittany. – Thank you for having me, Kim. I’m really excited to be here. – This is not the first time we’ve met. – Nope. (chuckles) – We met before, a long time ago. It seems like so long ago.
– I was gonna say, it’s that right? (laughing) – It’s like a decade. Like a solid– – It has been. – Okay, getting older is the weirdest, it’s the weirdest thing. Like, I see 18 year olds,
and sometimes I’m like oh, like I’m young. And then sometimes I’m
like oh, I’m your mom. (laughing) – All the time, I mean, I
work with 16 to 24 year olds– – Yeah. – All of the time I’m like wow,
this is not a large age gap but yet it feels worlds apart. – It feels so big, it’s like, okay. The Gen Z-ers, sometimes
they say things and I’m like, I don’t even know you. Who are you? What’s going on? – Don’t even get me started
on pop culture, like– – Yes! – I have no clue what
anybody is talking about half the time and that’s
what makes me feel old. It’s like dang, am I that disconnected? – It is weird to be like, y’all like that? And it’s like, when
you’re young you’re like, oh, I’m never gonna be that person. But then I’m just like y’all really? This is really what y’all doing? – Yep. – Anyways, I wanted to talk to you ’cause I think that you have
had a really interesting life and you’re doing interesting things and that’s always my aim to
just like, sit and learn more. And maybe, you know, share
it with those people. (laughing) Okay, so you’re from New York? – I’m from New York, born
and raised in Harlem. – Oh, that’s like down
the street, up the street. I’m not from here, I don’t
really know about the area, okay. – I mean, it’s definitely
different than when I grew up but still– – Oh yeah! – It has my heart. – There’s like a Whole Foods– – There is a Whole Foods, even my super market up where I live now has like a hot food bar
and it has a coffee grinder and I’m just like, oh okay, this is new. – When I was a kid, ’cause I used to love Spike Lee movies, I always wanted to have a
brownstone in either Brooklyn or in Harlem, but now like, all the white people want that too. (laughing)
– They do and they have it! There are two brownstones near
where I live and I’m like, give me like two years. If those are still vacant, I can get me one of
those in about two years and now they’re doing construction. I’m like, dang, it’s just not
gonna happen for me right now. Brownstones in Harlem
are super unaffordable. – Yeah. – I just saw a posting
for two, it was like oh, you can get both of them for $3.8 million. And I was just like yeah,
about that. (laughing) – One of my really good
friends is from East Flat Bush and like, we occasionally have
conversations about the fact that gentrification has
made it to East Flat Bush and I’m like, wow. That is commitment
’cause that is out there. (laughing) – It is and you know, I think
what’s really interesting is I saw a ad recently about, I think it, I don’t know if it was
like brownstones or condos, but they had a white man
on a stoop of a brownstone and it was kind of like
oh, come let us show you what it’s like to live in Harlem. And I was like, I’m sorry? – That’s gotta be so tough. – And it is. I think the displacement
is obviously a significant concern for someone
that grew up in Harlem, but there’s also the culture
that is completely lacking. I have to go to Brooklyn
for my culture now. – Yeah! – And Brooklyn’s far. – That’s so far. Yeah, it is far! I did not learn about like,
the fancy prep school, like New York culture,
until I went to college. Did you, were you, in the fancy
New York prep school system? – No, I wasn’t in the
fancy prep school system. Although, my family did try to do it. It just, it wasn’t something
I was interested in. Actually, it was more so
because the one that they wanted me to do was the
boarding school aspect of it and I was like eh, I don’t
really know about going to boarding school. So I went to public school
in Harlem for high school and then various public
schools in New York. I went to Frederick Douglass Academy, which is an interesting experience, very, very grounded in like black culture, which is very important and I love that aspect of
the school, strong academics, we had like high graduation rate, ranked high outside of
the public in New York. So I had a great public school experience, but the more work I’ve
done as I’ve gotten older, I recognize it’s vastly different
than what most New Yorkers who have gone to school in
Harlem have experienced. – You didn’t do any of the
testing or anything like that? – No, my family, again, wanted me to do the specialized high schools
and I was in the prep program, they have all of these track programs, talented and gifted programs in New York, which I’m sure they have
in other school systems. – It’s different here. – It’s very different. – It’s so different, yeah. – So I was, I excelled in the state exams so my teachers informed my parents about these opportunities
to do like I said, the boarding school or do the specialized high school. So I actually did a, I
wanna say it was all through middle school, there was a
prep program that helped you to get into the specialized high schools. And again, having gone to
those programs in the summer and seeing the environment, I wasn’t very committed to
going to any of those schools. My family was really upset and I actually can recall
the conversations saying, did you fail those tests on purpose because there is no way
that you’re doing this well and you can get into one of these schools. And I was like I don’t know
what you’re talking about. – Yeah, what turned you off about it? – I don’t know, I think a large
part of it was at that point in time I was very much into my blackness. I really started to understand
and learn about what that meant and it stemmed
from writing a paper in eighth grade about symbolism and I talked about the
Holocaust and the Swastika and equating it to the Confederate Flag and slavery in America. And my teacher was very upset by it. – Ooh. – So, I couldn’t understand. Like, why? This is literally
representing the enslavement– – Trouble maker. I like it, I’m into it, yeah. – How many millions of people
died behind this, right? And you’re gonna sit here and tell me this was not a
holocaust for black people? And so I really, really was like, I don’t know if I can be in an environment where I can’t explore this. And, I mean one, Frederick
Douglass Academy, listen to the name, right? I had friends that had gone there, my sister had gone down there, a lot of black teachers
especially in the history classes. So it was just, I don’t know, I think I was just drawn
to what people consider self segregation like I
wanted to be with my people because my middle school
experience was the one time I was in the more diverse environment, meaning I was one of like 20 black kids. (chuckling) – Sadly, sadly that is diversity. – So I don’t know, I think I really just, it didn’t seem appealing to me because I also didn’t feel like I would fit in in that environment. So it’s like one of those struggles where you’re 14 years old,
what do you really know? Your parents are telling
you what you need to do. – Right. – But grateful that I did have
the opportunity to go to FDA. – So I am assuming you
were a great student. – I was and then I wasn’t
and now I am again. (laughing) – In like, K through 12, you were– – K through 12 I was
a really solid student but I also had a number of
personal traumas going on at the same time that
impacted me in school which was really, really difficult. My mom was incarcerated
for like part of my youth. I acted out definitely, a
lot with regards to that. My father had custody of
us but we still had like social workers that we had to talk to and like, so different processes
at different points in life that I think I rebelled against. Whether it was like, be
respectful to my parents or acting out in school. There was literally a point in high school where I had like a log
book where every teacher had to sign off on my
behavior in high school. – Interesting. – So it’s like on the one
hand, academically I excelled. But my attitude and behavior was terrible. Like, you couldn’t tell me anything. – But you had to have people
who are invested in you. – Very much so. – People who are like
this is a smart person, get your sit together. (laughing) – And like I said, my family
was very, very supportive. I had some great teachers. I joined the softball
team in my high school and my softball coach
was my US History teacher and was like absolutely
phenomenal individual. And like I said, all my teachers
in FDA were super amazing. I remember I sprained my
ankle playing softball and I had on sneakers
and we wore a uniform and it was like so unacceptable. But obviously I had the doctor’s
note saying that I could wear sneakers ’cause I
couldn’t wear my shoes. And I remember one of my
teachers saying to me, oh how the mighty have fallen. And I said, because I’m no longer in uniform? (laughing) But I think, and then I
was probably carrying on in the hallways and I
was just like dang like, this man respected me and now
I feel like I’ve like done something to change the way he views me and I didn’t like that. So probably got a little more
serious in school after that and also I think during
that period is when my attitude really did begin to change. My friends from junior high school went to high school with me and I had a really like great
circle of people around me. Like I said, the environment
was super supportive. The guidance counselor, the teachers, the assistant principal were
always kind of in my corner and so that was always, my
father was part of the PTA. He was a very involved parent which is why I had my behavior log. (laughing) But in some ways, I think I
was still was just challenged by the idea of what the
expectations were for me. And so, and again it was just a
space where on the one hand I felt like I could
like enjoy my blackness and then on the other hand, it
was also a trying experience. We were a black school in
Harlem with a white principal. – Hmm. – You know, there were
interesting experiences and he’s like loved by
everyone or at least respected. Him and I had some challenges. (laughing) And then I remember very
clearly in homeroom class, it might have been ninth grade, one of my teachers said to me,
“Oh, you think you’re better “than everybody because
you’re light skinned “with long hair.” – One of your teachers said that? – One of my teachers. And I think that also like– – What is going on in these schools? – A black woman. – Oh my God, okay. – Which to me was like again, as I’m in this period of
like exploring who I am. – Yeah. – You’re a black woman
in a professional space that I should see as
some type of role model and because I’m not giving you respect, granted that’s on me. – Yeah. – But that’s the kind of
engagement that you have? – No, you do not do that with kids. Oh, that makes me so upset. – Yeah, that led to like
some like real, real horrible situations where she
was kinda like everyday, it was like, I’m gonna call your father. I used to be like you want
me to dial the number? Two one two. (laughing) So I think that that person felt like just really disgruntled and really angry and really hostile and it took a while for me to
kind of shift out of that mode but when I did I felt like
I gained so much more. Like I said, joining the softball team, I volunteered with an organization, I got my first job working
in a junior high school where I saw individuals
who were my age, 16, socially promoting in
a junior high school. So these are sixth to eighth graders who are 16, 15 years old. And I really also started
to understand like, the disparities in the school system. This is a very, like I said, I went to a diverse junior high school, so it was very different
from my junior high school experience and I couldn’t
understand how we had individuals who were accelerating or
moving forward a grade, couldn’t read, couldn’t do basic literacy, struggled with writing, we
couldn’t engage them on like the homework aspect but they
came to program everyday. – People underestimate what kids know and what kids can understand. So what age did it really
click for you like, this stuff is unfair. You’re wrong, like. (laughing) – I think it was probably
about 10th grade. That was the period when I
was doing all of these things. So reading, oh my god, I think my US history teacher has us reading like
everything under the sun. My global history teacher had us read everything under the sun. I remember the first
time I like really read the autobiography of Malcolm X and like really read Frederick Douglass and then I was on Sojourner Truth, “Ain’t I a Woman?” for awhile. And I was like what is going on in this world that we live in? Like, why are these things acceptable? – Yeah. – And I could not really figure that out. And then in college, you know
I felt like I had a great experience with my education there because I was taking African
American studies classes and like my African studies
professors were African people. They were teaching me about the history when I was doing my intro courses where I took an African
language, I took Swahili, from somebody who was a
native Swahili speaker. – So in, when you were in high school, there were teachers there, I mean, there were people talking crazy to you, but there were also teachers
there who were helping you get a firmer understanding of blackness and global blackness and
you were rooted in that. – Very much so. Actually my English teacher,
I think it was the first time I met a Jamaican person that
spoke with an English accent. So I was like what? Obviously I understand colonization, I understand what’s going on there. But I didn’t like actually realize that there were people that spoke still with an English accent. So it was really surprising to me and then when she got angry that’s when it came out. It was like oh, you
are Jamaican, Jamaican. And it’s terrible that
we make that distinction about like who we see and recognize as being a part of a culture just based on what we hear them say, or how we perceive them. – But if you’re not exposed to it, then how are you suppose to know? – Exactly, especially
where I lived in Harlem, where it’s like a lot of
neighborhoods are very mixed in their blackness and
their culture identity in those communities. Mine was very much like what
is considered American black. So you know, family
migrated from the South and they’ve been in New York for awhile. So definitely a different
cultural experience. And even some of the things
that she had us read were, you know, the literature was, black literature wasn’t necessarily like, we weren’t just reading Shakespeare which was also very, very important. – That’s so rare. – It’s so rare. (laughing) So I a have to appreciate that. – Yeah, okay, so at some
point in high school you have to make a decision about college. I have talked before, here people know, like I was an obsessive planner. I was like, when I was like 12
I said I’m going to Harvard, I don’t care what it takes. I was getting the booklets
and looking at the website. Were you a person from a
really young age who was like I’m going to this school? – I could tell you that I
didn’t know where I was going but I was going an HBCU. – That’s so, okay, okay. – And funny enough, I was
doing the common application and I was doing it for I think Howard accepted it at that point or I was doing that and
I was like all right, I’m gonna apply to Howard,
I’m applying to Spellman like let’s get it together. But lemme do the common app, because I highschool required that everybody do the common app. So as were in the
guidance counselor office somebody makes a comment about Harvard and says girl, you should apply. I was like I’m not applying to Harvard, like I’m never gonna get into Harvard. Were you making good, you
were making good grades? – Yeah, I was like top ranked in my class. – Okay. – Because of the great junior high school I went to as well though, I came into high school
like a standing sophomore because of the amount of
regents that I had taken and the credits that I could
taken in junior high school. – So good test taker, good grades? – Good test taker, good grades. And well liked so I had
some great recommendations. – Yeah. – Some of the people I didn’t
give all the attitude to. (laughing) And so I applied and like
literally sent it off and did not think about it again. December 14, 2004? I get an email, I’m at home, get on my computer, I get an email and it says that I got
accepted early to Harvard and I said– – You applied, well you
have to apply early. – Right, I didn’t even realize I sent the application in
the deadline to apply early. – Wow, okay. – That’s how disconnected I was from the process of going to Harvard. – So fascinating.
– It was just like, all right, somebody said you should do it, like just do it. – You know these are the
stories that like races like white people hate where it’s like. – With me they hate it even more. (laughing) – People who are like obsessed about it, like I’m like a typical
like overachieving person where I was obsessed about
it and it’s so interesting because I know lots of
people who are just like really casually like yeah, like
my teacher told me to apply and like I just sent it
in and then I got in. Yeah, okay. – And I’m like first I
thought it was a joke, ’cause I was like Harvard is
not going to send you an email saying that you’ve been accepted, right? – Yeah. – And I’m like, so I
start Googling like oh or I think it was like
AskJeeves back then, right? – Mm-hmm. – I consider everything Google now. And I was like when was
the application deadline, I actually start looking up like, I was like oh, so I
submitted it like literally the day before the early
admissions application deadline. – This is so crazy to me, okay. – And I cried and I told my dad and I was like I got into Harvard. – Yeah. – And I like called school and was like well can I not to school tomorrow? (laughing) – It’s a big deal, yeah. – You said I didn’t have to, which was a big deal in my
house like there was no excuse for not going to school in my house. – Yeah. – So I remember calling the
school and letting them know and my guidance counselor
was like screaming, like “Oh my god, two
people got into Harvard!” and I was like, “Who else
got in, who going with me?” ‘Cause now of course I’m
going like. (laughing) – Yeah. – And so it’s really, really shocking and I absolutely had no idea. I remember my interview
and I had a great interview and I really shared like who
I was with my interviewer because I’ve never been ashamed of where I come from or who I am. I’m never been ashamed of
saying I grew up in the projects or that my mother has been incarcerated. I love her for who she is,
she’s had her own challenges and that doesn’t impact
how I feel about her. – And just to note, that everybody who
applies gets interviewed. – Do they? – Or like there’s like a tier
of people who get interviewed, ’cause I went to high school in Oklahoma and I had an admissions interview so I assume maybe there’s like a, maybe we need to do some research, because there’s gotta be a
way for them to be like oh, this is a serious
applicant and this is not. But everybody I know who went
had an admissions interview, like in their hometown. I wonder how they decide who
doesn’t ’cause there’s no way. there’s no way in 2019, every
single person who applies. – Even back then I feel
like what did they say like maybe the acceptance rate was like 6%? – Yeah. – So yeah, no. (laughing) – Okay, so yeah you had an interview, you talked about it, yeah. – And then we also talked
about just my experience and things and again, back to doing like volunteering in a school
then working in a school and playing on the softball team, becoming captain and stuff, I never saw those things
like adding to my resume. I saw those things was adding to me. Right, these were experiences.
– That’s so healthy! – Right? Again I think because my mindset was like oh, the academics will
come, like I’ll go to school and like I’ll be fine. – Gosh, this is so well adjusted. Okay, ’cause that was not my mindset. (laughing) That was not it. – And I like just enjoy
these experiences, right? And these were things that
again, my school exposed me to and so it’s like oh, but
you’ve been doing this and like you’ve been
doing this for so long and you worked at a soup kitchen and you work with the homeless population and you’ve done these things and I’m like yeah, but these
are things that like matter. These are things that have value and I think that that’s
always been kind of my mindset about like what I wanted
to do with my life. At one point I thought
I was gonna be a chef but that changed. But it really became
about like social services and social justice and
especially that’s like I said, is different experiences impacted how I engage with the world. – Yeah. – And then later in life especially when I started going to therapy it really helped me see
why I was so connected to these issues in my community. – Mm-hmm. Okay so you go to Harvard, I mean did you apply others places? – I ended up withdrawing my applications because at that point
I got in Harvard early. – Same. Well I didn’t apply anywhere else. Okay, after I got in early. Okay, so everybody’s
excited, you’re excited, you’re going to Harvard. What was your Harvard experience like? – Whew, so it was interesting. So I will say that like I
went up for prefresh weekend and I met amazing people there who I absolutely love to this day. – Prefresh. (laughing) Okay so accepted students,
admitted students, the spring of their
senior year in high school there’s a weekend for admitted students and then you go and you’re
supposed to be introduced to the Harvard experience
and what its gonna be like. – Yeah, so it was all a lie, right? (laughing) – It is! – It was amazing experience and you felt like you
could just immerse yourself in your blackness at Harvard. – Yes, that’s true. – You went to like all the events. – Only go to the black people events. Oh this is so true. Yeah, yeah, yeah. – So I was like oh, this is great like I didn’t know how I would be able to like relate in this environment and what this would look like. – It is, it’s bamboozled. – And even as being as spoiled as like writing on my housing applications that I didn’t want to
have a communal bathroom and getting like a freshman dorm– – This is true. – And suite, I was like this is fancy. – Yeah, I definitely wrote
like I don’t want any roommates and got no roommates, yeah. – So it’s just like this is a
different level of privilege that I’ve ever experienced but I also was appreciative because the year that I started at Harvard was also the first year
that they had started their low-income financial initiative. So I also went on full scholarship. – Wow, yeah. – Which was amazing for my
family, because otherwise I don’t think I would
have been able to attend. And then on top of that I think that they were very intentional
about how to engage individuals from that
community in the space. So things like the student events fund to make sure that people can go to things without having to worry
about how much they cost or they had a coat fund where
you can get a winter coat and even my laptop, so
these different things and I had outside scholarships so it was also just like wow,
I can do all of these things and not like have to call home
and ask my dad like for this or for that or things like that so that was very important to me because I also knew
that like realistically it wasn’t something that could be ongoing. And I had started working
and things like that to support myself while in school, but I think that when I actually did sit like in the dining hall, which I always say the dining hall and my girlfriends used
to say like it a caf, like why do you call it a dining hall? And I was like, girl. – Even with all that other stuff? (laughing) Okay, yeah you’re right,
that’s not a normal– – But when she came to visit though she was like I really understand now why you call it dining hall. – Yeah, it’s a hall! – It’s like girl there are chandeliers and long wooden tables and like white men in robes on the wall. – It’s a thing, yeah, yeah, yeah. – And our wall flyer had
the Harvard crest in it, like what, it’s a dining hall. And I just remember thinking like wow, this is like very far from
anything I’ve ever experienced. And I think my first year like I said, I had some great people that I had met prior to starting at
Harvard that really provided like a supportive environment for me, but I also think that
struggle to like find out where I wanted to be there. I immediately joined The
Association of Black Harvard Women and I met some like really
engaging and dynamic women. (laughs) But I think that on the individual level like a held in a lot of stuff and I went home like know like
almost every other weekend, because I didn’t feel like
comfortable in the space. And I don’t know– – So you weren’t able to
find like a community? I feel like people ask me
like, “What should I do?” and I’m like if you
don’t have a community, it’s gonna be a struggle. So you didn’t feel like you were deeply rooted in a community? – I felt like parts of me were, but I also felt like
there weren’t many people who could identify with my background. – This is true. – And so while there was like I said, the community was pretty strong, right? And I felt like I could have also myself tried harder immerse myself
within that community. – Yeah. – I also felt like, I felt
inadequate in this space because of where I came from. So okay, I got my ticket
for the student events one to go to the gala, right?? – Yeah. – So I was like oh,
let’s go dress shopping and we go to dress shop,
we go to buy dresses, and the first time I went I went to what was the place called? Cache? I don’t know if you remember that place. – Oh, old school, yeah. The kids don’t know. – Yeah and I was like mm, so these dresses start at like $300. – This is an important
conversation to have, because I’ve really been
thinking about this recently and there’s been more
conversations about it recently in that there is diversity unlike these elite college campuses, but it’s a certain kind of diversity and so I’m somebody who
had a solidly middle class, maybe upper-middle class background and that’s the majority of people. Even the minority, the
black and brown folks have that kind of background. And so if we’re talking about diversity and making these campuses inclusive for all types of people, we need to just think
beyond what your race is. – Exactly. And that’s kind of a biggest
issue with diversity is that and people always assume
that we have these quotas to fulfill to do racial diversity, but as we talk about diversity inclusion like I can be in a room
full of black people and feel very, very
singular in that space. – Right, right. – And that was kind of some
of the things that I felt and not that there
weren’t other individuals that I identified with
or who were supportive and even those individuals, it wasn’t like oh they were like oh, you. – Right. – It was never that, but it was you know the
internal feelings of inadequacy. When they were talking
about leaving the country, I was like I’ve traveled
the Eastern seaboard. – Yeah. Yeah or my class analysis as a 30 year old is much different than my class
analysis as an 18 year old. I just assumed every, you know? You just don’t know– – Exactly. – Yeah. And so I was like, I’m not
like this type of black person. – Yeah. – Right and then there are
times where I felt like oh, I was too hood for Harvard, right? I still cursed up a storm
and was very set in my ways and my behaviors and I might
have came through campus with my bamboo earrings
a few times, who knows. But I definitely felt
like this wasn’t my space. – Yeah and even you know, I asked you about the fancy
private school New York system because I just assumed that everybody, every black person who goes to Harvard comes from the elite private school or boarding school system. I just thought oh, it has to be, but that’s different, that’s different. It’s rare.
– Right. – Okay, okay, okay we’re
making sense now, okay. I think that we met through The Association of Black Harvard Women and those kinds of
differences are definitely, even in in that space, they’re
definitely there too yeah. – But I will say that in that space though I always loved that space because the topics range
from so many things that we wanted to discuss, so many things that we wanted to do. I think it was through them initially that I first heard about PBHA and one of my roommates who wasn’t black also was doing work with
them and I was like oh, like a lot of people are doing this work And on Dorchester or
reading like Richard hill. What is this, what’s going on? There are black people in Boston? – Yeah. – Because in Cambridge like
when you first go there you also like assume
that Cambridge is Boston and then you’re like oh, wait
these are two different worlds and they’re like but
we’re the black people and it’s like oh, there are
like urban areas, inner cities. – You gotta go out.
– You know I hate those words. – Right, there’s a few in
Cambridge, but you gotta go out. – So those were also,
you know when I started doing work there that
was I think more of like seeing my community in Boston help me like really figure out
where I was in the space. And also like I said,
therapy helped a lot. – Yeah, you started going
to therapy in college? – I started going to therapy in college. I looked for a black female therapist, because to me it was
important to have somebody that looked like me to discuss my issues because even with the class differences there are some things that are singular black women experiences that I felt like I needed somebody who had those experiences to talk to and I loved my therapist. She was so real. – Yeah. – Like I had two and the
first one I loved her too, but she was a little
bit on the softer side. My second was like listen, essentially you playing
yourself right now. Get it together. – Yeah. – So, but I still think that you know I had strong ties to home in
ways that weren’t positive. Not just that like I felt
like my family needed me and they weren’t adding
intentionally an additional burden, but sometimes I felt like I was like straddling these two worlds. – Yeah. – And then I would go home and like be back in Harlem and like living in the projects and then going back to
Harvard the next week. It was just, it was a weird experience. When I would fly back, at the time I was just like eh, I’m going. This is this. When I think about it I’m like
I was literally like moving from poverty to wealth every other week. – Have you heard of
this documentary called, what’s it called? Oh, it’s called “The Prep School Negro” and it’s about an older black man and basically he and his sister were from a low-income
neighborhood in West Philadelphia and they went to these elite
fancy private high schools and they’re talking about
their experiences of going back and forth and
the kinds of trauma that that creates and there’s nobody to guide them through the trauma. But yeah, like I’m super fascinated by the untended to harm of you think that you’re giving, you should be, this is such a big opportunity for you, but like what are we
doing to care for people who are having to straddle? – And we’re not. So that’s why I will say
that like I appreciated even identifying like a
black female therapist while in Harvard because
my expectation now I struggle to find that just
living in New York City. – Yeah. – So the fact that we have them on campus there and available was
something that I was like, I don’t know how intentional this was, but it’s definitely necessary. – Yeah. – But I don’t think that I did a good job navigating those systems. – You’re also a young person. – Yes. – Yeah, we’re just trying
to figure out life. Yeah. – And I remember I was like
I decided to do sociology and everybody’s like what
the hell are you gonna do? I was like I just, these
are where the courses are that I feel like I will learn the most. – Yeah. – So I looked at a fam, I
looked at social studies, and I was just like this is kind of, really will allow me to like
study what’s interesting to me and so that’s the other part of it, like if I know that I want
to go in social services and that has always been
like even going to Harvard, it’s like I’m still gonna
go into social services. Then I want to know about
people I want to know like how did we get to this point, right? So I can tell you like the history, obviously I’m well versed in the history, but it’s so much more than
looking at where we came from and looking at like how
we’re still engaging in these systems that are
so oppressive to people that look like me. And so I really studied like
race and ethnic relations through sociology and then like I said, through African and
African American Studies and it was really powerful
for me to be able to do that with some of the people that
wrote the book on it, right? – Yeah, yeah, that’s the thing, that’s the thing about
going to fancy schools. Okay, so there comes a time
when you have to decide, what am I gonna do with
the rest of my life? I need to find a job and make
money or go to grad school. What were your plans? – So I was applying to social
service positions in schools and I remember talking
to somebody about it and was like one, I can’t believe that you came to Harvard
to do like social work. Your tuition is more than you’re gonna make as a social worker. – That is a very common– – I was like damn. It’s true, but at the same time like, you know some part of my
Harvard experience also I felt like the people
in the black community were very driven, like
I said in being involved in like social services
work while they were there, but the focus was definitely I’m doing X or I’m doing this or
I’m going to law school and it was all about you know, that I don’t know, increase the prestige. Or that focus on wealth. – It’s prestige and money, yeah. – Which I’m not, hey,
whatever works for you, right? And people should be allowed
to do what they wanna do, but I always felt like we
could have done a better job with maintaining kind of
the service work that we did as undergrad students. – Okay so this is such a, okay. Because I have thought about this a lot and I didn’t do a lot of service work, but I did notice that it
did feel like service work was often presented as a stepping
stone for the next thing. And even people who would sign up to do like Teach for America, right? They’d be like okay, I’m
gonna do Teach for America and spend my two years in this city and then go to business school and that’ll help by
business school application, that’ll help my whatever application. Or I’ll go to do, I’m like ha, it’s fascinating that and I get it, right? Because a part of that is we are, I’m a black American person so like I don’t really have no safety net even coming from middle-class background it’s like you know, we don’t have that. So we have to make sure that like we’re setting up our foundations,
but at the same time like what responsibility do we have to, even if you want to make money there has to be other options. – And even now like the fact
that you say responsibility is something I’ve had numerous
interest in conversations about kind of in the
current space that I’m in at Columbia School of Social Work now. – Yeah. – And it was kind of
regarding this idea of like black emotional labor that
I experienced that Harvard, that I currently experience at another private white institution. And I continuously say like, I feel like I have a
responsibility to my community to shape kind of some
of these conversations and to ensure that the individuals that are coming to work in our communities understand the systems of oppression that we lived under before they come in making these assumptions
about like what our needs are and what they can
provide or like you know? – Yeah, ’cause well who
else is gonna do it? – And so I like kind of
straddle this understanding of like what is my role
and responsibilities to my community? What’s my role and
responsibilities to myself, my future children, right? And like wealth and access. And what power do I have, right? Because on the one hand I recognize where I’ve been at a disadvantage and I’ve recognized the struggles that I’ve had to overcome,
but I also recognize that I’m extremely privileged in a lot of ways. Just looking at my educational background, just looking at the family support that I’ve had and being able to do that. It’s kind of helped me look at like well, how do I balance this identity that holds some of this privilege with this identity that has
experienced extreme oppression. And for me I’ve really come
to understand that like my role is heavily rooted
in social services and– – And that’s not a waste. – No, it’s not at all. – I feel like it can be so
easy to internalize this idea that you’re wasting your, you have so much earning potential. Yeah, yeah, okay. – And even that conversation
I just said to someone like listen, no I am not going to sit here and make nice little 500K
with a $100,000 bonus, right? – Yeah. – And I’m okay with that, because one, I think that I’m putting
myself in a position to be able to build wealth because there are other
things that I’m working on and wanna do and at the
same time not step away from my personal mission and my personal drive. And I think that that
was one of the things that like Harvard help
me see a little bit more was do you just strive for the money and let it take away from your passion? Or do you live your passion? And I’ve definitely have
like live my passion. – Yeah. All right, so you completed all
the coursework for a degree, but she did not get a degree? – No. – Okay, do you wanna quickly summarize why you did not end up getting a degree? – So about two weeks before graduation, I always struggle with
like how to frame this mostly because I feel like the situation when people see it, it dictates
how people view you, right? And we know that that’s gonna happen. – Yeah. – But to me it’s more
important to understand that regardless of what I did
and I know what I did and I accept responsibility
like for what my role and everything was, I
hate being defined by like this is the girl that did that. And it’s unfortunately the circumstance for people in numerous spaces, but especially for people
who have been incarcerated or have been under some
form of the carcel system. So about two weeks before graduation I was dating someone who was participating in some illegal activities on campus. Which one, I have my own issues with, because I wasn’t aware of it so it was really, really frustrating that he was bringing
this like life from home into my Harvard space. – Right. – And then the other part of that is that people have automatically assumed that I was a part of it as well. And what really frustrated me was like, there’s a huge drug culture. – There’s a huge drug culture! – And nobody talks about it and it was like well these black people brought these drugs on the campus and I was like actually
Harvard was the first time that I knew that teenagers sniff coke and I was like wait a minute. – There’s a huge drug culture!
– Y’all just don’t smoke weed? – I am definitely afraid of drugs ’cause I feel like I’ll
get addicted to anything. I didn’t even smoke on, I just started taking
edibles two years ago but it is everywhere. That’s the thing, it is so normalized. – It is.
– Yeah. – And I did not expect it, like I said. grew up in a projects,
everybody smokes weed. – Yeah. – A lot of our parents were on drugs. – Yeah. – So like you said,
drugs are not it for me. – Yeah. – But when I realized that
people were like taking pills and doing, I was like people do this recreationally like at 18? – Right, yeah. – So it was mind-boggling
this understanding that like drugs are very immersed in this culture and then this drug dealing on
campus is by two black people who don’t go to Harvard with
ties to the Harvard black, to black women at Harvard. – Yeah. – And it was like really? This conversation about
you really see where race kind of becomes a huge issue. – Yeah. – And so it was a very
devastating circumstance where somebody lost their life. – Yeah. I was gonna fill in the blank,
tell me if I get it wrong. So from what I’ve read
there was a young black man, a man they you were dating at the time. It’s been described as
that a drug deal gone wrong and he ended up fatally
shooting another young black man inside of a dorm or outside of the dorm? – Inside of the dorm. – Inside of the dorm and
you are alleged to have been involved in the drug deal. And you were incarcerated for that? – I was a incarcerated for that for two and a half years. And I didn’t received my degree. What I will say that I appreciate about some of the connections
that I made at Harvard is that my Dean at the
time of Lowell House came to visit me at Harvard, he had moved from that
position with the current Dean who hadn’t met me and they worked with me to try to fight for my degree
while I was incarcerated. – So this is an interesting thing, right? Because if you completed the coursework and I think this happened during move out, because we were still– – It was like two weeks to graduation. – We’re still on campus. Then why not give you the degree? – So part of it was that even if I wasn’t a part of the drug deal or wasn’t aware that I
gave him access to the dorm and he had been like
in my dorm for awhile– – That was their reasoning? – That was part of it. And I honestly couldn’t tell you that I looked at all of those forms, literally a stack of papers like this big as we were like fighting for my degree. – Yeah. – And actually I didn’t
completely finish the coursework. There’s one paper that I had
to submit when this happened that like never got submitted
during the process of like experiencing this trauma and that’s the other part that
nobody actually talks about is like how did this impact me, not even on the educational
level of my degree, like me as a person. – Yep. – But the fact that like they came and I know part of it was like their role as you know, you have to give people the opportunity to respond to this. But the fact that the Dean wasn’t even at the Dean of Lowell House anymore and came with the new Dean and was like this is kind
of what the process is, this is what it looks like, and they were strong advocates for me. I think also made me realize that like I wasn’t as disconnected from the community as I thought I was. I received some great support. People reached out to
me individually after and I was hugely ashamed. – Of course. So when I was doing research to sit down I went back and there
was like an NPR segment from like 10 years ago and one of them was a ’08 graduate and
she was talking about Chanequa Campbell, who was also
implicated in the incident. She was alleging that a part of the reason why Harvard acted in the way that they did toward you too was because of race. And the reporter in
this little NPR segment was questioning why wasn’t the
black community at Harvard, why were we not mobilizing? Why was there not more outcry? Did you feel at the time like, you already felt isolated,
maybe a little bit marginalized from these bougie black folks, did you feel like you were abandoned? Did you feel like there should have been more advocacy on your behalf? – I think looking back I wish there had, but I don’t think I blamed anyone for not being supportive at the time. Like I said, people reached
out to me individually. – Yeah. – But I also think that people are afraid to touch the subject. – Yeah. – And you have to respect that, like you’re in an environment where this is clearly about race, so like what does it say about you? But that’s the other part of
kind of the work that we do. Like at what point do you
push yourself past that fear and what does it mean to you and is this important enough
to challenge the systems? And I think that again as
we’re all learning ourselves at that time, definitely
a different environment than I think that if it would happen now– – Yeah, it’s different. The kid’s are so different. – Completely different response. I think I might have checked
the like BSA listserv maybe once or twice and I was like I don’t think I can do this like because the other part of it was like these were people that I respected and people that I engaged with, like so regardless of whether I felt like I was like belonging in this community, I did enjoy the space that I
shared within the community and I didn’t want to see
like any derogatory remarks and there weren’t any
like I realized later. – I don’t remember. – But I didn’t, you know you don’t know what the expectation is. – I don’t think there was derogatory, I think that there was just silence. – Mm-hmm, there was a lot of silence. There was was a lot of silence, but I do remember there
was a Crimson article and like all the comments
on the Crimson article goes back to what you were saying. This is why we don’t allow
these black people at Harvard. – Yeah, honestly. – Like this type of person
doesn’t belong here. This is what affirmative action gets you and it’s like she took
this space of somebody who was way more qualified to be here and it was like you don’t know me. – But that’s I mean, I
haven’t looked at the comments recently, but I’ve looked at, any Crimson article that’s about race, if it’s about affirmative action, if it’s about a black person, it’s always people and not
even people affiliated with it, it’s just random people who are just like you stole my spot and it’s
like honestly, honestly. – Yeah, yeah, so that definitely was, I actually met somebody
maybe like a few years ago. I did a speaking engagement and I spoke about my experience
as having gone to Harvard and not getting my degree and the gentleman came
and spoke to me afterwards and it’s older white gentleman who was probably a Harvard
class of like 70 something. – Yeah. – And we talked about and I
told him like what happened, what ended up happening
my degree and everything and he was appalled and
disgusted and outraged and it was interesting because– – That outrage was directed toward you? – No. – Toward Harvard? – Toward Harvard. – Okay. – And I was again in this place where I hadn’t fully accepted like what happened at Harvard. To have somebody that was
like outraged on my behalf was like wow, there are humans, right? There are people who like care. There are people who
will not stigmatize you and you know try to degrade you for an experience that you’ve lived. And I think the work
that I currently do now has really helped me to see that, but it’s also been balanced
with the same trolls and negativity and people who are like no matter what you do, you did this and this is who you are. – Yeah. – And you know that’s the
most difficult part of like thinking about that period in time is how much I had to overcome in terms of understanding who I was
then in that space, right? – Yeah. – So I’ve never deserved
or felt like I deserve to be on anybody’s pedestal. – Yeah. – But I always remember
being really, really aware of like people saying,
“Oh, she goes to Harvard.” A big deal like oh, you go to Harvard. – Yeah. – To that point where
you do that little thing where you’re like oh, when somebody asks where you go to school, I went
to school in Massachusetts. (laughing) – There’s like a culture
and it’s so deeply embedded in the community of
black people at Harvard was like the black excellence culture where it’s like we are the leaders and now that I’m older
I can disconnect myself and just be like oh my
god, it was so obnoxious. It’s so obnoxious and like elitist and classist in so many different ways, but you’re encouraged
to internalize this idea of like it’s you, you’re
the talented tenth, go forward and… – Yep. – And even you know, I’m from Oklahoma and grew
up in Oklahoma and Texas and like people are like oh my god, the East coast and I was like oh, yeah. And actually I’m not gonna play it down, because it does feel good. – It does. – Yeah. – Yeah and so part of that has been like how do I internalize not
being that person anymore? – Yeah. – And like what does that mean? Because it didn’t change my
intellectual capability, right? So that’s what this was
supposed to be about, right? Me going to Harvard and about you know not just who I am as a person, but like how I’m able to
thrive in the environment. And let’s be honest my
grades weren’t that great, but not because I couldn’t
handle the workload. Again, I think it’s a lot of the pulls of not really being there. I remember my grades drastically changing after starting therapy. And realizing how much
everything was impacting me, but when it came back to my incarceration or not even prior to the incarceration where I was like in the process of being expelled from school, I was like well now who am I? – Yeah. – My family was still
very, very supportive. They threw me a graduation
party when I came home like after you know
everything happened on campus and it was also just
this recognition of like that’s not who you are. and it’s sad that the
only people who say that are the people that know you before any circumstance happens, right? – Right. – But I still, they were
never ashamed of me. I never felt that from my family, but shame and embarrassment like internalize very, very differently than just what you think people perceive. It’s like damn, I let everybody down. And that was hard. My grandmother, I’m gonna cry. I’m such a sucker. I didn’t talk to my grandmother about it. It was kind of this thing
like we can’t really hush up you’re not graduating, but like how do I engage my grandmother in this conversation? – Yeah. – Especially when they were like reporters coming to my neighborhood and
like trying to talk to people and it was hard and then my
uncle ended up telling her, but I never had a single
conversation about it with her. And he always tells me she knew and it didn’t change. – Yeah. – And it’s again, like not
that you think it’ll change, it’s the disappointment that you feel for doing something that
hurts the people around you. – Right. – So I really, really struggled with like what that meant for like how I saw myself. – Yeah. – And then the incarceration obviously like continued to impact
that self-identity, but it also was two and a half years for me to sit down and
like think about it, right? – Yeah. – I hate tell people this now like what more do you have to do in prison than better yourself because… And not all prison environments
are conducive to that. – Right. – Most of them actually aren’t as we know, but I really had to think about like the consequences of my behavior, the actions that led me there, and part of it, I’m not blaming society, but I also have a different understanding I think than my peers
did of like incarceration and illegal activities while at Harvard, because it’s something
that was surrounded with my whole life yeah so you know, it was this normalized experience. – Yeah. – Oh somebody is like away in prison and it’s like okay well he’ll come and that’ll be that and life will move on. And so it’s like this one
understanding of being like this is a normal experience
for individuals in my community and also being like this
is never gonna be me. – Yeah. – So reconciling those
two and saying damn, like I thought this was for other people. But why was I so much better
than these other people? Was it because I went to Harvard? Was it because I excelled in school? Was it because of I had support? Whatever the case was, I really stopped and was
like I made a mistake. – Yeah. You mentioned that you were incarcerated for two and a half years. – Mm-hm. – Do you feel like your
punishment fit the crime? – So I question this. A lot of my actions and
my charges were for things that I did after the fact. So like I had accessory after the fact. – Yeah. – So you know I felt like, I don’t know if necessarily that I feel like punishment fit the crime. – That’s a long time. It’s a long time. – It is but I think the
bigger question for me was the difference in what would have happened if I wasn’t black. – Yes, this is what I’m saying, right? It just seems like a long time. – And the DA was asking
for significantly more time and the judge kind of was like, “The sentencing guidelines
doesn’t offer this.” So I’m one of the few people that probably may it from sentencing guidelines where you know I feel like the DA was asking for like five to seven years. – That’s, okay. – And then like part of my sentence is the mandatory minimum sentence and also my attorney being like, “I don’t see this like happening this way” and we were trying to figure out like what next steps were
and was like all right, you can go to trial and 100% believe that I would have been sentenced
to five or seven years if I had gone to trial
or take a plea deal. – Yeah. – And so I took the plea deal. – Yeah. – And found out about
like this good time thing where you can get time off your sentence and so I was supposed to
serve the full three years and I ended up serving two
years in like five, six months. And at the time, I don’t even think I processed it. I remember reading some of the articles and I don’t know why I
punished myself that way, about like the fact that I had no emotion so I was like stoic and
like just didn’t care. – This is like a thing. I mean anything that
Harvard is attached to is gonna be a thing and then
there’s all these racial tropes that people latch on
to, like it’s a thing. Yeah, it was a thing. – And it was just like
I not gonna sit here and like give you my pain
so that you can then, if I cry then it’s gonna be
like oh, now she’s remorseful. If I don’t cry it’s like oh,
look at her, she doesn’t care. Whatever I do you are going to have something negative to say about me. – Right. – So it’s just gonna be
what it’s gonna be, right? And the other part of it for me was my family is gonna see this and I didn’t want them to like keep seeing my pain over and over again
through these systems, right? It was really important to
me and they joke about it, it was like you had no emotions and it was like I just
couldn’t share those because I knew that in
sharing those emotions, it would make it so much harder for them. – Well there’s also this thing, you know there’s all
this historical baggage about who is allowed to cry? Who gets to cry? Who do we extend our sympathy to when we see them expressing
emotion outwardly? And like it’s not black women. – Ever. (laughing) Not ever. I actually recently had a
conversation with somebody about that like we really
need to dismantle this black super woman stereotype. – Right. – We cannot handle
everything and that is okay. – Mm-hmm. – I don’t need to be strong every minute of every second of every day. – Yeah. – Right, but the expectation
is that you better. – Yeah. – Right and it’s part
of the emotional history where black women have unfortunately had to carry this burden
for so long, right? We can talk about you know, go all the way back to slavery, right? And you know when your son
is pulled from your arm, nobody cares about your tears. You still have this whatever, you still have your other children, you still have to get through the day without hopefully being whipped and you still have to like live. So you take all of that pain and you take all that stress and you take everything
that you’re feeling and you say this is not for right now. I’ll find a time, because
you always tell yourself I’m gonna find a time
to process this, right? But outwardly, it doesn’t help us because everybody sees that and it becomes well she can handle anything. It’s like and then when you break inside you feel like you have nobody to turn to, because everybody’s so
used to you being strong. – Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. – And that was hard too
to think about, right? Like what does this look like for me? Do I like shove it down
as far as it can go and just live one day at a time? Because you still have
to get through each day. – Yeah. – And then being in prison it was like nobody’s gonna see me, right? You are F81126. So does it matter that I have no emotions? Does it matter that like I’m
not engaging with what I feel? And I didn’t for probably the first year. – Mm-hmm. – Within the first two weeks
I think I must have slept like 20 out of 24 hours. – Wow, yeah. – I lost a massive amount of weight that when my family came to see me they were like what happened? – Yeah. – And I was just like I don’t know, I don’t know how to cook food in the bag. (laughing) Right, so you make light of it when the reality is like
you’re dying inside. – Yeah. – And you don’t see the way out, because nobody’s giving
you the opportunity especially within a prison, right? There’s no therapist in prison that you can explore your trauma with and say this is how I’m feeling and if you do see somebody,
you’re gonna get medicated, and you’re walking through
the halls like a zombie. – Yeah, was there a point when, was there a point while
you’re incarcerated when you were like okay, we have to make something out of this? – So as I was fighting for my degree, found out that Framingham had a prison education program
with Boston University. And I found out that like
while I was actively fighting for my Harvard degree I
could still work towards completing my bachelors degree. Had to fight for it. Mostly because for something as simple as, I was classified first time offender, non-violent, low classification, they wanted to move me
to a minimum facility. At that time the classes
were in the medium facility, although they were
right next to each other they would transport you
if you were transferred. If you weren’t already enrolled in school, you couldn’t attend. So I was like I’m literally
going across the street, you’re bringing people back anyway, but if I leave before I’m
enrolled, I can’t attend school. This is really like weird dynamics. – Wait, so you were trying to enroll in the Boston University program and you couldn’t enroll unless
you are already in school? – No, I couldn’t enroll
because I was being moved to a minimum facility
from the medium facility. But literally they’re next to each other. – Right. – Anybody that has started
already, so I couldn’t start. Yeah. – Okay I’m fascinated by
this because I assume that if you’re in a minimum-security facility, those are the people who are more likely to be released, right? And so wouldn’t you want to provide more opportunities and more access? – So yes and no. Most of the people who
got moved to a minimum had a short amount of time
and so there was also, you had to have a certain amount of time before you were eligible to go to school. – Why? – I think because they wanted you to matriculate while incarcerated. – Okay. – Can’t really think about
what their politics were, but again, the process was like all we would be transferring, more than enough credits from Harvard and I just need to take whatever Boston University’s
minimum requirements are or I’m doing this to explore options while I’m fighting for my degree. – Okay. – So I was able to then enroll and that kind of was super,
super amazing and interesting and I felt like I got
held to a higher standard there than I did at Harvard. Which people are always like
oh, it’s a prison program. It’s gonna be easy, like they
don’t have any expectations. So I was like first of all,
I don’t have any Internet, I don’t have a computer, I
gotta hand write these papers, my family is sending me research, my professors I have to tell them what my, it was like a whole lot of things that were happening, right? – Mm-hmm. – But also the professors were just like, “Just because you’re here does not limit “your ability to do this work.” So my professor, we used to
always talk about his red pen like you would get a paper back and you would be like damn, I thought I did really good on this one and they were super amazing. But the experience that really
kind of changed things for me was Harvard Divinity School did a class that brought students in to
the prison to do a joint class with those of us that were enrolled in BU. – Hmm. So the professors are Boston
University professors. – Some, some of them were like
adjuncts for other schools and so they were professors and like, one of my professors was like adjunct and had like three schools. – Yeah. – So they were they were like– – They’re credentialed,
these are real classes, papers, tests. – Too many papers, tests. You had to take certain
number of high level courses. You had your core curriculum, you had to take English, had to take computer or something or other and I was just like I don’t understand how the inside of this tower works. And so anyway, yes there were
definitely like requirements, it was not something where I was like, I mean I took classes. I took a couple of sociology classes. I took an English Lit class. I took African American Studies class, where I wrote a dynamic
paper if I do say so myself at Robert Mugabe but that’s another story. But the Divinity School
class was the first time that students were brought in and so they were actually students from all across Harvard. I thought they were
Divinity School students, the professor was a
Divinity School professor, but there were like a
couple undergrad students and students from like different areas. And when I talk to those students. Or just being in the space, like I never, I didn’t initially say
like oh, I went to Harvard and like this was my experience. Like I just took the class
’cause it was interesting and it was about crime and punishment. Very interesting to take a
crime and punishment class while incarcerated. (laughing) And like really looking at the
history of the penal system and the history of the
racialization of crime from as early as you know, well obviously during slavery,
but immediately after. And then the process of like
looking at mass incarceration and reading Michelle
Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” while incarcerated, very
transformative experiences, right? – Yeah. – It really engaged me in a
conversation that was like, I can remember doing this
outside of this space, right? And again, like doing this
you dive into like race and social structures and systemic racism, but now to do this from
a lens of being somebody that is incarcerated and
looking specifically at like how race and the justice system have worked or not worked. And then sharing my
experience in the classroom. – Yeah. – Which I think at that point might have been the first time
that I like put it out there. – Yeah. – And again, everybody was like– – So people didn’t know? – Mm-mm. – Okay. – And when I did put it out
there, I remember again, this outrage from the students, but you could expect that from, these are individuals that willing to come into a prison for a class, so there’s a definitely
different level of engagement that you’d expect from these individuals. And I remember one student was like, “Well, what is it that
we can do to help you “get your degree from Harvard?” And so I talked to them about like what that process had been like and there were students that
cried in the class with me. – Yeah. – And I think that’s when
I started to see myself as a person again and
not as like a convict. – Yeah. – And that’s when it started
to shift for me like, intellectually you know
these things, right? But you definitely
internalize it differently. And that really kind of shaped what I wanted to do when I left prison. – Right. – But it also you know
made me really grateful for that experience of like
finding myself within prison because I don’t know if I would have if it hadn’t been for that class. – I think it’s so interesting in reading about the way
that incarceration works and it just varies widely
from state to state, city to city, county, county. There are so many places
where people are fighting to remove higher education classes and remove access to books, even books. I was a part of this this
program that sends books to incarcerated people
and we were sending them to one county in Texas and
they were like no, no more. No more books? So I am glad that you had the opportunity, but it does seem to be pretty rare. – It is, it absolutely is and in Boston University’s
prison education program is privately funded so that’s
I think one main difference than a lot of systems, where
like in New York’s system part of it came from like
state funds, government funds. So and federal funds so I think that that’s like part of the aspect is like oh, we’re paying
for like these people to receive education with our tax dollars and like I can’t even send my child to go and you know so that’s part
of the conversation, right? – Yep. – But yeah, Boston’s and
I think that that’s why Boston’s program has been able to excel is because it’s not tied to that. People are willingly saying
like we’re gonna pay for this. – Yeah, yeah. – Which is a much different conversation. – Were there a lot of people
enrolled or how many people? – I can’t remember, but you know, there were a number of
classes that were run. It wasn’t like oh, we only
had two classes a semester. It was like– – It’s like a full program. – Full program, I think I took like three or four classes one semester. – That’s great. – And I also commend the professors because you’re going into this environment where literally it can be
on lockdown in any minute and you’ve traveled all the way here and now you have to wait
outside for two hours and then you come in and you’ve got 30 minutes
left in the class. And to have your bearings around you to be able to get these
things done and move forward. But it’s really sad that
you know the conversation is always that around like
oh, well people go to prison and they’ll be reformed
and be rehabilitated, but if you’re telling me that
I can’t even get an education, which is like a basic right in my opinion, like what is it that you want from people? – Right? But people are not invested. They’re not really
invested in rehabilitation. – At all. But I will say that about
my experience is that I do and again, I’ve never been
incarcerated in New York, but just from the stories
that I’ve heard from friends and family members and
people that I work with and obviously just reading that’s definitely a different system than there is in New York. – Yeah. – There were a lot of
programs that were offered. – Mm-hmm. Massachusetts is a uniquely
progressive in some ways state. So but I’ve always found
that like interesting like how segregated Massachusetts is and like how progressive it is and then Republican
governor and then like, it’s just like– – It’s weird, it’s a weird mix. – It’s a weird little mix. – Definitely, yeah. – But I think that that
really also kind of allowed me to like explore like
these different aspects. The minimum that I went to
was a minimum pre-release and I ended up going on pre-release and like working in the community, but it was dorm-style. It literally reminded me
of like undergrad dorms. Rooms along the wall, doubles and triples. You had a closet, you had a dresser, and then the bathrooms
were not in your room. – Wow. – And so the showers and
stuff were like all separate. They had a library, you know the TV room, and all of these things and then we actually
did have a computer lab and so I was able like when
I moved from the medium to the minimum, able to
like type my papers up, and we had floppy disks. – Yeah. – Floppy disks. (laughing) – Oh yeah. – I couldn’t even believe it. – A lot of people under 22 watch this and they’re not even gonna
know, so just Google it. It was a different time. – And you know even things
like they had a family program where you get a house
visit with your child and you could order from the kitchen like things to cook with your child so they had like brownie
mix and cookie dough and like regular breakfast food. And when I went to the house, I used to work on the maintenance crew, went to the house to do some work I was like it was a cute
little like two bedrooms, I can’t remember, two
or three bedroom house, living room like very family-friendly and because we had no bars and no gates or anything like that, I think it was like an
intentional kind of way to do family unification or unification while
individuals were incarcerated. So like I said very different than my experience and my understanding of what the New York system is. It doesn’t take away the fact
that like people treated you as though you were less
than a human being. – Right, right. – People tried to degrade
me, demean me left and right to the point where that was, it took me back to those high school days where I couldn’t keep my mouth shut and I was like I’m gonna
get in real trouble one of these days because somebody’s gonna
say something to me and I’m just gonna flip, because regardless of
why I’m in this building you have no right to talk to me that way, you have no right to treat me like I’m anything less than a human being. And people don’t understand
that and they don’t accept it and I used to tell people all the time, like you are literally one mistake away because that’s all it takes. It doesn’t have to be an intentional act. – People don’t understand, yeah. – And that’s the other part of it, right? So why do you think that
I’m so different from you, because I made a mistake? Okay well, how many times
have you made a mistake and not been caught for it? – Right, people– – Like think about the
minor things that you do. – People break the law every, this is what every time I tell people, you will break the law every day. (laughing) You break the law and
we see hugely powerful influential people who
break the law out in open and they’re not incarcerated, okay. So you are released from prison
after two and a half years and when you’re released do
you have a plan for your life? – Nope. I had saved some money
because you know like I said, I was working in the community and they actually forced you to save like a portion of your your
income, which I think is great because it allows you to
like leave with something. I know people who have literally left with like thousands of
dollars so it creates like a nice little foundation for you to start. It’s not a lot of money, but I was like I can move into apartment, I
can buy myself some furniture, get some food with some clothes and maybe like navigate that
space for a little while. But I had no clue what I was gonna do you because this was pre Fair
Chance Act in New York and it was just like I applied for a job and the background check comes and then, like so what does that look like? So I ended up going to a company that I worked for previously because I knew they wouldn’t
do a background check. And I enjoyed the work, but it wasn’t anything
that I wanted to do. – What type of work was it? – Retail. – Okay. – And then I started working another job and it was again just like a job. – Mm-hmm. – To have an income, to be able to live, and I was staying with family at the time and was like I’m want my
own, I can’t afford this especially not in New York City and I ran into a family friend who had originally introduced
me to the Fortune Society. And I had interned at the
Fortune Society one summer while I was at Harvard and so I was, at the time when I first
went there I had no clue the type of work that Fortune did. It was just like oh, they’ll
hire you like temporarily for an admin position to the AVP and I was like cool, sounds good. I could definitely do
clerical work, right? It was paying more than the work and I had wanted to go
back into the schools, or work in the social services system that I had worked in previously, but it wasn’t an opportunity. And then I was like oh well, I can like look for something else and I had no real plans. And so when I went I was like oh, I’m making a decent income
and like this is cool, but it’s nothing interesting. – Right. – And then I found out
what the organization did and it was the first time I even heard of an alternative to incarceration program. I was like wait a minute, so like we have a diverge of people that keeps people out of prison, This is interesting. And so I spoke to my then supervisor and like started working
more with our counseling team and really getting an understanding, so I got to see different aspects. I went to the group services and I like joined individuals
who were doing workshops and we had like a fatherhood workshop that taught fathers how to make healthy– – So you didn’t even know that that was? – No. – That is so, okay. – And then on top of like just
having the diversion program and like all of those things that were, it’s like an education program. There was an employment-based program, there was a substance
use treatment program. It’s like wait a minute, like we’re really doing all this work for individuals that are directly impacted by the justice system? They’re like again,
coming from an environment where I can name you know, I can walk down the street and there’s like nine or 10 people that have had some type
of carcel experience and I’m just like why
don’t I know about this? Like why doesn’t my
community know about this? What is going on? And one of the best summers of my life. One of the best working experiences. – It’s so interesting how like the stars aligned in that way. – Mm-hmm. So you know like I said
I thought it was great and you know had a great relationship with the then director of the program. And then the family friend would introduce me to that position. When I came home they said,
“Hey, Peggy’s asked about you.” and I said, “Oh.” She just asked like
how you’re doing maybe. She suggested that you reach out to her. So I didn’t, because again
I was still in this like, she knew me as this like a shining star Harvard student doing excellent
work with the organization and like I remember doing
a full audit with them and feeling well respected
within that sphere. Which also shaped when
I went back to school, I remember it’s like okay,
so what classes can I take around crime and punishment because not this is an interesting topic that like well I might
have focused on race and ethnic relations
and like school systems and like also black identity, I don’t know what the class is called, but it’s black religion which was great. I really wanted to like understand
like more of this dynamic because again, I experienced
it in my daily life and never really delved into it. – Mm-hmm. – So when he said she asked
for me and suggested it, I said “Okay, I’m gonna do it.” and I told my partner
about the conversation and he said “Well, are you gonna do it?” I said, “Yeah, I’m gonna do it.” And then I didn’t do it, I
kept working my retail job and I’m just going
through the days, right? And we talked about it some more and it was like this
constant back-and-forth, it’s like I don’t want
her to see who I am now. Is she gonna think differently of me for like who she knew to who I am now? – But presumably she already knew? – Right but and also duh, look
at the work that she does. – Right. – Yeah, but it’s still like again, this internalized shame where it’s like I’m not really comfortable with who I am. – Right. – So it took me a while
and I eventually went and she was amazing. – Yeah. – And called up one of the directors and was like wanted to
find out what the positions that were available at the organization and she was speaking to
somebody on the phone and I’m sitting right there in her office and she’s like I have a
phenomenal young woman in front of me who will
excel at any position that we have at the organization. And I know that she’ll do well in it. And to me it also again,
was one of those moments that was like this woman knew
me as like a 20 year old kid who was like leaving
the party at 7:00 a.m. to come to work at 8:00 a.m. (laughing) And I really enjoyed the work that I did, so that I started leading a
woman’s group on self-worth and I even start thinking about that, like I was leading a woman’s
group about self-esteem and self worth, but I
didn’t have any at the time when I came back eight, nine years later. And for me it really hit me then and it was like you know what? This is really like people know who I am and if they don’t that
I need to figure out like how I can get people
to understand who I am despite the mistake that I made and the circumstances that had happened. And it was really, really amazing that I ended up applying for and didn’t tell the director of education that was interviewing me that I like had this relationship with, she was now the VP of program, because I wanted to get
the job on my own merit. And when we interviewed my
resume wasn’t really reflective of like what the work that I had done, because it had obviously
my recent experiences and this was just like I seem disconnected from the social services
that I always wanted to do. And so what then happened
is like within the interview I talked about like why I wanted to do the work even more so than before from my own incarceration experience. – Yeah. – And I cried in my interview and he was really amazing
and really supportive and I started the next week. – And now you’re still there. – I’m still there, four
years this past July. – Yeah. – Started there as a teacher
of our youth education program, now senior director overseeing
all of our education and training programs. – So I’m interested in, over the past I wanna say like, well you mentioned the release
of Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow” in like
2010, 2011, around that. I do feel like there has
been a shift in the way that we think about carcerality
and incarceration. I mean everybody ain’t there. But there is a growing movement of people who are rejecting the whole
system, myself included. In your work are you seeing
that shift or seeing, are you guys able to reap
the benefits of the way that there’s like a
growing movement of people who are like this is fucked up, like we gotta do something else. – Absolutely, but I think that… Or they’re two parts to it, right? So I spoke earlier about
how individuals believe they have an understanding
of the needs of the community and they don’t. Some of that also happens within this work where it’s like we know
what directly impacted injustice involved individuals need and so some of the lens of
the reform has come from like this aspect of like knowing I think– – So people on the outside who feel like we’ve read some books, we have it. – Right.
– Okay. – And then there are the movements that have been led by the people who are directly impacted. And those movements have like shifted, like I said, shifted the landscape. They opened up the
conversation more broadly, it’s brought a lot more
people into the conversation that might not have
thought about it before, and it’s also built increasing resistance because it’s like what are y’all doing? – Yeah. – So a lot of people see
things like closing Rikers and the building of community jails and they’re like this is the agenda of social services organizations and like this is not what we need and then there are other
people that are like this movement came out of
directly impacted people and like what does that mean? And there’s conversation
even around understanding that it’s not just incarceration
that we need to address. So are we looking at
changing the policies? Are we looking at the school system? Let’s take it all the way back there. – Yeah. – Are looking at like what
this does to communities and how communities are being impacted? So a lot of those kind of different pieces are being in conversation with individuals who like I said are newly
interested in this work, individuals who are directly impacted, and I think that’s the kind of to me the best part of this movement
is the number of voices of people who have been directly
impacted by these systems as we try to change these systems. – That’s a really good point because when I do think about the people who get the most shine in like the prison abolitionist community or even the reform community, I don’t feel like I hear
primarily from people who have been incarcerated or the people who are
closest to the problem. And that’s like a recurring thing whenever we’re talking about any kind of social justice thing,
but it feels like people who are closest to the pain,
closest to the problem, their voices get drowned out. – And that’s what I
experienced to some extent. I recently like responded
to something on Facebook that’s that exactly that, when somebody put out a letter
about the closing of Rikers and essentially was like, I was like well, have
you had conversations with individuals that
are directly impacted? And then when you do, do you do it with the individuals whose views align with yours? Or are you opening up the conversation and hear what people have to say? – That’s a good point, mm-hmm. – And you know kind of some of my take on what that looks like is even with close Rikers,
there were some focus groups around like the redesigning
of these new prisons or not even prisons, their
jails and the community jails and everybody’s like there’s no such thing as a community jail. We’re not at a stage where
incarceration is gonna end. So whether we get there and
when whether we move forward with prison abolition,
we have to understand that we are currently in an environment where that is not where we’re headed. – Mm-hmm. – In saying that it’s important
that we have environments where people are treated like people. – Yeah, yeah. – So to me the most important
part of that is like is there humane treatment within
these environments, right? So when asked about like my experience like I shared with you,
it was dorm-style, right? Our rooms were purple and blue and green or whatever they would colored, I cannot remember but
I remember there being, at least I think it was
like blue and purple, and the areas and the
open spaces were painted. It didn’t have this institutional feel. There was not a barbed wire, not a gate, not a fence, not a locked door. – Right. – So when we were locked in, it was like stay in your room. We didn’t even call it ourselves. The person that I lived
with was my roommate. And so even just the
physical structure of how like I struggle with kind of some of this, because personally I recognize that I would hope that we
could move more to like a restorative justice model. – Yeah. – But I also recognize that there should, to me there should be some
consequences to actions. – I wanted to ask about this. I’m glad were getting here. (laughing) Yeah, okay. – So you know for me and I
said this to somebody recently. I said, maybe is that I’m not there yet, but there are certain things that you know I can’t see happening where
I’m not gonna say that like this person needs to be
removed from society. – Yeah. – But in removing them, you should be able to access your family, you should be able to access services, you should be able to access resources, you shouldn’t feel like you’re in a cage, you shouldn’t be demeaned. – Read books. – You should do that. – At the bare minimum, yeah. – We should have a foundation of what rehabilitation looks like and we should really have an understanding and I think that’s a important area that the close Rikers movement
has definitely explored. It’s like what does that look like? – Yeah. – Having a nursery within confinement so that you know when I was incarcerated women were still like
handcuffed to the bed, baby is born, taken away within two days, you’re back in the prison. Right, so definitely a
different institution. – Yeah. – Right, but what what does it look like if we like ensure that there’s a nursery and that you can have a family
unit within this environment? What does it look like to have supportive mental health services? What does it look like to
have substance use services? And not ones where we’re just like, I’ll give you this like two minute program and say this is what you need to do, but like actual in depth services, right? And what does that look
like because we know that most of the people within
the system are struggling with either mental
illness or substance use. So and then we look at
how other systems work at my job and I can’t
remember where they came from, but we’ve had individuals that came from, I want to say maybe like Amsterdam to talk about like the differences and like what the prison
system looks like. And so there are
definitely different models that are working a lot better, that are not meant to be punishment, because it’s more than punishment and that’s why I said I don’t really know if it’s punishment or consequence and I haven’t wrap my head around like what I see the future looking like, but I also think that in the environment that we’re in we need
to change the systems that currently exist. – Right. – So you know. I can tell you about like
some of the worst experiences and be like damn, like I would never want, no matter who it is, no
matter what they did, no matter whether I agree with
their incarceration or not, I would never want somebody
to experience this. – There’s a pragmatism that you’re approaching the problem with. I think I converse with
a lot of abolitionists and people who are radical and the close Rikers thing has been like, that’s the big topic of
discussion right now. But like I do think, we do have to think about okay, so maybe in the future, maybe we move toward a society where we no longer need the prison system, but what are we going to do for people who are currently incarcerated? What institutions do we need to build now? And I think it’s easy
if you’re disconnected to intellectualize it too
much or make it too abstract and I’m glad we’re
having this conversation because it is a really
good reminder of like oh, there are people who are living, who are locked up in Rikers now. And so what we gonna do? Okay. – And then the other part of that I think is also like you said, it’s
a shift and understanding like what we need to do
and like how that changes, but I think part of that is understanding that like we’re also trying to
reduce the population, right? So there are movements
that are not just about like oh, we’re moving them because that’s what a
lot of people are saying like we’re just moving them
from one place to another and like what does that look like. But there’s active advocacy
around like reform, first sentencing
guidelines, parole reform, with parole and probation, with oh my god, why am I might forgetting the term, technical violations,
which are a huge area. Bail reform, that’s a huge
issue ’cause Rikers again, is actually meant as a detention facility. So for people who are pre-trial and a lot of that comes from
like if I can’t pay my bill, what does that look like? – There’s the Kalief Browder problem. – Right, and so we’ve talked about, I’ve talked about what people like you know differences in
like cash bail systems and like what that looks
like in other places. Arresting people for crimes of poverty, like hopping the turnstile, which you know in
Manhattan they no longer do under the direction of the DA. – I had a warrant out for my arrest for not paying a parking ticket. And I was like oh, okay. And then the fee balloons, it was like $700 by the time and I was oh. – And that is like outrageous. – Yeah and it’s like
oh, I really could have, y’all could’ve just
arrested me right here, but that’s a real thing. – It is, it is. So how are we engaged in like
conversation around that, like what does that mean? These circumstances and these
things that we’re looking at it doesn’t just like
limit to this idea of like what a prison is, but how did we get here? – Yeah. – And so a lot of people are like well, we can just be re-invest in schools and believe me I want us
to invest in schools more, but if I’m investing in the school and I gave you that prep school experience that you were discussing
earlier within this environment and then you’re still in this community, how does it change kind of
what your trajectory is? How is it impacting you? Is it doing what it needs to do? And so part of that comes from the unequal distribution of wealth, right? Are we ever addressing that? So we can talk all day about the resources putting into certain things, but we’re not kind of
impacting the systems. And so that’s one of the
things I also grapple with is like how much of this is still triage? How much of this is still
like we’re treating a symptom and not the problem? I recently asked group of people, how many of you think that
the criminal justice system works as it’s designed to do? And no one raised a hand
or maybe one person. And I said, I think it does exactly
what it was designed to do, because it was designed
with the intention of fairness for white males. So it works for them. We know that obviously
that makes it unjust. We know that it’s founded in racism. We know that these things exist. Can we completely dismantle that system? Some people say reform
is never going to work because that’s the
foundation of it, right? So there’s not just one
thing to grapple with when looking at the carcel system. There are all of these things that’s like and for me sometimes I’m like
what aspect can I work on? What is the important part for me? And I’ve recognized I think
that the important part for me is that some of the services. – So what services do you offer for formerly incarcerated people? – Oh we offer, we call ourselves like a one-stop shop for re-entry services. – Yeah. – We have licensed mental health clinic, a licensed substance use program. We have alternatives to
incarceration diversion program, we have a care management unit
that works with individuals even around kind of medical needs when they come home and
connecting them to services. We have a benefits office
within our building. We do employment programming. We do education programming. We do hard skills training. We have some housing programs
that has both transitional and permanent housing placements. We literally and the
best part of the work, actually not the best part of the work, but what I really
appreciate about the work is the advocacy part of it. Because we can provide
all of these services and that’s great because
people need those services, but at the same time,
we’re actively working towards changing these systems. So you know, right now kind
of one of our initiatives is looking at fair chance and housing. – Yeah. – So we’ve been able to pass band the box regarding employment. The housing is another area. So there are different
things that we’re working on and looking at that are
impacting our participants, but we need to take it out of kind of the framework of direct practice. – Yeah. – And so for me that’s kind of the area that I’m interested in is like using this direct practice experience, using my personal experience, engaging with my
participants and seeing like, like I said, are these
systems or are these programs really designed to like meet the needs? Or are they somebody dictating to us like what needs to happen? So I’m like really interested in like program design and development. I’m really interested in you know, how we can design programs that make participant
stakeholders within the work. And then on the other side of it I’m very interested in the advocacy work and like how we change these systems. – There’s so much… People who have been
incarcerated are structurally marginalized in so many different ways. I mean, I was just reading, and it’s things that you
wouldn’t even think of, but unfortunately it
seems like even people who I think are progressive, they still have these
ideas about what people who have been in prison deserve. And like if you have done a bad thing and that bad thing caused
you to be incarcerated that you deserve to be punished forever. Or maybe they don’t feel like you deserve to be punished forever, but they don’t want to expend their time, their money, their energy
in advocating for people who have done a bad
thing or made a mistake. And it’s like how do we
move away from the idea that carcerality extends
beyond the prison institution. That it follows you wherever, how do we go like get to a different place where like this is a human being? – So I recently heard someone
say that there are 40, I think he said 46,000
ways in which people who were formerly incarcerated continued to be impacted by that incarceration. And I said I will look into
this to see if this is true or like what that looks like, because there are things that
even I haven’t thought about. When I have kids, do I
have to talk to my children about having been incarcerated? My partner happened to have
known me before my incarceration but if we started dating
after at what point is it appropriate for me to share that? When I moved to a different
state and go buy a house, is this gonna show up on my record? So many things that I
consciously didn’t think about until I was in the space to do it. Part of what I always say
is conversations like this, how often are we bringing these voices into the necessary spaces and
really humanizing the issue? We have this narrative of what we think it looks like but it
becomes completely different when you get to look a person in the eye and say, “You’re a criminal?” And then you hear their
experience and their story and it’s like wow, like that
wasn’t what my expectation was. – Yeah. – And it’s because
people are so hands-off, you don’t want to touch it. It’s like a dirty area. And not that it will create dynamic changes immediately, right? But it’s part of the
process to make you see me. – Yeah. – And I always say that my
incarceration experience is not the same as anyone else’s. – Right, yeah. – There are some things that
we’ve experienced similarly, there are some
understandings that we have, but people who have
never been touched by it have no understanding of how
much it does impact your life and how much you just
want to live and thrive and move forward when so many things are trying to pull you back. So I said earlier I don’t
want to be put on a pedestal and when I had done the NowThis story and so many people are like well, why does she deserve to be listened to? Why is her voice necessary? It’s like this is part of the problem. I’m not sitting here telling you to like look at me and say oh, she’s the best person in
the world or she’s so great. I’m asking you to see me. And people are really
unwilling to do that, And that’s really, really difficult. I mean we see changing landscapes, right? We now have a opiate epidemic as opposed to like a war on drugs. – Yeah, yeah. – And so as people have become
impacted by these systems. we see them changing, we
see the language changing, that’s the other significant
part of it, right, language. – Or even see like, I’m so fascinated by somebody like that Jared Kushner and the prison reform
stuff that’s coming out of the White House right now. There’s so many articles about the fact that like Jared Kushner because
his father was incarcerated, I can’t remember what he
did, something white-collary, but now because he’s experienced it and had to go visit his
father while he was in prison, now he has a vested interest
in seeing stuff change. And it’s like I get it, like
you wanna sit down with people and hear their stories, but why is it that it has to hit so close to home before something clicks and
you’re like these are people. Yeah. – And it’s again, it’s that
uncomfortable situation I think it’s kind of partly human nature, like we don’t want to engage in something that makes me uncomfortable. – Yeah. – And if I say that this is wrong then what’s my responsibility to it? And do I want to take responsibility? And I think that’s the
other significant part of it is like I know that this is okay, like can I live with
like not saying anything? And of course there are some
people that are like sure, like I’m gonna make it through my day. – That is so true. – But you know our
responsibility to each other I think doesn’t exist in the
way that I like to see it. – Yeah. – I’ve engaged a conversation around the immigration conversation
and I’m not an immigrant, I don’t come from an immigrant background, doesn’t mean that I don’t care about like what is happening
with that population. Doesn’t mean that I’m not
invested in understanding like how we create immigration policy. And for some people that’s
all they can see is like is this gonna change my day to day life and if it’s not gonna
change my day to day life then like I’m not invested in it. Whereas for me it’s like, so
we just okay with injustice? – Right, right. – Cool, you go that way. – A lot of people are actually
just okay with injustice though like that’s the thing. – And I don’t know if it’s a function of, because it’s more than
function of my own experience, but like a function of my understanding as a black person and like really saying, damn, like there’s literally
one starting reason because there are so many others. Like you look at this brown
skin that I love so much and say she is other,
let me treat her as such. – Yeah, yeah. – And then the other part of it is do we feel like we have the
power to do anything about it? – Yep. – So power dynamics are
super interesting to me. It’s like again, how hard
do you push for something that you don’t think that
you can actually change? And so if the system is already designed to be built against you, like how can I fight to fix this system that that didn’t want
me to be a member of it in the first place? – Yeah. – So I think that that is
something that people grapple with and I think that realistically until we start looking
at each of the systems and the intersectionality
of wealth and education and incarceration and all of these things, then like because I said sometimes it feels like we’re targeting
in a very singular way where it’s like we’re gonna
look at incarceration, we’re gonna look at education, we’re gonna look at the wealth gap, we’re gonna look at the housing crisis, like we’re not looking at
how these are all founded in the same system. – Yeah. – And because we refuse
to acknowledge that, because some people feels like
it says something about them. It’s like you know I recently
reread “White Fragility” and like talking about the
fact that once you recognize that like you’re part of this system, it either makes you uncomfortable and you’re like I can’t deal with this or it propels you into action. But it feels like more
people are comfortable with like rejecting this idea. – Yeah. – Yeah and it’s unfortunate. – That knowledge, it does
kind of become a burden, like I understand now that I do lots of deep
reading about inequality. Why people would take a ignorance is bliss kind of approach to it
because once you recognize and see all the stuff and see
how the shit is fucked up, everywhere and how
deeply entrenched it is, I find it difficult to sleep sometimes. Like I find it difficult
to focus on things and sometimes I look at
people who don’t give, who don’t care I’m like wow. Like what is it like to not
know anything and not care and not recognize that people
are suffering every day? – And I laugh because it’s one
of those things like I cry. – Yeah. – So one of my team came into my office after the gentleman that testified in the Botham Jean case was killed and he was like, “Did you see this?” And he was angry. And that rage lives within us and people tell us it’s not
okay and I’m like let it burn, because this is gonna
be our call to action, but at the same time it’s painful to say, like this is what I have to see every day. Like how many times
can I watch a black man be killed by a police officer
and there be no consequences? How many times do we do
an emotional distress call that leads to something
that didn’t need to happen, because we’re not equipped to deal with the mental health needs of our population? – Yeah. – How many times do you
just see a black woman who is homeless, register her child in a different school system and go to school for five years and then somebody else gets 14 days? How many times can you
see this and not be hurt? How many times can you see this
and it doesn’t weigh on you? And so there are days where like I’m like, I was just telling
somebody I will disengage from a lot of politics
and media because I can’t. – I feel the same way. I used to be so plugged
into the news cycle and like on Twitter all the time and checking the news
updates and all of that, but eventually it just, it’s too much. I need to be a functioning
human and I cannot do that if I am ingesting all of
this stuff all the time. – And the other part of is that especially with them
doing the work that I do is I recognize more and more the need to address vicarious trauma. But that’s a function for
the entire population. I might be more intimately involved because it might be something
I’m experiencing daily with some of the people
that I engage with, whether it’s participants
or staff or like myself. But we are traumatized by this. – Yes, yes. – Like all of the time. I told my partner, you know it’s funny, I ask him like where he’s
going and he’ll tell me and it’s like okay. And then he’ll text me
later like oh, I went here. And sometimes is like I’m sure, I always tell him, you feel like, oh, she’s probably crazy. And it’s not a function
of like oh, I’m jealous or I’m worried, that’s
what the assumption is as a woman I must be like worried about. It’s like no I just need
to know that you’re safe, because you are a black man and you’re out in a public space. So you have no control. Like you think it’s like
oh, if I don’t do this. If I don’t behave in this way, if I don’t engage in this space, if I don’t go to these
neighborhoods, I’ll be fine. None of that is true. You can walk to the bodega, you can be opening your front door, you can be in your damn apartment, so yes I worry and yes I’m afraid and I had this conversation
with my participants as well. You are young black men
with justice experience, society is viewing you as a certain way. You wear your hoodie
and your sagging pants and they automatically
assume things about you and I fear for you going
out into the world. And I want you to understand
the world that we live in and the environment that we live in. I’m not telling you that you
are defined by this mistake, but I want you to understand that there are two things
that you need to look at, how you see yourself and
how the world is view you based on these situations. – Yeah, I think black
folks in general are, they’re criminalized. I’ve seen, there’s a video. Oh gosh, I’m not gonna bring this up. You know what actually let’s wrap this up and we’ll talk. So thank you so much Brittany for taking some time to talk to me. What we’re gonna do is we’re gonna take the after show of this on over to Patreon. Shout out to all the Patreon subscribers. I do have other things I
want to talk to you about, but I appreciate you mentally
for sharing your experiences. – I appreciate you for having
me and your platform overall. – Oh, well thanks. Well I do think it’s
important like you said to like recognize your privilege and recognize the way that you’re removed from certain experiences and bring people who have been there into the conversation. I think it’s so easy if you’re
like a talking head person or commentator person to be
like I’ve read the books, I know, but I don’t. And so I appreciate you, thank you. – Thank you. – Okay guys, thank you
guys so much for watching. Like, share, and subscribe. Leave a comment. DM me if you have to on
Instagram or on Twitter. I’ll talk to you later, bye. – Bye.

100 thoughts on “How Brittany Smith went from Harvard student, to prisoner, to prisoners’ rights advocate

  1. Get the audio-only version of this interview and my patron's-only q&a with Brittany on Patreon. Patreon.com/ForHarriet

  2. This was a long journey, but it was an enlightening one that I enjoyed. I feel like I haven't seen anything like this in a long time. Thank you for posting this, and I wish Britney all the best.

  3. I loved this format, I would love to see more interviews like this.Thank you for sharing your story Brittany.

  4. Currently getting ready to apply to MFA programs for writing, and I'm nervous af. Seeing you two educated black women really inspires me to work towards my goals.

  5. Beautiful interview! I found myself smiling a lot during Brittany’s journey & how the stars have aligned for her. I loved the hard hitting points, very eye opening. Thanks for sharing ladies! 🙌🏾💕🙏🏾

  6. Will there either be accurate subtitles or a video transcript in the future? This is a fascinating interview that I'd love to be able to fully access.

  7. @ForHarriet so inspired to hear Brittany's story, i feel the prison system should be focused on rehabilitating people and not dehumanizing them. Treating them as human beings and not animals. Keep up the great work Brittany.

  8. This is nice! I've been thinking you would make a great talk show host. Like a woke Oprah. So seeing you conduct an interview so well is adding to that. Is that something you'd like to do someday?

  9. Thanks for posting this on YouTube. Her story is very interesting. I love that she's a homegirl from Harlem! But the "speed talking"! You both do it! Is that a Harvard Black woman thing? I had to rewind a few times to get the full content! 😄

  10. I love hearing brilliant black women have extremely real conversations. And Kim, I LOVE that you ladies took your time with this and didn’t try to cram it all into 30 mins or 1 hour. You had a REAL sit-down to have a REAL convo. Simply amazing… Thank you Brittany for sharing your story.

  11. Excellent discussion. I recall first hearing Brittany’s story on a television show that re-enacts high profile crimes. Even then, I was saddened and mystified about the situation. Kim, I’m so glad you provided a platform for Brittany to speak her truth and share her accomplishments pre, during, and post prison. She brings a unique perspective about the criminal justice system that will help raise awareness and contribute to reform via her voice and her work. Context matters, so thank you both.

  12. I haven't even watched the video yet and let me guess there is a black man involved in the reason she went to prison right?
    Edit:
    39:49 I knew it. A black man will carelessly ruin a black woman's life at the drop of a dime. A Harvard educated woman about to graduate and she threw her life down the drain for some dusty black man. Ok. Let's see where her dusty is now.

  13. Idk if you mentioned this before but I never woulda guessed you lived in NY I thought you were from the west coast lol

  14. She let a drug dealer in her dorm who killed another student. A student lost his life. The killer was given access by her. That student's family will never see him again. Racism wasn't why she was kicked out.

    2 1/2 years is not an excessive amount of time. She hid the gun and lied to police. She was an active accessory to a murder. A murder of a black student. So she didn't get to graduate from Harvard. Well Justin Cosby( the black student that was killed) was not be able to graduate at all.

  15. I do believe she should have gotten her degree and the reaction was race based but I dont like that this interview doesnt cover the severity of her crimes.

  16. Thank you so much for this video! However, I think the wording used in the title could be better, such as formerly incarcerated as prisoner strips the humanity from the individual. Once again, thank you for this video! Brittany is an amazing person and so influential.

  17. I Laaaloooooooooooved this! You should do this more, or if you have more of these kinds of videos on patreon I’ll sign up.

  18. What a great conversation! I fall on so many sides of this conversation, in my way of thinking. I definitely have to reasse somethings, within myself(regarding how I see criminals and the criminal justice system). Also, wasn't here story on one of those crime shows, I remember seeing a reenactment of this?

  19. Did they have proof she knew what was going on. Did her boyfriend snitch on her? Why couldn't he say she didn't know anything about it.

  20. I am grateful you all had this conversation. I would have liked to hear more about the case but I realize that wasn’t the point. Even tho, I don’t believe the system failed her, if she allowed him in the dorm 2 years for a lose of life isn’t much. Its great to see that she has moved on and kept developing her life.

  21. So Im a black woman and love For Harriet, but am I the only one that DOESNT feel like Harvard was racist in any way to expell her? This was a drug deal that ended in murder, white kids have gotten expelled for less. She may not have known he was selling on her campus but I bet he was hood af/she knew his illegal activity and she knew the risk of being in his proximity. She didnt deserve prison but I dont think harvard over reacted in expelling her.

  22. This video really hits home. I went to a predominantly white accelerated high school and topics of race were so problematic. I once had a U.S. History teacher tell they class "Those big plantations that you see in movies were few and far between because slaves were expensive, so If people did own slaves it was only one or two. So you see class, slavery wasn't that bad!" I didn't have the words to respond but I knew in my bones she was wrong and was a horrible teacher. If I ever cross paths with that woman, she's getting the business.

  23. There's no right or wrong in this story but a woman who found a way for the betterment of her life and that's what admirable.

  24. Thank you for this interview. I am a college graduate that chose to work in social/human services. There seems to be a "you will be broke forever" stigma associated with it and the work tends to not be taken as seriously. The fact that your guest intended to go into social work while she was attending Harvard is so good for me to hear. Her journey is a great example for how black children of working/middle class families can be pulled down so quickly just by being associated, regardless of all the focus and work they invested in themselves. It's crazy exhausting! Thank you for your content.

  25. You are such amazing interviewer, I appreciate both y’all’s drive and inspires me everyday to try hard not except the limitations place on me by a white straight sis world

  26. So glad the conversation addressed what to do with the currently incarcerated and the concept that some people may need to be separated from society.

  27. While I think Brittany is intelligent and a great speaker, she's not an especially sympathetic figure within this movement. The series of events was somewhat glossed over so here's a quick rundown:

    1. She was dating a drug dealer even though she was at Harvard and had access to the cream of the crop!
    2. Her drug dealer boyfriend came to Harvard and killed another drug dealer. Also endangering the lives of other students as he recklessly shot after the man.
    3. After killing this man, her boyfriend came back to her dorm room and gave her the gun to hide.
    4. She hid the murder weapon on his behalf.
    5. She called a cab (get away car) to help him escape after the fact.
    6. She continued to date this murder AFTER he killed a man on her campus. Knowing what he had done.
    7. She continually lied to the police about what happened and the nature of her involvement in the cover up.

    The fact that she wasn't allowed to graduate, got sentenced to three years in prison, didn't have the backing of black students on campus…isn't exactly "outrageous" given the full context of her actions. I'm glad she's been able utilize her own experience to speak up for others, but even as a liberal this case presses the bounds of my open mindedness.

  28. This was SO edifying! I watched from beginning to end. Thank you for bringing awareness to Brittany's story and the many topics discussed, Kim. Thank you Brittany for your willingness to share your story and your advocacy. All the best to you both.

  29. Harriet's speaking voice is so fake. I mean. Your pro black talking with a white girl accent. Come on girl.
    I mean, I love your content and I appreciate what your doing for black women and girls but be more authentic.

  30. This was a beautiful, in depth, conversation. I was so thoroughly engrossed I didn't even realize almost 2 hours past.

  31. Thank you for this video. This was a heartbreaking story regardless of the "end of the story". I'm glad that she is where she is now but…I am sad that this happened to her. I definitely can relate to her story. I am so glad that you gave her this platform.

  32. This was a interesting interview. It was nice that it was primarily one sided, as it felt like a monologue. The questions were guiding along her story as opppsed to interrupting or redirecting. However, I am slightly dissapointed by the lack of discussion about remorse, forgiveness, and accountability, that so often is brought up in restorative justice and/or incarceration reform discussions.

  33. Just hearing this I honestly can't figure out what she did that was so illegal and jail-time-worth. I understand somebody died but that responsibility falls on the boy who killed him. She just existed there. I'll have to do more research. I see getting suspended, expelled, lousing housing or scholarship, otherwise in trouble with the school, but jail???

  34. Amber Guyger got hugs for actually killing a man in cold blood. But, this woman, this black woman, this young and black woman whose decisions after the fact of the serious crime would almost certainly not have been made when her executive decision-making faculties had matured with her frontal lobes—-gets so little sympathy. And, even when black women do drop the super-woman act, our tears will never softens anyone's hearts towards us. Signs of damage to us alarm no one..

  35. I really loved this conversation. Thank you for having her on and thank you Brittany for sharing your story. I learned some new things and it opened my eyes to a different perspective on this issue

  36. My favorite video of yours, so good! I just started a grad program at an Ivy League and I've been going through it and it's reassuring to hear Brittany talk about the same imposter like feeling not just at ones school but in ones home. I also loved that you talked about black excellence and how it can actually be quite elitist and not what we should be doing. I felt that. A very powerful conversation!

  37. Wow. Brittany Smith is so strong 💯 she deserves happiness in her life I mean not handing her, her papers Harvard what a crappy institution and it’s true what she said about drug culture drugs are everywhere there is no escaping it. 💯😘

  38. It’s not a coincidence that her mom was a convict and her too. I would like to know if she thinks there’s a connection.

  39. Glad I didn't know her story going in because her story is eye opening, had me really engaged… Also there really wasn't any reason to deny her the degree she worked hard to earn

  40. ?????? This person is full of it. She was doing wrong and got caught up. Do i feel for her? Yep. I think a majority of women would do what she did. She had a horrible lawyer and got time and snubbed for her degree. She could help so many college females by coming forth and warning them about the pitfalls of having relationships with people from the underworld.

    Im glad she is doing well. My heart still goes to her. I know she was embarrassed about GETTING CAUGHT and got caught up in a relationship she thought was loving but wasnt. And i hope she takes better care of herself physically.

  41. Really loved this interview. Made me do my own research on this case and was surprised to see similar stories of educated black women ruining their lives dealing with criminals and just men they should not even be associating with period, BUT there are a few things about this case that I feel should be shared:
    1) the victim was not a Harvard student; he was in fact another drug dealer in the area who used to do deals with Chaniqua (the other girl who was implicated and expelled). This in no way justifies his death, but I saw a few comments saying he was a student at harvard who was not able to graduate
    2) Brittany was offered a nonprosecution agreement where she would tell EVERYTHING to avoid being charged (the other girl Chaniqua, her friend, who actually played a bigger role than her in the robbery turned murder, took the agreement and was not charged but was also expelled)
    Brittany kept lying/was not 100% truthful about her role, so the prosecution took that agreement away and charged her

    I feel like she jumped over exactly what happened and at times played the role of a complete victim in this interview. Yes, she was young and dumb, but she was also aware of what her actions would cause and I feel like race has NOTHING to do with her getting expelled. If this was a white student, would we be advocating for them to get their degree still? Students get expelled for less (plagiarism, petty theft, etc). In the end there are A LOT of lessons that can be taken from this. I am happy she was able to turn her loss into a success story.

  42. She had the nerve to apply the analogy of an enslaved woman having her son taken away to herself….The irony is not lost on me

  43. While I feel this is an important conversation and I have empathy for Brittany’s situation ( we were all young and dumb at some point in our lives), does no one else see the irony that she is a Harvard student but couldn’t come up with a better lie than to pretend she didn’t know the killer at all, hide the weapon in such an obvious place, and aid in the getaway (and be caught on camera doing so). Im not trying to be mean but I have questions. I can understand book smarts versus street smarts, but this girl had both. Still I am glad to hear she is in a better space these days and utilizing her past experience for good.

  44. This was an amazing interview. Kudos my darling. Yes as A Bostonian. I definitely relate to the remarks regarding Massachusetts and segregation, and being a progressive state. Whooo Chile that is a conversation that needs to be had.

  45. Kim thank you for doing this interview. We do disagree about one thing-whether or not Brittanys punishment was appropriate for the crime.
    Do you remember that young white kid who earlier this years his Harvard admission was withdrawn for using the N word? Remember you said people need to face consequences for their actions?
    I sympathize with Brittany. She was young and she deserved the opportunity to rehabilitate but the punishment she received was not inappropriate or excessive. An innocent 21 year old died. Imagine if that was your younger brother. According to the Boston globe:
    “She let the three men gather in her dorm room and load the firearm in front of her before the attempted robbery took place, the records stated.”
    She also gave her boyfriend her keycard to get access to the area where the victim was staying knowing he was taking a loaded gun to attempt to rob him.

    “And after the fatal shooting, Smith took and hid the murder weapon in a neighbor’s bedroom, helped the men escape to New York City, and returned to Harvard the next day when she lied to police investigating the killing,”.
    An expulsion was not inappropriate considering what happened here. 2.5 years in jail was not inappropriate considering someone died because gave the shooter and his friends access and space to commit the crime knowing what they were going to do.

    If the report in the Boston globe is incorrect please feel free to correct me.
    But we are doing a great disservice to each other when we do not hold people accountable for their decisions just because they are black.

  46. First off. Just off the strength of this interview, you have now gotten yourself a new Patreon subscriber. I am so impressed and blown away by this talk. Kim this interview, your questions and the way you made Brittany feel at ease to tell minute details within her story makes this extraordinary conversation much more relatable and humanizing. To Brittany, your story is amazing and I feel honored that you've given us the chance to hear it. It's not lost on me, the sheer strength it takes to do that. Kudos to both of you ladies! Also, is it possible to request the details (or links) of the re-entry services Brittany talks about towards the end of the interview, to be placed in the description box for someone watching who may need access? Thanks again yall!

  47. Painting Britney as an innocent woman who was wronged by the white system and glossing over the fact that she deliberately hid and abetted a murderer is dangerous to black women.
    Britney states herself she couldn’t adjust to Harvard due to her upbringing and she brought that into the kind of men she was dating. This is a recurrent issue that black women face. Black women are the most educated group in America and we are similarly likely to escape poverty at the same rate as white women; the only thing that separates us? Our choice in men. These are legitimate statistics. Black women must give up this ride or die mentality or it will keep us in financial ruins for generations to come.

  48. Awesome content i am familiar with her story but it was so good to get to know her a bit, and im so happy she rebounded from her past, and then lent her life experience to advocacy what a phenomenal Black women. Home-run Kim !!! Living with intent and Legacy!

  49. Honesty, there are enough black people in "service work." –We need far more black American people in other fields, like corporate law, Investment banking, chemistry, medicine, dentistry, tech and engineering.

  50. I feel like that pertinent information on her involvement in the situation wasn’t fully connected for the audience (me), & I would have liked to see more. It seemed disrespectful and deceptive to us. Seems like she just glossed it over like it was no big deal when someone lost their life.

  51. This was so interesting…I really can't believe that she couldn't get her degree! But I agree that anyone could end up in jail or prison. I wouldn't say that you're "one mistake away" but life is so so complex. There are definitely some people who don't deserve rehabilitation and deserve to be in a cage. But people who commit nonviolent crimes being mixed with heinous criminals makes NO sense.

  52. My friend is a single women no kids… In social work and make 80k plus a year. Depending on where you live that's a ton of money

  53. I LOVED THIS!!!! I really can relate to the whole traveling between two worlds thing! It was very disorienting to me. For other students the university campus was culturally just a continuation of where they came from and for which they had been anticipating/preparing for years. But coming from a totally different socio-economic background (poor, disadvantaged, first gen, etc.) it was hard to acclimate and it was also tough reconciling the two worlds when I'd visit or commute back and forth from home. Every time it felt like Dorothy being whisked away back to Oz or Kansas. And I definitely remember being around other black peers (who were in the minority) and still feeling that sense of extreme disconnect and isolation (due to class). I'm glad she had a strong family support system b/c at least

  54. Another barrier (among many) that being poor presents is after you've scrambled to muster up the money you owe at the end of every semester–what often happened to me is that I'd always be the last to register for classes meaning I never got to actually choose classes that mattered and made the most sense for me; and it also wasn't rare to register so late (due to money issues) that the semester will have already started 1 or 2 weeks earlier, meaning I've missed sometimes even the first 4 classes of a course!

  55. I don't care to hear any of this woman's story at all. She is only out and about because she LUCKILY did not get a white boy killed. Denise Cosby and her attorney pushed for life imprisonment. While I believe that is harsh, 3 years is not enough. And for her to be parading around talking about people being punished after incarceration like she didnt go to a rich private school and HARVARD only to flush her life down a toilet cuz of some stupid BOYFRIEND who sold drugs that was shacked up with her in her dorm??? TUH! If the man that had died had been white she would still be paying penance behind bars.

    This is especially sickening because she lied to officers. She hid the murder weapon. Hid her boyfriend and his friends and subsequently committed multiple crimes with no show of remorse. Idk why she is telling this story and glossing over the severity of the actions. I would not hire her. She is a liar. I would not work with her. I would not want her advocating for me. I'm glad she had enough privilege to get by though. It's not deserved.

  56. Brava👏🏽👏🏽👏🏽 Bravah👏🏽👏🏽👏🏽BRAVAHHH👏🏽👏🏽👏🏽💐💐💕💕💯💯💯✊🏽✊🏽✊🏽

  57. I really appreciated this video Kim. Thank you for shining more light on prison abolition on your platform here.

  58. Thank you very much for sharing your story, I can only imagine how emotionally challenging this may have been for you. I can only say, that you will always retain your worth before the eyes of God, when you are sharing the truth, no matter what you have done, and this I can say for fact. I am glad to hear you are enjoying your position! You earned it! 🙂 Thank you for sharing and giving me the opportunity to consider something beyond my own experience.

    Ummm you guys hiring? 😉
    🤤

  59. Love you, your content, and how you are using your platform. Really looking forward to what you have in store. Not sure if you’ve heard of it but there is a podcast called Decarcerated. The host and his guests have all done bids and they talk about the before, during, and after. The New Jim Crow really ignited something in me and I’m so glad that more people are talking about these very important stories. Props to Brittany for sharing her story. She went through a lot and came out on the other side. We can not underestimate how difficult that is.

  60. I remember Brittany's story from Fatal Attraction (I think). I am so happy and proud of her. I'm so glad she was able to rise. Thank you for your fantastic interview! 💜

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