For this week’s episode, Rebecca sat back down with Zaki “The Barber” Smith, an entrepreneur, a powerhouse activist, and a criminal justice reform leader whose work focuses on ending the perpetual punishment that comes with having a criminal record in America. They had a far-ranging and emotional conversation about the historic clean slate legislation that passed the New York Assembly earlier this summer and now awaits the governor’s signature; how a criminal record can be a life sentence to poverty; the impact of the criminal records crisis on millions of American families; the economic as well as emotional toll that comes with perpetual punishment; his own path from prison to national policy advocacy; how his years as a barber shaped him as an advocate; his work with murals, film, and other art forms as tools for criminal justice reform; and lots more.
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REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome to Off-Kilter, a podcast about the fight for economic liberation and what it will take to set us all free, powered by The Century Foundation. I’m Rebecca Vallas, and every week I go behind the music with visionary leaders and lightworkers working to reshape America’s off-kilter economy into one where everyone can thrive and access the shared abundance that we all deserve. I think of it kind of like a weekly trip to the Marvel Universe, but the superheroes I get to talk with every week work with law and policy.
And this week I am so incredibly excited to sit back down with a very, very good friend, Zaki Smith. He’s a filmmaker, an entrepreneur, a powerhouse activist, and a leader for criminal justice reform whose work focuses on ending the perpetual punishment that comes with having a criminal record in America and ensuring that a criminal record is no longer a life sentence to poverty in the U.S. I first got to meet Zaki during the two-year policy entrepreneurship that he did with the Next100, a startup think tank created by the next generation of policy leaders. And I am so excited to have him back on the show since there have been some hugely exciting developments in his work, namely Clean Slate, automatic record clearing legislation that he and others have spent years fighting to make a reality in New York, passed the New York Assembly earlier this summer and now awaits the governor’s signature! Zaki, you can feel my excitement even when I’m just introducing you.
ZAKI SMITH: Right.
VALLAS: Welcome back to Off-Kilter.
VALLAS: So great to be back in conversation with you. And before we even get into anything else, I just have to say congratulations. That was years and years of work!
SMITH: Yes. Thank you. Thank you so much. In reality, I think, to me, I think it doesn’t really seem as long now that it has happened. In comparison, me just sort of being new to this space, just in terms of addressing matters from a policy space, it just didn’t seem long in comparison to a lot of other movements and legislations that people have been fighting for, for quite some time. I think the thing with this is that it just made the most sense to do it, for this legislation to be passed. It just made sense.
VALLAS: And we’re gonna get into that, and I’m gonna make you tell the story behind it and all the things that come next, too. But before we get too deep into talking about policy and legislation, I wanna give you the chance to reintroduce yourself to Off-Kilter’s listeners and to share a little bit about how you come to criminal justice reform work. If my memory is right—and it isn’t always, but I think it might be today—I think the last time I had you on the podcast was actually as part of a series of conversations I was having last year in 2022 with Next100 policy entrepreneurs. And we got to talk just a little bit about your work as part of that, but I’m really excited to have this longer format space to go a little bit more behind the music ‘cause you’re a pretty amazing person, and you wear a lot of different hats. So, where do you wanna start in terms of talking about the road you have walked that has brought you to this work?
SMITH: Yeah. So, I did not…. Being formerly incarcerated, after being released from prison, I had no intention to really, my focus was not on policy or anything of that nature. My focus was mainly about young people. My path was like, how could I begin to work with young people? Because I knew that a lot of the influence that had impacted my life happened as a young person, right? Which sort of set me on the trajectory, sort of the life path that I chose and the decisions that I made that allowed me to be back and forth in prison from a young person well into my adulthood. And so, after being in prison for the final time and just really addressing a lot of the issues that I was dealing with even in my adulthood, it landed me back to had I been connected to someone as a young person to help me navigate through a lot of the challenges that I was going through, I might not have been in this space. And so, my thought was, how can I get home and start get-, you know, interacting with young people, right, that are going through a lot of the experiences that I was going through as a young person? Like, really being forced to grow up very quickly, living in the communities that I lived in, in Brooklyn, born and raised in Brooklyn, Bed-Stuy Brooklyn. And so, I wanted to help young people address their circumstances as a young person so that they didn’t take these things into adulthood that would land them in prison. So, that was my past. That’s what I wanted to do. And that’s what I did. I came home from prison, and that’s what I did. I went straight for it.
I was a barber by trade. So initially, I went into the barber shop where I would be directly connected with the community. And a young man walked in. A young person walked into the barber shop and said that he had a community center, and he was doing stuff for young people. And my antennas raised up. His name was Divine Bradley, and we are the best of friends from now, from then and to now. And he gave me my first shot, and he said, “Yo, this is what you wanna do?” I said, “Absolutely.” And I was standing in front of Canarsie High School in the detention space for young people, just sort of telling my story. And at the moment, that’s all I had pretty much was my story and the things that I had went through and what I’ve overcome.
But of course, it developed into other skills and programing and so forth and so on to eventually working with another non-profit organization for about four years. And I was subsequently released from this working in a school setting because of a criminal record. And for the first time in my life, I had questioned, wait a minute. I’ve been actually doing the thing that law says that we want you to do after coming home from prison. And this wasn’t, I wasn’t instructed to do these things. I came home and hit the ground running, making, like, being impactful in the community and a asset to the community. And none of those things mattered at all. Only thing they understood and knew was that I had a criminal record and that I could no longer work in this space with young people. And so, for the first time, I questioned and said, hey, wait a minute. I don’t recall receiving a life sentence. And I discovered determined this terminology “collateral consequences.” And when I heard and read the definition of it, it just blew my mind. And I was like, oh, no, something has to be done about this. This is [bleep].
VALLAS: Yeah, that phrase, “collateral consequences,” it gets used, and there’s almost no humanity in it.
VALLAS: It’s like it gets used, and people are like, “What does that even mean?” Well, it means every door closed in your face, right?
…and the story you shared when it’s a place that you’ve already been employed. I wanna underscore that just ‘cause I happen to know that part of your story. But sometimes, I feel like folks don’t even realize this was happening to you. This happens all the time. Folks lose jobs they already have and are thriving in because of an old criminal record that they already had while they were crushing it in the job, right? And that’s one of the twisted parts of the system.
So, backing up just a little bit so that we can maybe lay a little bit of the foundation for some of the policy and legislative parts of this conversation. That was actually how you and I met years ago, was through that shared commitment to ending perpetual punishment, to eradicating collateral consequences, as they get called in that legalistic context, and ensuring, as I often say, that a criminal record is no longer a life sentence to poverty. One of the reasons you and I resonated so quickly is we were both kind of understanding that life sentencing and injustice that is so baked into the system. So, talk to me a little bit about the picture for folks with records in the U.S. You started to get there through your own experience and through some of what you started to realize was the system. But what does it mean for millions and millions and millions of people now to have criminal records? And what does it really mean in human terms for a criminal record to be a life sentence to poverty?
SMITH: Yeah. I mean, you’re just pretty much, as a person with a criminal record, you’re really considered sort of a second-class citizen. You’re just really ostracized from just access to the basics, right? And so, and even a livable wage, right? Even in the midst of obtaining some employment, a lot of it is not a livable wage. And so, not only are you impacted by this, but your family is impacted by this. Being denied access to educational opportunities, being denied access to housing, and like I said, the basics, right? I was even denied access to an insurance policy. There’s a law you can’t get insurance, to bury myself, just to be able to bury myself. And so, the other impact is this stigma, right, that individuals with a criminal record may not even apply for certain things because there’s this already in the back of the mind is like, do they hire felons? You have to ask that question, or you just may dismiss it and say that that is not, we’re clear that those things are not for us over there. We’re over here, and that’s over there, and that’s not for us. And so, that’s what a criminal record has done, just psychologically, just created this invisible barrier that we are just not allowed to cross over into. And it’s a way for us to try to live and to move forward, actually, to move forward with our life after we have served our time. Our debt is paid.
VALLAS: Now, I have a hard time believing that there are a ton of Off-Kilter listeners who are listening to this and going like, “Oh yeah, but people don’t deserve second chances.” ‘Cause we generally have a slightly more progressive listenership who, because I also talk a lot about these issues a lot, are probably well versed in these issues. But just staying with it for a moment so that we can sort of lay some of that foundation. A hundred million is the estimate, right—
VALLAS: —of people with criminal records in the U.S. So, when I use the phrase “criminal records crisis,” I don’t use that lightly. That’s about one in three Americans who now have some type of criminal record. And that’s part of why you and I first met was I was writing reports on this subject, and you were starting to get involved with the Clean Slate New York campaign. And we’re gonna talk more about that ‘cause I referenced that up top. But it’s 100 million people and then their families who are facing the barriers that you’re describing, whether that’s to jobs, whether that’s to housing, whether that’s to education, or even burial insurance, as you were describing. I mean, I don’t even have words for that one. And for anyone who might be listening and going, “Yeah, but you made a mistake, and so you need to pay for it,” we’re talking about, as you said, after someone has paid their so-called debt to society and done all the things that they’re told by society to do and is trying to reenter. And we should also just be aware, most people come home from prison. About 97 percent-ish are actually gonna come home. So, that’s the sort of national picture zooming out from the experience you were just describing.
And now to bring us to maybe a more of a good news side of this conversation, that was why you got involved—and this is how we met—with a campaign called Clean Slate, which is very close to my heart, and also, which has had some really, really exciting developments in New York because of Clean Slate New York legislation getting passed by the Assembly earlier this year. So, let’s maybe switch gears to talking a little bit about some of the solutions and some of the excitement on addressing that criminal records crisis that you have been so core to building momentum to address. How did you first get involved with the Clean Slate New York campaign and decide to work on that legislation?
SMITH: Yeah, I initially just started literally just sort of on my own. And I grabbed a couple of supporters and close friends of mine to, you know, I told the story to and just went on this path of how could I begin? So, I started by sort of hosting dinners and call it “Feast for Fair Chance,” to just educate people around this thing that exists, this collateral consequences or this perpetual punishment that exists. Because some people may take for granted or are of the belief that, hey, a person finishes their sentence, “Hey, just do the right thing and you’ll be fine. Like, just go out and get a job and don’t commit another crime,” and did not know that because of your criminal record you could be denied. So, just doing the education. And then a friend of mine had sent me an application link around Next100 to do this work. And I was like, whoa, okay. And I signed up for it. They brought me on board to focus on Clean Slate. At that time, I was looking at the language of expungement. I didn’t really know, right, the sealing and expungement and what those things. And so, a lot of learning went into play. And of course, I eventually connected with you and your introduction to some organizations that were already planning to execute this campaign. And they said, “Hey, let’s make it happen” and brought me on board as well.
VALLAS: And I feel like we should also do a little bit of table setting and explain what Clean Slate is. You mentioned expungement and sealing. These all get to be like wonky legalistic terms.
SMITH: Yeah, yeah.
VALLAS: We’re talking about clearing criminal records, right?
VALLAS: What is it that enables a person to have a clean record so that they can get that job or get that housing or have that fair shot at getting into school or volunteer for their kids’ after-school programs or whatever it is, right? So, we’re talking about record clearing. But maybe help us back up a little bit and explain why you got involved and why so many other folks have gotten involved with the idea of making criminal record clearing automatic. Criminal record clearing is something that does, as you noted, exist in virtually all states in some form or fashion. But what got you interested in this idea of making that access to record clearing automatic for folks?
SMITH: Because one, there’s also even a barrier to some of the law that exists where there was sort of this application base where you can apply to have your record sealed. So, in the State of New York, it was you can only have two convictions. There was limitations. You had to apply. You needed to have legal representation. There was a whole gambit of things that you had to do that made it virtually impossible to have those records cleared. And then there was a limited amount of people who would have access to this. And then it just didn’t make sense, and it was not fair that we had to go back before the judge and the prosecutor to determine whether or not our records should be sealed when our contract, right, my sentence, you’ve already sentenced me! I’ve done what you and this system has already asked me to do. I’m finished with this. Why do I now need to come back to you and sort of, almost to some degree, have a trial again? Because the prosecutor is coming in, in the application base form, the prosecutor is coming in to argue why not and possibly bring in people and hope that they’re emotionally still connected to a thing to say no. And so, it just didn’t make sense. Because when you’re off of parole, it happens automatic. You don’t apply to get it. You’re off of parole. When you finish your sentence, they let you out the door. If I’m done, this process should be just automatic, the same as everything else is just automatic. And it should be sealed so that we’re allowed to move forward.
VALLAS: Yeah, and I feel like it’s also worth mentioning that a lot of the criminal records crisis that you’ve been describing and that we’ve been talking about was actually really sort of an accidental consequence of the rise of technology.
VALLAS: Because as we had more and more access to data becoming the norm, now we’ve got nine in ten employers are using background checks in hiring. That didn’t used to be the case ‘cause that wasn’t technologically feasible. Four in five landlords are using background checks when it comes to screening tenants, right? And three in five educational institutions are using it. It goes on and on, right? So, it’s that immense access to digital records and sort of the digitalization of our criminal justice system, if you can call it that, that actually paved the way for a record to follow you for the rest of your life. It didn’t actually used to quite be that way in the U.S. ‘cause the data didn’t follow you.
So, talking then back about Clean Slate, this is some of why making that record clearance automatic once someone has satisfied the terms of their sentence, like you said, and moved on with their life makes sense to a lot of folks. Now, that idea, which started out in Pennsylvania and started to spread across the country and then made its way to New York, has become, it hasn’t become law in New York just yet ‘cause it’s waiting on the governor to sign.
VALLAS: And so, if anyone from the New York governor’s office is listening, there’s lots of folks watching and very, very eager for you to go ahead and sign that legislation. But it did pass the Assembly, which is a huge deal and something that had not been possible in multiple rounds of the New York Assembly. Who stands to be helped once the governor does sign this Clean Slate legislation in New York? And how are you feeling on the other side of that huge victory?
SMITH: So, 2.3 million New Yorkers possess a criminal record. So, we’re saying 2.3 million and their families stand to have relief once this is signed. And I don’t, you know, I’ve been going through a lot of feelings just around this thing. Sometimes you just don’t know where your life is going to land and who you’re going to be in the world sometimes. And so, for me, it just started off as a thing for me that was just impacting me. I knew that it impacted my community and my family personally, and I just feel just really relieved that a lot of my friends and family and people that I know that are struggling and have been struggling for quite some time will finally have some relief and that the people coming behind us never have to experience a lot of what we’ve had to experience over the years just by having these barriers in play.
And feeling, a friend had asked me this question before as well, and it was also a feeling of even in the midst of me doing the things that I’ve done in order to go to prison, literally the intent was to try to fix something. And I’ve always been a person to try to fix something, and I just was misguided. And this is a thing that I think that I helped fix and helped people.
SMITH: And that has been my feelings around it. I finally feel like, okay, I fixed something, and I’ve contributed differently to people, you know? And so, that’s the feeling. That’s the feeling. And I know a bunch of other feelings will come once it’s actually signed. So, yeah, that’s it.
VALLAS: Yeah. Thank you for sharing that. And I know this is, it’s emotional stuff, and it’s heart stuff, right?
SMITH: Oh yeah. Oh yeah.
VALLAS: Yeah. So, thank you for being comfortable sharing that and also just for bringing the emotions in ‘cause I feel them too. And I think you know I have a Clean Slate tattoo going back to when we got it done in Pennsylvania back in 2018.
VALLAS: So, I feel like in moments like this when I’m in conversation with leaders like you and it starts to get emotional, I always say I kind of feel the tattoo burning a little bit where it’s like, ooh, yep!
SMITH: Right, right, right, right.
VALLAS: Yep, this is real. So, I’m really excited to get to talk with you the day that the governor does sign to celebrate that moment.
VALLAS: And 2.3 million is a huge, huge number of people who stand to be helped and their families as well. One of the things that I wanna ask you before we move on and talk about you and how you do this work and who you are coming to this work as well is we’re talking about New York, right? We’re talking about, in some ways, kind of ground zero for some of the worst narratives that we have heard in recent memory when it comes to criminal justice reform, right? And this really kind of started to pick up after the midterms in the last Congress. And we heard lots of backlash to bail reform, which had been a huge victory that advocates were very excited for in New York. I’m curious if you have any thoughts or wisdom or observation to share about how it was possible to get something so momentous and lifechanging done and through the New York Assembly at a time where it might seem like so little is possible when it comes to criminal justice reform, whether in New York or in the national conversation as well.
SMITH: Again, like I said in the beginning, I think it was common sense. It was a common sense, you know, it was common sense legislation, right? Because we have, what is reality? Reality is 97 percent of individuals who go to prison will be released from prison. They will be released. Many of them will come directly back to the communities in which their crimes have been committed to some degree. They will come back to these communities. And the big question is, how do you want them to return? How do you want them to return?! You ask any civilized person, anyone with just any sort of common sense, you want them to return rehabilitated. You want them to be returned to the community contributing. You want them to be productive citizens. If they’re gonna be in your neighborhood, they’re gonna be with you, they’re gonna be your next-door neighbor, you wanna feel safe. What currently exists does not allow that to be the case! You want a person to come home with barriers and restrictions? That is the foundation, that is the heartbeat of recidivism! Because if I’m unable to live, to get employed, to have a livable wage, to have somewhere to live, it’s possible I may return back to the very thing that landed me in prison in the beginning in order to get to those things.
And so, I think, again, it was common sense legislation and the fact that people are beginning to see this playbook that a lot of the opposition has been spilling around safety and things of that nature, it’s getting old! It’s the same thing. It’s very old. The narrative is consistent, right? “Safety. Safety. Safety.” And the thing is this current system doesn’t have us any safer! It doesn’t. It’s not proven to be us, to bring us safer. It has not proven to reduce crime. It has not proven to address mental health. It has not proven to address addiction. It has not proven to do any of those things, right? There’s no business that you would allow to continue to go, continue to have going that has been failing! This is the only business model that they have that they’ve allowed to continue to fail.
And the truth of the matter is, I don’t think it’s failing. It’s working just the way they actually want it to work. And so, people are beginning to see that this is, we have to do something different. This is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. This is not removing people from being accountable for what it is that they have done, right? This is not, none of this is that. This is no, people have served their time. They are finished. They are already in the community with you. They are your next-door neighbor. You are riding on the train with them. You are at the restaurants with them. Already, they’re here and been here for years. Many has been 20, you know? But…
So, it was common sense. And I think that is what assisted in a lot of the momentum as well as other approaches to what organizing and activism look like. I mean, especially from me, I didn’t come into this really understanding. I think I’ve done organizing in my life, right? You know, if I really look back and look at some of the skills that I had in the street and some of the things that I’ve done with young people, yeah, I was already an organizer, right? But it just looked different to some degree, to what some of the organizing and advocacy work looked like: utilizing art and so forth and so on. Which was some of the ways that I attacked the situation to actually be directly in connection and communicating with those who are directly impacted, right? How do we go right into the neighborhoods that have been impacted and empower, help to empower them and uplift their voices to champion this?
VALLAS: Yeah, and that point about public safety, right? I mean, I think no one probably disagrees with the idea that we all want safe communities.
VALLAS: Everyone wants to live in a safe community. That’s a universal. The question is what’s gonna get us there, right? And I think you really hit the nail on the head with that that’s actually what a policy like Clean Slate does, is it makes our community safer because, as you said so beautifully, how do you want folks coming home, right? With no options and every door closed in their face and no job and no housing? No. That’s gonna send people right back to choices you make when you don’t have a choice, right? But what actually enables people to turn their lives around is being able to have that secure footing, and we know the data bear this out as well. We won’t go into that now, but the analyst in me that used to write these reports is ticking off those—
SMITH: Right, those numbers.
VALLAS: —all the social science data about what we know about recidivism. Zaki, you mentioned, and this is where I wanna go next in this conversation, so we don’t spend all of our time talking about law and policy, as much as that’s part of what we need to talk about ‘cause that’s part of the tools you work with. So, you mentioned art and murals and the use of art as a tool for social justice activism, for criminal justice activism. I would love to give you a chance to talk a little bit about this. Because I’ve had you on this podcast multiple times now, and we haven’t really had a chance to talk about your work with murals! So, I’d love to hear you talk a little bit about how you have used art as a tool for criminal justice reform and how that came to speak to you as a tool to use, since it’s not exactly what most policy advocates and activists think about as the tools in our toolbox.
SMITH: Yeah. Art has been, you know, I’m a part of the inception of sort of hip hop, right? So, it was like the DJ, the dancer, the MC, graffiti and art, right? And so, I come up in that era just around art. And so, one of the ways that I’ve utilized art was literally with my young people in schools, in transforming spaces. Because one of the things that we acknowledge in school space is that school spaces was not inviting to young people, right? They were really like prison beige, prison gray. These are like these very plain colors. And so, me and my team of us, we utilize art to bring life into spaces, to communicate things in spaces. And so, I said, why don’t I bring that directly to our community, right? How do we have a message to our community to have them have this same question that I had? Wait. Oh, wait a minute. This is what it feels like here. Why is this the case, right?
And so, not only just taking art, and I’m gonna put this piece up and walk away, but like, how do we put this piece up and invite the community to the art and have a conversation around the art, educate the people around the art? What does this particular piece actually means? What’s exist? And you will find out the very thing that has been boiling in them that they just not at the moment could identify and articulate it. That piece of art just explained it for them. It just explained it. It said, “That’s what it is. That’s exactly what I’m feeling! I’m feeling that right there. And now how could I change it? What could I do,” right? And so, this has been the experience with me, with art. So, not only just murals. Again, when I first started, I did a piece for a Fair Chance. I did a art, I partnered with two individuals, Jenny and Hannah, at the New School. And they bonded with me, and we did a project. We illustrated this booklet, right. Art illustrated this booklet around from release to, you know, from prison to release and the barriers. And we did an illustration of it, and we shared it in these dinners to have conversation. And I met so many people in this space as a result of it, just utilizing those illustrations and art and DJing, right? I’m a DJ. I’m a DJ too. Like, being able to play music during our time of when the COVID was happening, and we were doing Zoom, and being able to DJ our meetings and things, our coalition meetings and bringing people on and just bringing the artform into the space and uplifting folks. That’s just the way that I communicate, is through art and through direct human connection.
Even with barbering, I’m a barber by trade. So, that’s how I connected with the community as well, that one-on-one interaction with folks and just having that moment. And so, that was my point of entry, and that’s what I wanted to bring to the table. And as well as film, right? Because everything is pretty much digital right now. Like you said, the digital world is what it is. And how could we bring film and actually hear the voices of these, you know, hear the humanity, see the humanity? These people are human beings. They have children and family. Again, we all want safety. We all wanna be safe. And so, that is the component that I wanted to bring. That’s what I had to offer to the movement.
VALLAS: As you were speaking about—and we’ll have plenty of links in the show notes so folks can check out some of your work with film and more about the murals and other pieces—but as you were describing how some of your work with art has landed with people, part of what was coming through for me was that there’s something about art as a communication form, that it speaks to the heart, right? It sort of bypasses the head. And so, it’s got that ability to immediately connect in a way that sometimes the best research report or the most powerful op ed or whatever it is on its best day, those tools might reach the heart, but most of the time they’re going to the head.
So, Zaki, you’ve referenced it a couple of times now, and so I wanna ask the question and see if you’re down to riff on this a little bit. But you’ve mentioned that you were a barber and that that’s actually how some people know you, Zaki the Barber, and that’s a name you use on social media in certain spaces. Do you feel that that experience shaped how you approach your policy and your organizing and your activism work? And if so, how?
SMITH: Absolutely. Definitely. That’s why I my handles are Zaki the Barber, even though I’m not in the barbershop anymore. I haven’t really been cutting hair like that for years now because I understand that that was definitely a foundation, right? It was a foundation for me. It was almost like really a training ground to some degree for me around communication, right? And just really understanding who I was and what I had the ability to represent in my community, right? Being a barber, everyone’s coming to me for advice. So many different people come and sit in my chair, people who are looking for employment, people who are looking to be connected to something. Oh, guess what? I know. Hey, I got a guy, right? I have a person. I know a person. And so, it just prepared me a lot for really understanding my community, understanding the needs of my community, understanding the needs of people, making me more empathetic around our needs, making me more conscious, right? Being very conscious about the needs of our people. And again, just my ability to communicate with folks, right? And more importantly, build lifelong relationships. I have community as a result of that. People that I don’t cut hair, like we are friends forever. I’ve cut their children’s hair from having them sit on a cushion, and now these young people are out of high school and in college and so forth and so on. And I’m still connected to these people. And so, it also just again, helped me understand the power of relationships and building relationships and having genuine relationships. Yeah, it definitely was a training ground for me, without question.
VALLAS: I love that. And I don’t think I’ve ever asked you that question before. So, I kind of knew the answer was gonna be that yes, it was gonna be a profound connection for you, but that makes, it makes all the sense, knowing how you are with people and also being someone who has the benefit of knowing you and being able to feel your energy when you’re in those spaces, you do have a magical ability to connect with people. Maybe someday I’ll talk to you about whether there’s something you wanna do with my hair. [laughs]
SMITH: Got it.
VALLAS: Now that I’m rocking these long brown curls. I’m not doing the blonde pixie anymore.
SMITH: I know. ‘Cause, right. You had the short hair before. That’s right.
VALLAS: I did.
SMITH: You did have the short hair. That’s right. Mmhmm, mmhmm.
VALLAS: Pandemic has changed all of us in some way.
SMITH: I know.
VALLAS: It’s changed me in many ways, but the hair is one of them. It’s more visible.
VALLAS: Zaki, a question I love asking people who are leaders in this work is, do you have a personal mission statement? And if so, or maybe if you don’t have something that’s exactly pat, I’m curious, as I ask that question what comes through for you?
SMITH: I think my mission statement, it just, it changes so much, right? I don’t…. I just wanna live…. I just wanna be a contribution to the world. I just wanna be a contribution to the world. I just wanna contribute powerfully. I wanna be of service to humanity as I understand it. And…because I have, you know, I’m a spiritual person as well. And so, I always think about how do I want to live in preparation for my end? Right?
VALLAS: Oh, that’s beautiful. And I’m gonna make you talk more about this because you took us in a place I was really hoping you were gonna be comfortable going.
VALLAS: There aren’t a lot of spaces where folks talk about spirituality connecting with social justice work. At least in modern times, it’s actually become kind of taboo to bring that conversation into what are so often secular spaces. But since you just brought it up, I’m gonna take us there. I’m curious if you would talk a little bit about how spirituality or a sense of larger purpose or your own personal cosmology fits into the work that you do or how the work you do fits into it?
SMITH: That is my foundation, bottom line. That is my foundation. My foundation is, as it says in the Quran, stand out for justice, even if it be against yourself. And…that’s how I wanna live my life, you know? That’s how I wanna live my life, and that’s how I intend to continue to live my life, again, like I said, in preparation for my end. I want to contribute. I want to help as much as I can. And I want to leave something, right? I want to leave a thought, an idea, a way. I want to leave a way of being that someone could model, possibly, in preparation for their end, right? I want to remove whatever that thing is in the road that could be blocking someone’s way, pathway if I’m able to. And I know…I know that I…I have less days ahead of me than I do behind me. And so, I’m always thinking about, I am always thinking about how I want my end to be. And so, in doing so, I’m making certain that what am I doing now, right? How am I living? What am I doing now…so that I have a good end, right? So, when my chapter is closed, right? And for me, it’s not so that people can talk about me, right? I think that’s almost to some degree of giving people well, if you leave good things, people would say good things, right? But I know that there’s a higher power that I would have to face and is gonna question me…that is going to question me about this gift called life that He has given me and what did I do with it? And I wanna be able to say this is…yeah, this is what.
VALLAS: My heart is just like, I feel very connected to you in this moment with you letting yourself become so emotionally vulnerable. And for folks who are listening only to the audio, you have tears streaming down your face in just the most beautiful way as you share this. So, thank you for being so open and for that sharing. I wanna ask as sort of a follow up to that question—
And actually, let me pause before I do that. Because let me say, part of what popped into my head as you were sharing that and as you were connecting that spiritual anchor with the way that you express and the way that you leverage all of your many superpowers in activism and in policy is there were some words said at a very powerful service for Judy Heumann, one of the godmothers of the disability rights movement who left us earlier this year and is now a disabled ancestor, and at that service, one of her family members gave a very powerful eulogy during which they described that Judy was someone who lived the dash. And so, I feel like part of what you’re describing right now is that desire to live the dash, the dash between the year you were born and the year you die, right?
VALLAS: Because you only get that amount of time. So, that’s part of what was coming through for me as you were saying that. But following up on that question, I’m curious if there are particular learnings that you have brought forward from your ancestors or from past movements or movement leaders that are in your heart as we have this conversation or that shape your work?
SMITH: [heavy sigh] I mean, it’s just so many. I think for me, if I was to just bunch them sort of all together, it just boils down to you just, you have choice. You have two choices. How are you going to live your life? You have a choice on how you’re going to live your life, right? And that…evil is a thing that is going to exist, or bad system operators and all of those things are going to exist. What role are you going to play?
SMITH: What role are you going to play? Are you going to be an observer, or are you going to get on the field? You know? What are you gonna do, right? And you actually have an obligation, right? You have some sort of obligation. I’ve been just looking at folks who have come before me, is that yeah, that I have a obligation. Because my heart is, of course, is connected. I see what is happening. And so, I have to say something. I have to say something. I have to do something. I cannot, you just can’t ignore it. And so, that’s just been it for me, you know?
VALLAS: I wanna stay with talking a little bit about you as the advocate behind the scenes, and then we’ll close out by talking about what’s next for Clean Slate and some of that work. But I mentioned up top in introducing you, I consider every single person who I talk to on this show to be a superhero within the realm of law and policy and activism. And so, I’m curious if you’re a superhero, what do you consider to be your superpowers?
SMITH: Hmm! That’s a good one. [chuckles] Wow. That’s a very good question ‘cause my sort of circle we’ve always referenced ourselves as the X-Men. Literally.
VALLAS: I love that.
SMITH: So, it’s just a village of us, really. And we all have these superpowers, and we’ve referenced ourselves as the X-Men. And so, mm! What would be my power, my superpower? [long pause] My superpower, I believe, would be my passion.
VALLAS: Mm. I love that answer for you.
SMITH: Yeah. My passion shows up in everything. It shows up. I mean, it brings the emotion, of course, out of me ‘cause I’m so invested. I am passionate about this, right? I’m passionate about it. And so, my passion is my superpower. It drives me. It drives me, my passion. That would be my superpower. Period.
VALLAS: I love that answer for you so much, and I feel it. I can feel it every time I talk with you. It’s part of why I knew you were somebody I wanted to know the first time that we met. I’m gonna ask you a follow-up question, which is, what is your walk-up song?
SMITH: My walk-up song?
SMITH: Whoa!!! [laughs] Aw, man! What would be my walk-up song? I never thought of that either. Wow, that’s a good one. Walk-up song. [long pause] Wow, this is random.
VALLAS: We can come back to that one if you need more time.
SMITH: Public Enemy’s Fight the Power.
VALLAS: Oh, I love that! That’s amazing!
SMITH: [laughs] Public Enemy’s Fight the Power. I would go with that for now. And Imma think about that one, too. Imma think about that some more. ‘Cause I’m a DJ, so it’s like, whoa! How did I never thought of my walk-up song?! But yeah, I would go, for right now, right, just sort of for the record, just put that down for now. But Fight the Power, Chuck D.
VALLAS: We’ll take that as your—
SMITH: Public Enemy.
VALLAS: We’ll take that as your tentative answer. I hear you. It’s a high-stakes question to ask a DJ. [laughs]
SMITH: It is. It is. It is very high. So much music, so much influential music. Yeah, but right now, first thing, Public Enemy, Fight the Power.
VALLAS: Well, part of what I love is one of our fabulous producers, Kings Floyd, is gonna be pulling together, and this was her idea, a playlist of the walk-up songs for all of the Off-Kilter guests this season. So, you’re gonna be in some good company.
VALLAS: So, we’ll take that as your tentative answer. We will take your final answer whenever you wanna give it.
SMITH: Got it. Cool.
VALLAS: I will let you know one of your former colleagues at The Next100, Alejandra, picked two, so if you wanna pick two, you can pick two.
SMITH: Imma stick right now, I’m gonna stick with Public Enemy, Fight the Power.
VALLAS: So, one of the questions that I have committed to keeping as part of every conversation I have on Off-Kilter is a continuation of a series that I did earlier this year on self-care as political warfare. I loved that series of conversations. I learned so much from every single guest, and it also helped me understand all the feedback we got from listeners was, “We need more of this” because we’re all falling apart trying to fight all of these various social ills. And so, I’m gonna bring into this conversation before we run out of time as not our final question, but our next-to-last question, how does self-care show up for you? And so, I ask that question, how do you take care of yourself so that you can stay in this work for the long haul? I know you’re a very intentional person. You are a very conscious person. How does that show up for you?
SMITH: One, of course, being grounded spiritually as well is one exercise. But I am big on my circle of human beings that I have in my life. And I am always able to reach out to someone in my community that would help me around just my mental state, even if, you know, being able to cry. Being able to have a moment, just me building community and keeping community, good community around me, good advisors around me, people who love me, who care about me. And being able to have access to good people, that is how I have spaces to release and to be vulnerable. And I think those things are so key: to just have a space to be vulnerable for it to not be all right today. When someone asks you how you’re doing, you don’t have to say, “I’m all right.” I have that in my tool belt.
VALLAS: I love that answer. And Zaki, we’re gonna run out of time, so I wanna make sure we’ve got time for you to plug whatever you’ve got coming up in your work that you wanna plug. Or if you wanna talk a little bit about what’s coming next for Clean Slate New York, I know we need that governor to do some signing. But anything you wanna share as we’ve got a last few minutes of what’s next in your work or what you want folks to be checking out to learn more?
SMITH: Yeah. So, I’m really looking forward to the bill being signed. I think, so it’s like for me, I’m off sort of to the next thing, and that is what is the education of this bill going to look like in terms of educating our community? A lot of times bills are passed. Our community have no idea that they exist. They have no idea how they are involved and how they can actually benefit from this particular law. So, I’m very invested and interested in the education component, going into spaces, specifically the community and prisons. How do you walk into a prison and let brothers and sisters know that your record will be sealed pretty much after parole, depending on how much time you have, right? How do I develop that sense of hope for people before they even get to the street, right? And so, looking at that.
Doing some work with some, you know, in this space of financial literacy for formerly incarcerated individuals. Working on that as well, looking at how could we get formerly incarcerated people with criminal records involved in the entrepreneur space, develop businesses for themselves, even look into stock, right? What does that look like? How do we begin to educate individuals to earn being in those spaces? Some film projects. God willing, July 2nd of next year will be 20 years that I have been home from prison, and looking to plan what a celebration of that looks like because we don’t normally celebrate that. But I think it is very important to celebrate it. But so, looking at some creative ways on how to celebrate it and to highlight the fact that I’m not the only one out here, right? And what does 20 years mean, and what has my journey did within those 20 years? And so, those are some of the things that I’m working on currently.
VALLAS: Well, we’ll have lots in show notes for folks to learn more about your work and connect with you. I’d encourage anyone who’s interested in or doing criminal justice reform or criminal records work to connect with Zaki. But 20 years, my friend. I mean, that is a date to celebrate. July 2nd is going in my calendar, and you know I wouldn’t miss it for the world.
SMITH: No doubt.
VALLAS: So, I’m looking forward to that. But in the meantime, just big hugs and lots of gratitude for all of your amazing work and for your taking the time to come on, come back on the show and to get a little more personal this time and to get a little vulnerable. I feel like these conversations are, they’re really important to have, and they’re important to have sometimes on the air and not just off the air because you bring so much heart into this work, my friend.
SMITH: No, thank you. I thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate the follow-up, right? So, I feel like a regular on here, right? And so, but just to follow-up is so important in this, you know, these things, going back to see where a person is and what is present for this person, how things have developed or what have you. So, I appreciate you just following up with me and bringing me back to the platform as well. And again, just being a friend, really, I appreciate you. Thank you so much, Vallas. Word.
VALLAS: It’s the mutual admiration society, my friend. Zaki Smith is a filmmaker and entrepreneur, a powerhouse activist, as you’ve been hearing, and a passionate leader for criminal justice reform whose work focuses on ending perpetual punishment, which comes with a criminal record for so many people. Zaki, thank you, thank you.
VALLAS: And I really enjoyed this conversation on a personal level. Hope you know that.
SMITH: Same here. Thank you so much. [theme music returns]
VALLAS: And that does it for this week’s show. Off-Kilter is powered by The Century Foundation and produced by We Act Radio, with a special shoutout to executive producer Troy Miller and his merry band of farm animals, and the phenomenal Kings Floyd, who keeps us all in line week to week. Transcripts, which help us make the show accessible, are courtesy of Cheryl Green and her fabulous feline coworker. Find us every week on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your pods. And if you like what we do here at Off-Kilter Enterprises, send us some love by hitting that subscribe button and rating and reviewing the show on Apple Podcasts to help other folks find the pod. Thanks again for listening and see you next week.