Clint Smith has spent the last year teaching six incarcerated men in Massachusetts.
Every Saturday for the past school year, Smith, a Louisiana native and doctoral student at Harvard, taught creative writing to prisoners in Massachusetts at a specialized facility for inmates who were incarcerated for significant portions of their lives. While his position allows him to teach others, he says the experience has also taught him valuable lessons.
In a short film produced by the Future of StoryTelling, a summit that explores storytelling in the digital age, Smith -- who is also a talented poet -- opened up about how teaching at the prison prompted him to look at those behind bars as more than just people who broke the law.
"Our entire lives, we’re inundated with media and messaging that tells us that to be incarcerated is to be criminal and to be criminal is to be a bad person,” Smith told The Huffington Post. "And then [inmates] have the totality of [their] personhood defined by this single act.”
In the video, Smith admitted that he’d been socialized to view incarcerated men in a very specific way. "We don't remember that they're people worth remembering," he recites from a poem in the film, titled "Beyond This Place." He carried his biases as he first walked into the prison, he told HuffPost. This was something he was "proactive and very purposeful” in learning to move away from. Though he held these biases, the reality of people going to prison was all around him growing up.
“It’s always been a part of my world, even when I didn’t necessarily understand it to be,” he said.
Of 2.3 million people incarcerated nationally, nearly 1 million are African American, according to according to the NAACP. In 2013, the Sentencing Project reported that one in every three black men born in America will go to prison at some point in their life.
Smith, 26, said there was nothing preventing him from falling into that statistic. Because of this, Smith dedicated his research to the systematic issues prisoners in America face by spending time with these men on Saturday mornings.
“They quickly became people who I wasn’t just sharing an intellectual space with but sharing a personal and emotional space with," he told HuffPost.
In a particularly affecting moment, Smith recalled a time when one of his students once asked him how it felt to stand in solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter protestors outside of the prison walls. After Smith offered his experience, one man responded with something that was especially memorable for the teacher.
"He said, 'I am a part of all that I have met,' a line from Alfred Lord Tennyson poem called 'Ulysses,' Smith told HuffPost. "Because you’ve come in and shared these stories with us and talked about what it’s like beyond these walls and beyond these fences. Now we are a part of those protests as well."
Proximity was the only thing keeping him from the lessons he learned from the men he taught, Smith said.
"So much of the work that we’re all doing, whether you’re in the prison or whether you’re outside of prison, is centered on what we share," he told HuffPost. "This idea of shared humanity and the connections that we make with one another, that’s what in fact makes life worth living."
Watch Smith's entire video below.
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