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Office Hours with Charisa Smith

September 14, 2018

Office Hours with Professor Charisa Kiyô Smith

 Professor Charisa Kiyo Smith

Professor Charisa Kiyô Smith’s teaching areas include juvenile justice, family law, and torts.  Her past work for women’s rights organizations and sexually exploited youth inspires her to foster community empowerment, youth agency, and self-determination.  Professor Smith is particularly excited to assist contemplative law endeavors at CUNY and enjoys both silent meditation and digital arts and crafts.  When not in the midst of a bustling city or town, she and her family can be found near a lake, mountain, marsh, stream, or a park big enough to feel outdoorsy.


What will you be teaching this year at CUNY Law?

This fall I return to the interdisciplinary Family Law Practice Clinic.  It’s the best of all worlds in my opinion:  I advise students who intern at field placements where they represent youth and families, teach an intensive doctrinal and practice-focused seminar twice weekly, and lead case Rounds.


Tell us a little bit about your activism – and how you see yourself carrying that work forward during your tenure at CUNY Law.

My role here feels like an excellent transition from previous activism and teaching.  I’ve worked on youth and family justice issues in New York City, New Jersey, Virginia, and D.C. as well as organizations in Latin America.  Representing parents with children who were pushed out of the special education system due to unmet behavioral needs or young people returning home from incarceration, drafting legislation to protect the rights of foster youth, advocating for young survivors of commercial sexual exploitation, supporting youth activist organizations as an attorney… that was all important work for me.  It’s also great to step back and look at the macro-level.  I love having the ability to teach and write about the ways that unjust public systems and social disadvantages perpetuate the status quo that attorneys work within.  Our students bring new perspectives — and some may have experienced these injustices themselves.  I enjoy moving the field forward and mentoring students.  My emphasis now is on the dynamic nature of law and institutions.


You’re an author, poet, and biographer. How is writing connected to justice for you? Or, what keeps you writing?

It sounds way too glamorous when it’s said like that!  My writing always comes from a place of story-telling.  Genre is just a byproduct.  Sometimes I aim to give life to the story of someone whose journey was largely untold—such as the biography I wrote of African-American artist Tom Malloy.  I felt that I “had” to write his life story because it was always a treat to pull up a chair in his studio and watch the minutes turn into hours.  He was a fantastic storyteller.  I met him when I was in high school and my late mother kept bringing home his artwork.  After a while, I just couldn’t believe no one else had written his story yet, so I asked if I could write it and he agreed.

Legal scholarship or other writing of public concern is the same for me.  I enter the conversation and contribute something to further our collective journey, shedding light on what is crucial but overlooked.  Often, I discuss angles that the legal academy doesn’t see, such as the impact of youth agency and survivor-led movements on law and social change.  Another important interest of mine is non-adversarial problem solving outside the legal system—such as restorative justice and collaborative family law.  I would not want to be a scholar of law without seeing law through the lens of human needs—as is our mission…  And I am primarily motivated by the possibility of inspiring others to see capacity within themselves.  I think there’s a Chinese saying, “Give someone a fish and you feed them for a day; teach someone to fish and you feed them for a lifetime.”


What is the best/worst thing you can remember about your time at law school?

Best thing: “Aha” moments where I both ‘got’ the doctrine and also saw my ability to innovate or improve the status quo.

Worst thing:  Definitely the uphill battle being a first-generation legal professional, and being culturally jaded.  I never dreamt of being a lawyer growing up.  I started pre-med and ended up studying History and Spanish because I loved those subjects.  I’ve always worked with marginalized youth, in public service, even in politics.  So I entered law school from a place of ambivalence.  At Yale—a school which I did later come to love and appreciate—I felt isolated, I didn’t revere the law or its legacy, or even know attorneys, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to feel any differently.  At one point, an older student of color who seemed to have it all together listened patiently as I told her I was considering dropping out.  She told me, “People died so you could walk these halls.  You deserve to be here.”  That conversation was a “Whoa” moment for me, not just an “Aha” moment.  We are living on occupied (stolen) ground in this nation and I am the descendant of slaves.  I never want to forget my part in the struggle.  That unwitting mentor’s words propel me to this day.



If you could recruit anyone to guest lecture in your class, who would it be – and what would they talk about?

I would love to convene a panel of youth justice innovators.  While it’s important to critique the legal system and its over-criminalization of youth of color and LGBTQ youth, too many conversations avoid the next question: What do we do instead?  I want students to hear about the alternatives that actually exist and what solutions they can create.  I would include speakers who foster approaches outside the legal system (like restorative justice), who push for creative solutions to crime, and who bridge gaps between communities and law enforcement.  For example, Kyung-Ji Rhee from the Institute for Juvenile Justice Reform and Alternatives, Zachary Norris from the Ella Baker Center, Carmen Perez from Justice League, Ruben Austria from Community Connections for Youth, folks from Common Justice, and Lisa Thurau from Strategies for Youth.  However, a class session isn’t enough time, so I’d want to make it a whole event!


Let’s pretend your students have time to read non-assigned material. What would you recommend? What are you reading that you can’t put down?

I really like daily meditations…daily doses of wisdom.  Acts of Faith: Daily Meditations for People of Color compiled by Iyanla Vanzant—who I recently learned is a CUNY Law grad—is a favorite.  There is a meditation for each day of the year, from different wisdom traditions throughout the world.  My mom used to say, “there is nothing new under the sun.”  Waking up with some form of insight and contemplation makes me feel rooted in all the world’s traditions of empowerment.


What can’t you let go of? Is there anything that holds you enthralled, that you want to keep on people’s radar, or that is keeping you up at night?

The fight for net neutrality and digital freedom.  Being online is so vital to everything most of us do these days.  We really take it for granted.  Yet, too few of us recognize that corporate mergers and new Federal Communications Commission (FCC) leadership are trying to chip away at our independent use of the web day by day.  We aren’t that far from a world where whatever you try to find online—especially regarding activism or resistance— is controlled by companies for profit.  Folks, including myself, need to wake up and get more involved.


If you weren’t a law professor, what would you most likely be doing in life?

I’d spend at least a third of my time doing silent meditation retreats (which I recognize might sound a bit odd for an attorney) and another third teaching some other population or discipline.  I tend to crave silence and stillness.  And yet, no matter what I am involved in, teaching becomes a big part of it.  I’ve enjoyed teaching undergraduates, training guidance counselors and youth therapists about legal issues, and even teaching senior citizens how to use the internet.








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