My name is Michael “Zaki” Smith and I am one of the 70–100 million individuals in this country with a criminal record. My passion and work is to dismantle the 44,000 laws and barriers of perpetual punishment that affect the lives of formerly incarcerated Americans, impacting their ability to access employment, housing, education, occupational licensing, and voting, among other areas. Collectively, these laws are known as “collateral consequences.”
I’m a native New Yorker who made the decision several years ago to use art, advocacy, and policy to change the way the system works against people like me: people who have already served their time and want to re-enter successfully into the community. A second chance isn’t a chance if it isn’t fair.
After growing up in Bed-Stuy and spending years being justice-involved, I decided to dedicate my life to working with young people. After a decade of serving young people, I was let go from my job by the state of New Jersey—because regardless of my work with young people, regardless of my contributions to the school community, I had a record. Period. (Read more about my story here.)
The #EndPerpetualPunishment Campaign
Over the next year, I plan to use art, advocacy, policy, and community engagement to drive an end to perpetual punishment for incarcerated individuals here in New York State, while also empowering communities in longer-term ways to understand and impact policy change.
The initiative has three interlocking parts:
- Mural campaign: I will launch a mural campaign across New York City, showcasing the impact of collateral consequences, and using data and stories to amplify the voices and experiences of people that are completely shut out from successfully re-entering society, despite their best efforts. These murals will be developed by local artists, and in the neighborhoods and communities most impacted by mass incarceration. Both the mural development process and the final artwork will be used to engage with and educate impacted communities, local elected officials, and the media about the impact of collateral consequences and the current opportunity to make change in New York State. I will work with local nonprofits, community residents, and criminal justice reform organizations to reach a larger audience and do public events around these murals.
- Community engagement and empowerment: Even as we continue to see forward progress in criminal justice reform, too often these changes are being made without impacted individuals and communities at the table. In fact, too often, these individuals and communities—people like me and my community—don’t even know the table exists: the levers of government are opaque. This means critical perspectives are being left out of the conversations as policies are being developed, advocated for, and implemented. As a part of the #EndPerpetualPunishment campaign, I will work to educate, engage, and listen to impacted individuals and communities in the policy change process, supporting them in better understanding not just the opportunity for state-level change on this issue, but the ways in which federal, state, and local government work more generally.
- Advocacy + policy: Concurrently, I will be working closely with the New York Clean Slate campaign to develop and advocate for specific policy changes in New York State that allow for formerly incarcerated individuals to successfully re-enter society, including automatic expungement of criminal records. Through this work, I will identify opportunities to elevate the voices of individuals and communities that are traditionally shut off from policy debates, through public events, panels, op-eds, press coverage, social media, and other communications tools, thereby driving a larger conversation around this issue throughout New York City and New York State.
The goals of the #EndPerpetualPunishment campaign are the following:
- Drive policy change at the state level in New York State around collateral consequences, and specifically through the automatic expungement of criminal records, which will allow New York to lead the nation in terms of a policy that actually supports the successful re-entry of individuals.
- Create inspiring murals around the impact of collateral consequences, to be displayed in impacted communities around New York City. The artwork will draw attention to these issues and create momentum and engagement for policy change.
- Elevate the issue of collateral consequences and potential policy reforms among impacted individuals and communities, elected officials, and the media.
- Empower impacted individuals and communities to make change in their communities by educating them about the policy landscape and engaging them in the policy change process.
Donations will be used to directly support the costs of the murals, including paint; supplies; artists’ time, labor, and other personnel costs; and wall space. Funding will also be used for community events to (1) include the community in the mural development and unveiling, and (2) educate and engage community members throughout the policy change process.
Questions? If you want to learn more, please reach out to [email protected]