Michael “Zaki” Smith is a policy entrepreneur at Next100 and an entrepreneur and activist with more than fifteen years of experience in youth empowerment and social justice. At Next100, Zaki focuses on dismantling the collateral consequences of incarceration. Zaki has recently worked with the Clean Slate NY Coalition to advocate for automatic expungement of criminal records in New York State. As part of this work, he has testified in Albany and has co-authored an op-ed with a state senator. In 2020, Zaki launched the #EndPerpetualPunishment arts campaign, which uses murals and art in the neighborhoods most impacted by the criminal justice system to educate and empower community members around making policy change (see brief video here). He is also working on a documentary, and is nearly finished with an illustrated booklet that will guide a series of community-facing events.
As a formerly incarcerated person, Zaki has felt the full impact of collateral consequences. In 2017, Zaki lost his ability to work in a school he had worked in for five years all because of a past criminal record. In 2018, he co-founded Feast for Fair Chance, an organization with a mission to increase awareness around the 44,000+ policies that continue the silent life sentence of “perpetual punishment” for formerly incarcerated individuals after their terms are served. Feast for Fair Chance aims to change national legislation in the key areas that most impact an individual’s ability to reintegrate into society post-incarceration, including employment, housing, education, and voting.
Like many activists, Zaki’s social justice work started within his own community. As a barber, he spent time having conversations with patrons about their daily challenges. The barbershop often felt like a community center—a place where people would congregate and connect. There, Zaki found opportunities to coach others by sharing the experiences of his youth that led him to incarceration and the moments that served as catalysts for positive change upon his return.
In 2004, Zaki took coaching beyond the barbershop when he entered the nonprofit world as a youth advocate and coach. He began working with high schools, community organizations, and juvenile detention centers on various empowerment and personal development initiatives, serving as a speaker and facilitator. He worked in service of causes ranging from prostate cancer awareness, to international education in Kenya, to his current work in criminal justice reform. Zaki currently leads strategic growth and development at Feast for Fair Chance in an effort to drive legislative change nationally and in New York City. In addition to his activism work, Zaki continues to be a licensed barber and DJ, using his crafts to connect with the community.