Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2017
You can hear the urgency and excitement in his voice as Anderson Smith talks about working in prisons. “I know that I’m going to make a difference in the prison world.”
Always a literary person but not always endowed with the resources to pursue his dreams of becoming a writer, Anderson had to be creative with his career path. He was not expecting that this path would lead him to developing as close a relationship with the prison system as he did with his estranged family.
Anderson, now an Ed.M. student in the English Education Program, grew up in the Bronx to a Guyanese mother and Jamaican father. During his early twenties, to help pay for tuition at St. John’s University where he was enrolled, Anderson decided to write a poetry book, A Second Chance at a First Impression, published in 2005 as a collection of poems related to his transition from adolescence to adulthood. When his book did not earn enough to pay for college, he was forced to drop out.
Eventually, Anderson found a position at the State University of New York (SUNY) Maritime College in 2007, a merchant marine academy.
Being in an academic setting as an employee rather than a student was emotionally difficult for Anderson, and watching other students graduate ahead of him was upsetting. “I always felt empty without my degree,” he said. “I always had it in the back of my mind, ‘Let me go back to school.’”
In 2010, he applied for readmission and was accepted to St. John’s University in Queens. Two years later, after keeping up with his full-time position at SUNY and full-time studies, he became the first in his family to receive his Bachelor’s degree. The achievement was significant for his family, but Anderson knew he still wanted to become a writer, and, in 2013 was accepted to the Manhattanville College’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program.
While at Manhattanville, Anderson took a course that required he write a curriculum that fit the contexts of a community or a prison. Anderson wanted to develop a mystery writing course that would coincide with his thesis project, but it was the image of teaching in a prison that struck a chord with him.
Even at an early age, Anderson’s life was touched by the criminal justice system. His father went to jail when he was five-years-old, and was deported to Jamaica 13 years later. “My younger sister has been in and out of prison a lot. I’ve always wanted to help her,” he said. “It broke my heart.”
During one of Anderson’s classes, a speaker from Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA), a non-profit organization that works to develop the social and cognitive skills of prisoners to reenter society, and he immediately asked if he could work with them. “To see a black person teaching in prison,” Anderson said, “They would be able to relate to me more, and I could give some inspiration. I couldn’t help my sister, but I can help someone else.”
Upon graduating and perfecting his syllabus for a Methods and Mystery course, Anderson began working with RTA. His first placement was at Fishkill Correctional Facility, a medium security prison. Anderson had never visited a prison before, but his presence, particularly as an African-American male, was a welcome change for the people there. “It was nothing I ever expected. [They] were eager to have human contact, to talk to somebody else, to just feel human again,” he said.
It was fulfilling to teach a course that he had developed himself, but it was his population of students that left an impression on him. Some men were serving life, others were denied parole, but Anderson did not see them as criminals, he saw them as students. “When we were in that room, they weren’t incarcerated... they were free to write and express themselves,” said Anderson.
The next semester, he taught a course on character development, and in the summer, he taught a spoken word course. “In prison, those are the most creative people that I’ve ever met in my life. They are energized and engaging. They read more than me,” he said.
At the core of Anderson’s work, he views writing as a way out of the recidivism cycle. “They can inspire people with their own stories, and they can create characters that they can sustain within their own minds -- when everybody shuts them out -- they have their characters that they can develop and write and build something bigger. That’s why it was important for me to teach the course,” he said.
His interaction with his students, whom he developed close bonds with, encouraged him to look at writing from the perspective of a teacher. Teachers College was a stone’s throw away from where he worked as an Administrative Manager at the Office of Research Compliance and Training at Columbia University, and he decided to apply.
Anderson began his studies at Teachers College in Fall 2016 as an M.A. student with the hope of eventually getting his Ph.D. As a non-traditional student, Anderson worked out a plan with his former advisor, Sheridan Blau, Professor of Practice in the English Education Program, to help him pursue the Ed.M. program using some of his MFA credits. Next semester, Anderson will be eligible to apply to the doctoral program.
“I’m the first person in my family to have a Master’s. I’ll be the first person to get my Ph.D. in a family of immigrants,” Anderson said. “I already know what I want my dissertation on. I’m going to be focusing on the transformation of literature and how what you read affects how you think.”
Anderson’s new advisor, Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz, Associate Professor of English Education, has been connecting him with a network of education and prison advocates, and he credits her with taking him under her wing. “I’ve never felt any of this,” he said of the support given to him by Dr. Sealey-Ruiz, Professor Blau and Professor Bob Fecho, Professor of English Education. “I do know that I want to live a life of purpose where I’m really helping someone that needs another chance. People in prison have done their time. Yet we still punish them.”
The past year has brought a number of welcome gifts for Anderson. Aside from his acceptance to Teachers College, his two sons, Miles and Dash, were born within a year of each other, and he married his longtime girlfriend in April. Although Anderson has been estranged from some of his own family members because of incarceration, family remains an important component of his life. After more than 20 years, Anderson visited his father in Jamaica, admitting he wanted to be able to tell his children about their grandfather. “It was a scary feeling to know that I could pass my father in the street and not know it’s him,” he said. While it was not the reception he was hoping for, he says he is glad he met him after so many years.
The night before we met to talk about his story, Anderson was confronted with the presence of his sister. He had attended “An Evening with Beyond the Bars Fellows” at the Columbia School of Social Work, where he met formerly incarcerated men and women whose lives were changed by literature. One of the women he met knew his sister, and he had an epiphany about his work. “If [incarcerated individuals] knew that they could write, they could really free themselves and possibly save someone else from making the same mistakes that they have made, through literature. Everybody has a story to tell,” said Anderson.
He later told his sister that the reason he writes and teaches in prison is all because of her. Though he still feels he has yet to help her free herself from the recidivist cycle, he devotes his work to her.
“I feel connected. I feel like I’m doing real work,” said Anderson on his experience at Teachers College and through RTA. “I feel like I understand why things are the way they are. I look at reading and literature differently because of the theoretical framework that [my instructors] provided me. Here. This is what it means to be a literary citizen.”
The English program is making a profound impact on Anderson, kindling a flurry of questions about his writing and the literature he provides his students that connects their experiences with the world around them. “It’s less about teaching, it’s more about facilitation. It’s about building something -- what does it mean to you? What do these words mean and how does it connect to a bigger picture? How does what you’re reading impact your life? How does the world look now that you’ve read this? What does it say about you? I’ve never been asked this before. That’s the challenge that TC has given me and that’s the challenge that I hope to bring into my own teaching.”
Anderson is still working on his mystery novel and will be teaching at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison in Ossining, New York, this summer.
Nori Kato is a Staff Writer and Social Media Coordinator for the Department of Arts and Humanities. She is also a graduate of the International Educational Development program at Teachers College.