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During the most precious years of my pre-teenage life, from the age of 10 to about 16, my mother viciously beat me. She consistently told me that, like my father, I’d never amount to anything and I believed her; turns out, she was wrong. - Dr. Kai Smith
Interviewed by: Tiekim Stancil, GRAAFICS Graduate. Class of 2014
Dr. Kai Smith
Born and raised during the three most ominous eras of New York City, the 1970's, 80's and 90's, Kai actually lived the street life. The life that many of today's rappers sing about and actors portray in their movies. The life that many others have only witnessed or was told stories, Kai actually lived. This lifestyle directly resulted in him spending 16 consecutive years in juvenile institutions and adult prisons in 3 different States.
Released from prison in 2002 and labeled a ‘Career Criminal’ like every other black man returning to the hood he was happy to be home but lost. With 6 felonies on his criminal rap sheet and written off by society as helpless, Kai vowed to not only change his own life, but the lives of others caught in the cycle like he was. Determined to change, Kai applied for welfare which was the only source of income for guys just home from prison. One of the requirements for receiving public assistance is attending employment services training. The city's rationale is, if they can help someone obtain employment, the income generated from that job would be better than the tax payer burden of public assistance. He was assigned to a workforce development program in Brooklyn. Making the best of an unpleasant situation and not accepting the defeated mentality of those around him, Kai was different. While most wore ragged street clothing, Kai wore the one suit that he owed, daily. Impressed with his image and personality, the staff would ask him to help other applicants. Soon, everyone thought that he was an employee. This went on for nearly 6 months, One day the program's CEO was completing a walk staff through. She entered a room where Kai was helping others. She got the attention of the staff member in the room. Playfully, she asked him: "How's Kai doing?" The staff member replied: "Kai is awesome, he does a better job helping our clients than some of the staff that already work here." The very next day the organization hired him. Kai took advantage of that opportunity and has never looked back.
Kai not only founded GRAAFICS; educationally, he's secured:
Taking an excerpt from his book, Kai states:
“Wow, I think that I may have been 10 yrs old when my mother started to tell me that I would never amount to anything. She'd say: “Your daddy is in jail and he ain't shit and you are going to be just like him … not worth shit!” I remember living in Beaufort, SC. I had gotten into trouble as a child and while being sentenced to a juvenile detention center for a minor quality of life offense, the judge looked down at me from his chair and called me “A hopeless, young, future career criminal” He was actually upset that he could not sentence me to more time than he had given me. So let’s see, before the age of 16 I was a hopeless, young, future career criminal that wasn’t going to ever be shit like my dad ... so I believed it!
Later, throughout the course of my young adult life, the reward for my behavior and actions was 6 felonies. In total, I’ve served 16 years in juvenile detention centers, jails, prisons and correctional facilities in three different states. For the first 16 years of my life my mother drilled into me that I would fail in life. There were times when I watched her tell me those things in between nods from her own aggressive addition to heroin. Before I was ten years old, I was forced to watch my mother do things for money to get heroin, that no child should EVER have to witness. For the first 30 years of my life I really never knew my father. Twenty of those thirty years he was in prison. My only brother was shot in the face 6 times and in the chest 3 times as a part of someone’s initiation into a street gang. In spite of all of serving 16 yrs in prison (9 yrs in NY State, 5 yrs In Virginia and 2 yrs in South Carolina) today, when I look at the old prison ID cards I am humbled. I went from 6 felonies in 3 different States to being educated at Ivy league institutions.
I wrote GRAAFICS while I was incarcerated in the Virginia Department of Corrections. I'll never forget it. I was in solitary confinement. Each week the trustee would push a cart full of books through the cell block. Stopping in front of each cell, each convict had the opportunity to select a book for the week. There must have been 200 books on this cart. At the time, I had been in solitary confinement so long that, with the exception of one, I'd read every book on the cart. I asked the trustee for the one remaining book that I didn't read. He gave it to me and immediately I realized that it was a self-help book. I had already read everything else on the cart, so, I said to myself: "What the hell." The last chapter of this book dealt with breaking the cycle of incarceration. There was a work sheet in the back of the book. One of the questions on this work sheet was "If YOU could design an effective reentry program, what would it look like?" I thought, "Wow. who better to answer this question than me?" On my next commissary date, I ordered a pad and a pen. This was September of 2000. On September 12th 2001 (and nearly 150 note pads later) I was sitting in my cell, journaling more of my thoughts and still answering that same question. It was on that day that I said to myself "If I ever gotten out of this place, I'd never return."
I never REALLY believed in GOD. To me, GOD was my grandmother. As a child everything that I'd ever wanted and needed, my grandmother gave me. Although the gave me everything, she raised me to both believe in and trust in God. However, in my young and dumb opinion, GOD and I had a perfect relationship. GOD was not going to come into the streets (my house) and give me an extra 10 kilos of cocaine to sell and I was not going to go into the church (his house) to be a fake. So, to me, that was a perfect deal. It was on this day 9/11/01 I sat in a Virginia prison cell watching (on television) the devastation occurring in my city. I got on my knees, look into my hands and said "GOD, I don't know you. I know NOTHING about you. But, if you love me as much as my grandmother says that you do ... you'll let me get out of this place in time for her to see me make something of my life before she dies." On October 16 2002 I was escorted out of that same prison a FREE man. On October 22 2003 The Gang Diversion, Reentry And Absent Fathers Intervention Centers (GRAAFICS) was born. To date, almost 2 decades later, I don't have the exact numbers. But, we've been able to accomplish something like:
In addition, GRAAFICS currently has contracts with state and local governments and/or municipalities in 4 different States.
A River of Tears. Recently, something that brought tears to my eyes. On 6/22/91 I was an inmate detained on Riker's Island, inside of GMDC or C-73. Twenty five years later on 6/22/16 I was awarded a contract to erect GRAAFICS on Riker's Island inside of the same facility where I was once criminally detained. On the first day, I waited on the side of the bridge where the visitor's parking lot is located. I needed to be escorted onto the island via bus. As I watched the Department of Corrections bus approach, my body started to shake. I boarded the bus, looked up to my right, walked to the rear of the bus, sat and immediately cried. The very bus that was escorting me back onto Riker's Island as a business owner (with a contract from the Department of Corrections) was one of the actual busses that transported me to and from court when I was an inmate. Through the tears, I thought: "Whoa, this is unreal. I've trafficked guns, I've sold guns, I've shot people, I've sold drugs, I've done it all. Wow, a program that I wrote while serving time in prison is now being contracted to return to its birthplace to keep young black and Hispanic youth from following in my footsteps and initially entering and/or returning to prison. Later that evening, when I got home I was shaking. I was nervous. I cried. I called my grandma (R.I.P - she was alive then) told her about it and she said 'Pray". I got on my knees, looked into my hands, through the tears and said THANK YOU." - Excerpt End.
During his undergraduate years, while enduring the tremendous responsibilities of full time work and being a full time student, Kai founded his first not-for-profit organization: "The Urban Development Institute: Uncommon Solutions. Kai participated in the founding of one of Harlem’s premier after-school programs and as a result was featured by Metropolitan College of New York in their 2005 Fiscal Report.
As a graduate student, Kai was employed by Visions: Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired as their Director of Business Development and Workforce Diversity. There, he not only designed, created, staffed and implemented the very department where he worked; he designed the single largest ‘Internship-to-Employment’ program for blind and visually impaired people in the State of New York. More than 50 vendors and 500 participants attended. This collaboration between Metropolitan College of New York and Visions: Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired produced internship-to-employment opportunities for 12 legally blind people. One of Kai's clients secured full time employment as the administrative assistant to the president of the college. After being recognized, by The New York State Commission for the Blind and Visually Handicapped, with a plaque that hangs in the foyer of MCNY today. Professionally, graduates of The GRAAFICS Program and/or followers of The GRAAFICS Model have gone on to establish careers at: Services For The Undeserved, The DOE Fund, SCO Family Of Services, The Center for Court Innovation, Brownsville Youth Court, Kings County DA’s ComAlert Program, et. al. Educationally, followers of the inspirational teachings of The GRAAFICS Program have gone on to enroll into and complete: Rutgers University, Metropolitan College of New York, The College of New Rochelle, et. al. Today, some have called Kai Smith the epitome of what rehabilitation looks like. He is a man that has dedicated his life to changing the narrative of the lives of urban youth. In closing the interview, I asked, if he had any last words? He thought for awhile, smiled (shrugged his shoulders) and said: "I don't know ... so, I guess my mother was wrong after all?”
1983 thru 1985. As a child living in Beaufort, South Carolina; on the outside, I laughed, smiled and played like every other child my age. However, on the inside (deep within) I was hurting. The only way that I knew to vent what I was feeling was through anger and violence. The volatile behavior that I thought made me cool, eventually int
1983 thru 1985. As a child living in Beaufort, South Carolina; on the outside, I laughed, smiled and played like every other child my age. However, on the inside (deep within) I was hurting. The only way that I knew to vent what I was feeling was through anger and violence. The volatile behavior that I thought made me cool, eventually introduced me to what I would be doing for the next 17 years of my life.
1987 thru 1996. My grandmother told me to mail my prison ID cards home. I never knew why she wanted it.
1997 thru 2002. Incarcerated in a Virginia State prison, she (my grandmother) told me to mail her the Virginia prison ID. I was released in 2002. One day in 2012 she called me into her bedroom and told me to sit down. I sat at the foot of her bed. She reached over to her night stand, picked up her bible and opened it. To my surprise, that
1997 thru 2002. Incarcerated in a Virginia State prison, she (my grandmother) told me to mail her the Virginia prison ID. I was released in 2002. One day in 2012 she called me into her bedroom and told me to sit down. I sat at the foot of her bed. She reached over to her night stand, picked up her bible and opened it. To my surprise, that is where she kept my prison ID cards. She handed them to me and said: " God Restores"
This video is a 20 year anniversary thank you to my grandmother (R.I.P) However, it is FOR every man of color that's struggling to find the right path. Whatever you do, do NOT give up.
This guy [Kai Smith] just may be the realest, most powerful, most inspirational speaker today. His message is current, his delivery is on-point, he is extremely charismatic and has just the right amount of humor. Other speakers are good; but, nobody can do what he does with his audience. Nobody!
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