By Mari Kim
In honor of Women’s History Month, we’ll be posting one story each day of March written by local citizen journalists about a revolutionary woman from history or today who has inspired them as women.
I met Olivia Smith at a Valley & Mountain celebration last summer. As a college student attending Seattle University (SU), she was selected to participate in the Ministry Internship Project sponsored by the United Methodist Church. Spending the summer with us, she was invited to explore the possibility of a call to ministry. She was required to secure a lay mentor, and invited me to journey with her. I found Olivia to be beyond exceptional. Her vibrant spirit and incisive mind created understanding and insights that were compelling, but it was her heart – open and empathetic and unwilling to be hardened with despair – that struck me with unusual hope. She inspired me with who I was encountering her to be. As an academic, I understood why this college student had been awarded so many exceptional recognitions. She was an intern for Adam Smith, is the recipient of the Sullivan Leadership Award at Seattle University, the Washington State Truman Scholarship (a national scholarship for students who will pursue a career in public service; it provides money for grad school and a network), and won the prestigious Fastpitch Competition which takes place in front of hundreds of local and national innovators. Hosted by Social Venture Partners, Olivia ranked 1st among the college students presenting by mastering a 5-minute presentation about her work with the Youth Ambassadors organization and received $5,000 in funding.
Olivia’s time with Valley & Mountain exceeded expectations and she was invited to extend her exploration time with us. She accepted joyfully and I had the opportunity to witness the empowerment of a gifted college student whose gifts were manifold and understandably pulled her in many directions.
What follows is an interview that offers a glimpse into the powerful formation of a young black woman, whose family culture of faith shapes her into a curious and courageous public servant for her community. She sees herself as a work in progress and reflects candidly on her influences in life and activism. An interview format was chosen to allow Olivia’s voice to be heard.
Mari Kim [MK]: What will you remember about your days growing up with your families?
Olivia Smith [OS]: I remember spending a couple years of my childhood growing up in the Lake Washington Apartments in Rainier Beach with my mom and my fish named Lucky (a beta fish that lived well beyond a normal fish life span). I remember my mom was working collecting census data at one point during that time period. I would go with her from house to house. We were often invited inside, it became more than collecting “data”, people would share their stories, families and food with us.
In the time I spent in Chicago, I remember being in church a lot! When we were allowed outside the church, I remember once specific gathering in an old neighborhood my dad grew up in. And when we pulled up to the apartment complex, behind us were like 3 huge, huge trucks, full of food, toiletries, etcetera for the entirety of the apartment complex. I remember being so amazed that we were just giving away food. Till this day I have never asked my dad about how he pulled that off. I guess he didn’t… it was probably God.
MK: What was important in your family? Things that were said… and things that were not said? What lessons were valuable that stay with you now?
OS: Believing in the power of God. This is where my faith began, I watched my grandparents and parents pray and then miracles happened. One of my three brothers, his name is Mark Jr., had several heart surgeries when he was little, he actually was not supposed to live. Now he is 20. Maybe about almost 6-8 years ago? I do not quite remember how old I was, he needed to have a stent placed in his heart, because the structure was too narrow and enough blood was not flowing through. They showed the x-rays and all that. My brother was prepped for the procedure. My grandparents and family members were an intense prayer circle I recall. About 30 minutes later the doctors came back and said very confusingly, “We are not sure what happened, but when we went to put in the stent, the problem was fixed. We don’t need to do the procedure anymore. This has never happened before”.
Unspoken, I am not sure how to communicate those things yet, since they are unspoken. [laughing] I am sure there are some, but I do them, abide by them without even thinking about it.
MK: In what ways are you like your family now? And in what ways are you not like your family?
OS: I have gathered literally everything I am from my family. I have my dad’s speaking, charm abilities, my mother’s drive, organization, focus, and down-to-earth mentality, I have my stepmom as an example for how to live a life of faith and truly walk in the idea that literally I have the power to do anything I put my mind too, my stepdad has taught me to relax, and listen, not to be quick to speak and to anger… I could on and on, my grandparents, my siblings, aunts, cousins… the way my family has poured into me is the only reason I exist as I am.
How am I am not like my family? Hhhhmmmm… of course in some ways I have reinterpreted what they have imparted in me and digested it for myself. But I am not sure exactly how I am not like them. I try to say I am not crazy like them… [laughing] but I am just like them!
MK: What do you love about your path as you are experiencing it now?
OS: I am learning that I do not have to have an exact plan. It feels so good!! I have a general idea of what I like, what I stand for, what I believe, and I pursue those things, but with an open mindset and heart for God to work. It feels good not to feel pressure about what is next. Of course I would love to know what is next, but I am having so much fun in what is right now. This a new mentality for me, since I am used to always being a planner! I love that I can’t see my path. That is what is exciting.
MK: What are the hard parts of [the path] where you are / feel drawn to?
OS: The hard part is saying no to some things; the hard part is being reminded that I am human. The hard part is balancing, sometimes, space to enjoy in a silly 21-year-old kind of way, but given wisdom by elders that sometimes contradicts that silly 21-year-old kind of way, if I am being honest. The hard part is living in the midst of the politics that I believe. The political is personal. The hard part is doing research for a book about Black mothers who lost their sons to gun violence and seeing my mom say that could have been my son, and thinking that could have been my brother, my best friend, my boyfriend, me.
I feel like I am pretty strong, with almost a BA, and well off. But none of that matters, when I was traveling with my boyfriend in Cali and a cop stopped us to tell us we needed to turn our lights on, we had forgotten and it was rent-a-car so we were stumbling a bit at the request. I was so scared, not to get a ticket, but because of the reality… it didn’t matter who I was or what I had accomplished, how well I could speak… my heart was pounding because I knew it could end badly. The cop was very nice, and just told us to turn the lights on. We drove on – but in silence for the remainder of the ride home.
MK: What are the supports you are finding along the way?
OS: People. People I have known my whole life and literally people I met on the street! God speaks to me through people, they are omens. But really, I met people who spoke into my life, and I didn’t even know them but for a second or two.
MK: What do you wish you could have more of?
OS: I wish I had more of an artsy capacity. A lot of folks on my dad’s side of the family are musical. So I started taking piano lessons at school! At least now I can read music and play a bit.
MK: What does the community you want to live in look like? Where do you find visions of community life that inspire you?
OS: It has all those good things, peace, solidarity, health, care, equity, etcetera. But it is not perfect. It still challenges us but we respond to those challenges with integrity and grow from them. The Hillman City Collaboratory, inspires my vision.
MK: What desires inspired as a child? Teen? What inspires you now?
OS: My parents (all four of them) were a big part of my inspiration. Now, that hasn’t changed very much. I am inspired by my faith, what I feel in my heart. Strangely, my body actually physically feels a certain way when I am inspired or hear or see something that gives me peace and hope. So all of those moments have contributed. I cannot name them all.
MK: What bothers you most about the world you know?
OS: That the world can tell us about dinosaurs that are millions of years old, but ancient civilizations of people of color are lost, nowhere to be found, hidden and whitewashed from history.
MK: What kind of world do you want to create?
OS: I just want to be one of the many co-creators… add my little piece. I am not much but a moment in time [This comment reminds me of a photo I have seen of her].
MK: There’s a photograph of you from November of 2015 with a megaphone. You are wearing a jacket with the words, “Stay Woke”. Tell me about that photograph.
OS: We were students at SU rallying in support of students at Mizzou [University of Missouri].
MK: What happened at Mizzou?
OS: There were various instances of racial tension on Mizzou’s campus, which their school president failed to address. Because of his ongoing non-response, the student group Concerned Student 1950 – named for the year African American students were first admitted to the University – requested his resignation. We joined students on campuses across the nation to support Mizzou and simultaneously to create a platform to begin similar discussions about white supremacy and institutionalized racism on Seattle U’s campus.
MK: What happened? Was there a good turnout? How did Seattle University respond?
OS: So… I remember going to my first class in the morning and then running home to change into clothes that were all black and put on my “Stay Woke” jacket and red lipstick…
MK: [too curious not to interrupt] So why the red lipstick?
OS: [She laughs with surprise] I put on the red lipstick because… [more laughter] I don’t know! That’s just what I wanted to put on. It was an important function so I put on lipstick.
MK: What happened after?
OS: I sat nervously in class waiting for it to end…
MK: And why were you nervous?
OS: My friend had asked me to be a part of the rally and I didn’t know what that meant. It was a role I have never played before. I arrived and I told my fellow student and friend Nicholas Cruz that I felt very “fragile” and he gave me a hug. That helped me feel supported. Then all involved gathered with the organizing team of students to chat before beginning the rally. Being in the role of speaking about the issues began to feel natural, because I was speaking for a cause that I believe in.
MK: What’s the cause?
OS: Black Lives Matter.
MK: What does that statement mean to you? What is it about for you?
It means [she pauses in serious thought]… it’s about reclaiming Black lives as important. There is a history of Black lives being devalued in our country. And it is not only that I want to see the reclamation of the value of Black lives to others, but maybe, even more importantly, I want the Black community to reclaim itself as valuable. Black Lives Matter is a reminder to us that we are important. The claim “Black Lives Matter” is a claim of the significance of Black existence, a statement of our strength, a statement of our divinity. Our very existence is an act of resistance to white supremacy. When I chant Black Lives Matter I am claiming my existence, I am resisting white supremacy, I am refusing the colonization of my identity and freeing myself from my own institutional racism.
Black Lives Matter has empowered Blacks and people of color and some have come to see that as a threat. But becoming seen or treated as threat is evidence that you are actually making inroads and actually beginning to expose and dismantle the problem of white supremacy.
MK: What happened next?
OS: We chanted and the crowd repeated: “It is our duty to fight for a freedom. It is our duty to win. It is our duty to love and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.” It was emotional.
I was impressed by the turnout of students, the rally created a lot of energy – energy that I am not sure we capitalized on well enough after the rally. However, I was even disappointed by the number of students who remained unengaged: I remember noticing so many students in the cafeteria carrying on as normal… as if the rally wasn’t even registering with them. To me, they appeared to have no concern for this gathering of their peers, and no curiosity for why we were gathering. It was hard not to feel like they were among those who did not care that Black lives were in danger. Maybe they didn’t know or maybe they didn’t care, but we knew and we cared that here had been a threat against Black students on another campus, a threat in which someone had promised that Black students would be shot.
Following the rally you’d think I would be elated, and part of me was, but I was also very troubled. How could so many students on my own campus continue as if nothing was happening?
MK: What happened at the rally itself?
OS: A group of students had sent a letter prior to the rally to the administration prompting them to send out a mass email about the threats that Black students are facing on campuses around the nation. Our school does a great job sending out mass emails as it relates to other crises in the world, but had said nothing about the threat of to Black lives. I believe this letter is the reason Father Sundborg [the president of Seattle University] cancelled a staff engagement that was originally scheduled at the same time as the rally. In his cancellation of the prior staff engagement he encouraged staff and students to be present at the rally.
I will be honest I have questions about the intentions of the Seattle University administration. [Most colleges] are a part of the very system that has colonializes and oppresses people of color. I am not sure if I believe that Black people can be liberated via the system. But I continue to have hope in the midst of that reality.
MK: Do you ever worry that your frankness will get you in trouble? You told me once that your mother expressed concerns that you were not being circumspect enough. Can you talk about that?
OS: Nope [laughing before coming up with an answer]. Okay. So that was back in November a couple of weeks after this rally. In the past couple of years there have been protests at Westlake demanding justice. This demand is often carried out by shutting down the tree lighting and overall making folks uncomfortable. There is a history of this protest becoming a bit physical… my mom could foresee that it is an event that I was planning to attend, she asked me not go. She was worried for my safety, and reminded me that I am Black, and that I would be targeted by opposition – that white people can protest, but I am putting my life in danger and more so than my white allies.
MK: And wasn’t there was also a time when your mom was concerned you would jeopardize your scholarship at Seattle U?
Oh right! At one of the largest scholarship competitions at SU my close friends and I spoke to 300 prospective students. We told them that our school was not living up to its Jesuit mission… that it has refused to divest in fossil fuels, that it has not recognized that it is on stolen native land, that it does not respond to the grievances of marginalized students on campus… it was great! At least we thought so, but the administration was not pleased! After sharing this event with my mom she said, you should not bite the hand that feeds you (I am on a full ride scholarship at Seattle University).
This conversation reminded me that my parents, grandparents, ancestors, have endured things I could never imagine and that generational trauma is real… I know that my mom is processing information as best she can, she resists in the ways she can, that are relevant to her generation and situation. While I respect her, listen to her, and honor her wisdom I know there are things in this resistance we won’t agree on… and that is okay.
[UPDATED 3/30/16: This article has been updated to reflect the full, extended interview in its entirety.]
Mari Kim works in nonprofit consulting; she has a doctorate in constructive theology and teaches locally. Mari and her sons are a founding family the Valley & Mountain Fellowship based in South Seattle.
Featured Image by Chris Joseph Kalinko, Seattle University