Anna Deavere Smith is the founder and director of the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue. The mission of the IACD is to support artists whose works address social justice and related themes. The IACD supports arts education, and creates a meeting place for artists, scholars, and audiences to exchange ideas and generate new work. 

May 2017

I thought I’d talk about love today. But I need your help.

ADS asks students to close their eyes and think about a love song that meant a lot to them during college. She asks parents to close their eyes and think about the songs they fell in love to. She asks all of the audience to hum songs, then to sing. A light cacophony emerges

The most popular love song on the billboard charts right now goes as follows:

Jump in the Cadillac
(Girl, let’s put some miles on it)
Anything you want
(Just to put a smile on you)
You deserve it baby, you deserve it all
And I’m gonna give it to you

Cool jewel be shining so bright
Strawberry champagne on ice
Lucky for you, that’s what I like, that’s what I like
Lucky for you, that’s what I like, that’s what I like

I’m talkin’ trips to Puerto Rico
Say the word and we go
I will never make a promise that I can’t keep
I promise that your smile ain’t gon’ never leave
Shopping sprees in Paris
Everything twenty-four karats (twenty-four karats)
Take a look in that mirror (take a look)
Now tell me who’s the fairest
Is it you? (is it you?) is it me? (is it me?)
Say it’s us (say it’s us) and I’ll agree, baby

Jump in the Cadillac
(Girl, let’s put some miles on it)
Anything you want
(Just to put a smile on you)
You deserve it baby, you deserve it all
And I’m gonna give it to you

Cool jewel be shining so bright
Strawberry champagne on ice
Lucky for you, that’s what I like, that’s what I like
Lucky for you, that’s what I like, that’s what I like

Who is the singer?

Is that the kind of love I am talking about?





Dr. Hall, Chaplain and religion professor. when I was in college.

I put off taking his class, which was required, until the very end of my stay. I almost never went to class, and I turned in the final paper well past the very last stated deadline.

I wrote the paper on “Black Theology and Black Power,” a book by James Cone, now at Union Theological Seminary. I was inspired by Cone then, and forty years later too when I met him finally.

The response to the paper from Dr. Hall was enthusiastic. Over the top. I had “shredded it” as common parlance might put it now. I “nailed it” as we might have said a decade ago. I “aced it” as we may have said twenty years ago. Innate unschooled, clownish performer that I was in those days, I read Dr. Hall’s evaluation out loud to my friends. General hilarity ensued. No one actually expected me to pass the class, let alone, “shred” it. I concluded my performance with a flourish – I said “and he even signed it – ‘A-gaype!’ (pron.) They looked at me quizzically. “A-gaype.” I repeated with a shrug. “He’s so shocked his mouth is hanging open? Agape?” The philosophy major among us snatched the evaluation out of my hands “A – gah – pe! Not a-gaype”! This announcement elicited more peals of laughter from the group. We laughed a lot in those four years. Laughter was a healing force. It punctuated the dark absurdities and the real tragedies that marked our calendars from 1967-1971. It was a bloody time in the country and in the world.


Universal, unconditional love.

Our world right now, does not feel so much like an agape world. And it did not when I graduated from college either. People compare our situation right now to the 60s. But-

Gloria Steinem, who has a way with words, said of Nixon’s ascendency to power:
“It took three murders to make him President: two Kennedys and Martin Luther King.”

We compare these days to the 60s. But it’s different.

In the 60s, many of us barely went to class. We spent much of our time dreaming up and writing down plans for new worlds that were more equitable, fairer to women, more kind to the environment and without any further tolerance for the war in Vietnam.

I have a feeling you have all been going to class. I have a feeling that you don’t depend on a school shut down, or a demonstration to save you from the fact that you have not studied for an exam. We did.

As a result of protest and activism, many things about our world in the 60s transformed for the better. By “for the better,” I mean, a less divided world. “Give Peace a Chance.” “All Power to the People.” “We Shall Overcome.” Women rising. “Save the Environment.” The needle moved a little. There was some transformation.

“All you need is love.” The John Lennon Love Call was different from the Bruno Mars Love Call.

Agape was part of the power of change. Part of the transformation.




I am not sure when you officially become an alum. But it’s soon. It’s either in moments from now, or a couple days.

I could not help looking up the etymology of the word alumni, alumnus, alum—

It comes from the Latin for foster-son, (ward, charge)

The idea of alum as a foster child is interesting.

I think of alums as individuals who have beenfully woven into the texture of an organization.Of it – born out of it by the time you reach alum status.

A foster child, a ward, connotes one who is in need of a placement, who would otherwise be strands, stranded, outside of the fabric of society.

I can only think that the process of becoming an alum as we know alum to be is about more than football games, and shared memories of romance, pranks, near misses, and hard won accomplishments.

How did you get here today? How did you make your way into the character of Loyola Marymount University?
As a person who has taught for over 40 years now, I am aware that many students, spend a lot of their time as undergraduates, and even as graduates, struggling to endure the process of being educated, without a feeling of belongingness.

Some of you may have felt that way here at LMU. Most of you, I suspect, surpassed the feeling of alienation and found your niche, your wayin. Even for those of you who stood outside what you perceived as the norm, let me say – the fact is – no one just “fits in.” To “fit” you have to be a part of creating the fit for yourself and others around you.

For some of you, the others around you was a small group; for others it was a large group. You did not just fit,you helped make the fit, for those who were with you then, for those who came before you for those who are here now and for those who are yet to come.You arepart of the fit.

As you approach your alum status, you are now, a part of the history of LMU. You are part of its tapestry – even if you never quite fit. You are part of the reality, part of the wall hanging of LMU.

If only our cities, and our nation, and in places of discord today we could make tapestries out of the many strands that are loose – thefoster strands as it were. And even if we could accomplish this in neighborhoods and then across the neighborhoods of cities, there’s the exponentially more ambitious idea – of attempting to make a more woven world.

“Love your neighboras yourself.”

As you move into this world ask: “Are we at a moment when love your neighbor as yourself seems nearly fathomable? Or unfathomable?”

As you move to alum status ask: “As I move into the world, can I take my lessons, some hard, some easy, some accomplished, some not about fitting and not fitting into the world to become an agent ofthe fit, to become the person who helps others fit?”

And especially: If I felt as thought I never did fit, can I take the understanding of not fitting to create possibilities for others to experience a perfectly fitting environment with productivity and joy? Can I take mycritique of all the kept me outside, with its flaws and holes, to design an environment where more different kinds of people canfit?

You have learned many lessons from your experience of hopping and jumping from old ideas to new ideas; from simple ideas to more complex ideas; from complex ideas to simplified, refined ideas; from strangeness to friendship; from fear of the other to the courage to create a space where strangers meet. Take those lessons and make new ways of engaging.

It is easier to create a cohesive weave in a community with a stated mission, which is active and alive and resonant. It is harder to weave community where no one believes in the mission and where strangeness is the status quo. In the United States of America, we have a stated mission: “Towards a more perfect union.” Some would say “Towards a more perfect union” has seen better days. And yet President Obama, cited, many times during his tenure, the importance of applying dissent and critique tomake the more perfect union.

As I am several years away from my own undergraduate experience, I asked my whiz kid researcher Daniel Rattner, now four years out of Princeton, what he thought a new graduate needs to know. He sent me a long robust email. Here’s one thing he told me:

“In terms of tying that in to Loyola’s mission, they talk about the “education of the whole person” in their mission statement. College is in a lot of ways about cultivation of your self: indulging in your interests, passions, and work. But your education in college is not just academic. It is a training in how to be curious, how to be rigorous. You need to bring that training into the world at large. You need to create your own curriculum and syllabus for the world, be your own professor.”

Be your own Professor.




I know a weaver – an African American woman who crossed the Atlantic and showed up at a weaving school in Sweden without having applied for enrollment.   Her curiosity took her that far. But the school had only twelve looms, and they were all occupied. Somehow her curiosity outweighed the practical. And they brought in a thirteenth loom for her. Through practice she refined a technique of deliberately breaking the warp thread in the middle of her weaving.

As you know, the warp is the long thread, which has the tension to hold the weft or woof threads that going over and under it. To break a warp thread is ambitious. It requires a lot of effort to re store the break. Yet, what resulted in the work of Martha Jones was a beautiful design in the resulting piece of fabric. That design became what gave her artistry its identity.

I am not suggesting that we deliberately break our metaphoric warps. I merely call for creativity in how we think of weaving, of making community of loving beyond our home, our fence, our turf, our knowledge.

Walk in the world ACTIVELY looking for the warp thread.




I want to say a few words about hospitality. And I don’t mean Marriott.

“Let us say yes to who or what turns up, before any determination, before any anticipation, before any identification, whether or not it has to do with a foreigner, an immigrant, an invited guest, or an unexpected visitor, whether or not the new arrival is the citizen of another country, a human, animal, or divine creature, a living or dead thing, male or female.”

That’s Jacques Derrida.

Become agents of hospitality.

So you see, I am not talking about Bruno Mars love which is about purchases, and objects and champagne and ice and Paris and shopping – which is cool – I love all that. But what I am talking about today is anextremist form of love.




Martin Luther King was a great lover of humankind. He wrote his Letter From a Birmingham Jail as an answer to southern white clergy identifying his non-violent actions and protests as “extremist”. Here what he said about that attack:

“…And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.”

“What kind of extremists will we be? Will we be extremists for hate, or for love?”




We need you to be extremists for love.

Agape, Amen.


April 7, 2017

Thank you, John Darnton. Thank you, Charlayne. There are many people I could thank – theaters, philanthropists, other artists – regrettably they are not here.  I will thank Stephanie Schneider from the Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue at NYU, who helped us wrangle audiences of 500 people into small groups, so we could have discussions during my last play – a form of civic engagement. And thank you to Allyson Green, Dean of the Tisch School of the Arts, because I am given enough flexibility to do my work, but to still be in the rich intellectual community of my colleagues and students.


Christians around the world are readying themselves for Easter Sunday – and the week that precedes it.

I am an Episcopalian. At my church, Grace Cathedral, on Good Friday, the church will be stripped of its color, its candles, its flowers. The priests will wear simple long black cassocks, their capes and other colors left in the closet.

The story of Jesus’s arrest and the conversation he had with Pontius Pilate found in the Gospel of John may be read. Jesus was bound and taken to Pilate.

“Pilate came out to them and said, ‘What charge do you bring [against] this man?’

They answered and said to him, ‘If he were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.’

At this, Pilate said to them, ‘Take him yourselves, and judge him according to your law.’

The Jews answered him, ‘We do not have the right to execute anyone.’

So Pilate went back into the praetorium and summoned Jesus and said to him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’

Jesus answered, ‘Do you say this on your own or have others told you about me?’

Pilate answered, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests handed you over to me. What have you done?’

Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom does not belong to this world. If my kingdom did belong to this world, my attendants [would] be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not here.’

So Pilate said to him, ‘Then you are a king?’

Jesus answered, ‘You say I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’

Pilate said to him, ‘What is truth?'”

“What is truth?”

This has perplexed great minds for a long time. Was this sarcasm?  What kind of person was Pilate?

What is truth?


I studied acting in a conservatory, and grasped some of the so-called theories for telling either the biggest lies or the biggest truths.  I did well enough that I was soon invited to teach.

On a regular basis, the entire conservatory would gather in a large room, and student actors would display scene work and brace themselves for the critique of the assembled faculty. All trainers were required to attend – acting teachers, voice teachers, yoga teachers, etc. A cluster of the acting teachers would sit together in the front row. I’d look down at my colleagues and see a long line of cowboy boots. Everybody else was a white man, except me.

And we told ourselves that we were some kind of divine enterprise: theater-making. Or foolishness, if you will. Divine foolishness. Because the fool is a truth-teller, supposedly. The value system we had was centered on truth. The truth was the truth of your self. You entered the character by bringing your psychological self, warts and all. This truth, and only this truth, would illuminate the character and make its way into the heart of an audience. It was thus that we might provide a cathartic experience and make a contribution to the betterment of mankind.

It was the YOU in Hamlet and the Hamlet in YOU that we were after. As nervous students applied their body and soul and heart and gesture to being brothers Biff and Happy from Death of a Salesman, sitting in their imagined bedrooms, or Walter Lee and Beneatha in A Raisin in the Sun, arguing in the living room of their Chicago home, or Hamlet, or Ophelia, at a certain point one of those men sitting in the front row would yell out, “You’re lying!”

The actor being accused of the lie was likely to shrink inside from humiliation, burst out into heartbroken sobs, or struggle to suppress rage, depending on their own psychology and biographical response to the deep and paternalistic voice yelling “liar” across the rehearsal hall.

I was never sold on that particular pedagogy, either as a student or a teacher. I had myself avoided being yelled at while in school – pretty much. I spent hours on the top floor of the conservatory, reading everything I could about that theory, which was born in the 19th century at a school in Moscow, fathered by a man named Konstantin Stanislavski. It was even harder for me to open my heart to this discourse because in his most famous book, the first story is about a Russian student who came to class painted in chocolate in order to play Othello. The point of this story was that you don’t have to wear chocolate to find a Negroid in Othello. But still, it was a rough start.

The one thing that I could take from that experience was the idea of “as if.”

It’s “as if” the actor is living in the circumstances of the character. I learned to do my craft by living in the limbo state of metaphor. Imagining as vividly as I could, through trips to museums photographs, newspapers, articles, magazines, documentary films, listening to music – how the humans that I sought to represent lived.

I eventually took my study to observing human beings. Observing their words, their cadences, their gestures, and now their utterances and, in particular, the sentences that they don’t complete. If you think of it, the word sentence is a sentence.

My grandfather, a black man who started a business in Baltimore with a basket of tea, had said when I was a child that if you say a word often enough it becomes you. “It becomes you.” Having been brought up in the lies that justified de facto segregation in Baltimore, a limbo town not North not South, this adage became my walking papers to become America word for word. And that’s how I’ve spent my adult life.

My acting boils down to living in the “as if.” I am not the person I seek to portray. If I am intoxicated enough by the mysterious workings of words in my mind and body, I am not myself. So, I am not the character, and I am not myself. I am a “not not,” which is another positive.

People come backstage and say things to me like, for example – I worked very hard to portray as honestly as I could, which just meant being accurate about his sounds and gestures, Lance Armstrong. And people would come backstage and say things like, “You nailed the mother fucker.” Or, more reverently, recently in my play about the school-to-prison pipeline and my hope for a new Civil Rights movement, where I portrayed Congressman John Lewis, people come backstage and say, “Oh my God, I just saw John Lewis, you nailed him.” And certainly the first famous person I ever interviewed, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, came to see me perform, flanked by both her husbands, an ex-husband and a current husband. And I think they thought I nailed you.

It has never been my goal to “nail” anyone.  I get the limitations of language; intention is what matters, and that praise is a nice salve when one is wiping off the make-up and restoring one’s self to one’s self.

I have been trying so hard to become America word for word. I go where things have fallen apart. One place I went was Los Angeles, after the riots in 1992. I did over 320 interviews. I could not find the truth. I found an assemblage of stories, and I strove to weave them into a fictitious narrative that would perhaps give the audience a feeling that something made sense – if not truth.

Among the first twenty of those interviews was Johnnie Cochran, who gave me another adage:

“There are three sides to every story – yours, mine, and the truth.”


I am happy to be here with the family of George Polk. I did not know much about Mr. Polk until I was called about this great honor. On one of the forays into my research to try to understand George Polk and why he means so much to you, a grid of images came up – lots of times images had come up as I went through Google. But this one time, there was an image, a black-and-white photo, and that photo looked a classic clown.

It would appear from popular culture that the highest praise an actor could get is an Oscar or an Emmy. But yet, when our craftsmen study, we are trained that the highest praise could be to be called a fool or a clown. Because it is the fool who would risk getting shot or killed to tell the truth that no other citizen would dare say in the presence of the king.

The photograph that I saw in that grid, as I enlarged it, looked to be of a person in baggy pants, unshaven, with some kind of white, almost clown, make-up on his face. You know, “Chaplin-esque.”

It was the corpse of George Polk – bound, gagged, shot in the back of the head.

In the bibliography of Kati Marton’s book The Polk Conspiracy there is a listing for a letter that George Polk wrote to Newsweek, dated December 6, 1947.  I will read a bit of it here:


“This is a letter that should have been written long ago. But it’s been delayed, let’s face it, by avarice, my own avarice. Further, this letter pivots on the date January 1, 1948. On that date, as you may remember in your last letter to me about part-time reporters for Newsweek, you indicated that I might be in for a raise of pay.

However, Harry, before that date, in fact upon receipt of this letter, I wish to terminate my connection with Newsweek.

Bluntly, Harry, I don’t like the job Newsweek is doing. I don’t think the book is balanced; I don’t think the book is enlightened; I don’t like the innuendoes that seem to me to have become Newsweek’s stock in trade; I don’t agree with the magazine’s editorial thinking; and most of all I resent the manner in which Newsweek labels a product as “significant,” but which I regard as often significantly distorted.

Of course, I know that a letter like this could draw charges that I’m a Communist, but I’ll stand on my past, present, and future work to refute such a possible charge. Actually, that is one of the charges I make against Newsweek—too free use of that word. Even more specifically, what I’m trying to do is to make an argument for the need for objectivity in reporting… not just telling a story with all the facts readily available; instead, I think the word requires going out and getting every available fact before even attempting to write a balanced story.”


I intend to spend much more time learning more about George Polk. He is a sniffer. He sniffed for truth. The facts of his death still live in a limbo inviting frustration, but also truth-seeking.

I have no business here, only delight at being among you, the seekers in our culture.

We need the spirit of George Polk now more than ever.  I don’t know about you, but he has certainly strengthened my resolve to wrestle with the always-unclear, never-sure truth.  Maybe it is the pursuit that matters.

Congratulations to you all, and thank you for having me.





If Notes from the Field inspired you to learn more about and/or get involved in addressing issues raised by the play please check this ever-growing list of local and national resources and organizations.


ADVOCATES FOR CHILDREN OF NEW YORK works on behalf of children who are at greatest risk for school-based discrimination and/or academic failure due to poverty, disability, race, ethnicity, immigrant or English Language Learner status, sexual orientation, gender identity, homelessness, or involvement in the foster care or juvenile justice systems.

ALLIANCE FOR QUALITY EDUCATION is a coalition mobilizing communities across the state to keep New York true to its promise of ensuring a high-quality public school education to all students regardless of zip code. Combining its legislative and policy expertise with grassroots organizing, AQE advances proven-to-work strategies that lead to student success and echoes a powerful public demand for a high-quality public school education for all of New York’s students.

CAMPAIGN FOR EDUCATIONAL EQUITY is a nonprofit research and policy center at Teachers College, Columbia University that champions the right of all children to meaningful educational opportunity and works to define and secure the full range of resources, supports, and services necessary to provide this opportunity to disadvantaged children. We believe that all children, whatever their family background, wherever they live, and whatever the current political and economic climate, are entitled to a meaningful opportunity to graduate from high school prepared for college success and/or competitive employment.

CENTER FOR ARTS EDUCATION is committed to ensuring that every child in every New York City public school has equal access to a well-rounded education of which the arts are a central component. We work to achieve this mission through school and community programs, professional development, parent engagement, and advocacy.

The DIGNITY IN SCHOOLS CAMPAIGN-NYC is a citywide coalition of students, parents, advocates, educators and lawyers calling for positive, school-wide approaches to discipline that improve the school environment, reduce conflict, and increase learning. We work to reduce suspensions and other harsh policies that violate students’ human right to education and to be treated with dignity.  Students, parents and educators have a right to participate in decision-making related to discipline policies in schools.

INSIDE SCHOOLS comprises journalists, public school parents, and public school advocates dedicated to improving schools for our own children and for every child in the city. We believe that engaged, informed parents can promote racially and economically integrated schools of the highest quality. Furthermore, we believe that excellent public education is crucial to the functioning of a democratic society. We provide authoritative independent information about New York City’s public schools.

NEW VISIONS FOR PUBLIC SCHOOLS is dedicated to ensuring that all New York City public school students, regardless of race or economic class, have access to a high-quality education that prepares them for the rigors of college and the workforce. Further, we are committed to sharing innovative tools, strategies and lessons learned in New Visions schools with others in New York and throughout the country to prove that meaningful change is achievable at scale and success is possible for every child.

NYC DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION is the largest school district in the US, serving 1.1 million students in over 1,800 schools. The department’s website offers information on the system’s curricula, rules, special programs, and all matters related to the public schools.

PAPER CITY is a documentary film and education program provided for free to help youth, educators, and advocates counteract the school-to-prison pipeline by combining City Year’s graduation pipeline model with the Help Increase the Peace Project model for peace education.

The STUDENT SAFETY COALITION works to end the New York City school-to-prison pipeline and its disproportionate impact on youth of color and youth with special needs. Made up of New York City advocacy, academic and community-based organizations, the coalition uses a coordinated set of legislative, public education and organizing strategies to achieve its goals.

TEACHERS UNITE  is an independent membership organization of public school educators in New York City collaborating with youth and parents to transform the city’s and the nation’s public schools. We resist institutions that segregate and criminalize Black and Latino/a youth, such as the school-to-prison pipeline, by organizing educators to work as allies in local and national campaigns for social and economic justice. We develop and share resources for restorative justice and school-based power-building that promote grassroots leadership in public education, and we conduct collaborative research on pressing educational issues.

URBAN YOUTH COLLABORATIVE Led by students, the Urban Youth Collaborative brings together New York City students to fight for real education reform that puts students first. Demanding a high quality education for all students, our young people struggle for social, economic, and racial justice in our schools and communities.

New York City’sYOUNG MEN’S INITIATIVE (YMI) was created as a public-private partnership to address increasing disparities among black and Latino men between the ages if 16 and 24 in education, employment, health and justice. The YMI mission is to develop and champion policies, programs and partnerships that holistically support the success of young men of color throughout NYC.

YOUTH AND STUDENT RIGHTS program of the NYCLU campaigns to protect students from overly aggressive school policing and military recruitment practices, a ground-breaking Teen Health Initiative, and other NYCLU programs transform youth into activists and advocates for their own rights and liberties. Please explore below to learn more about the NYCLU’s work on behalf of youth and students.


BIG BROTHERS/BIG SISTERS OF NYC BBBS of NYC is considered the founding agency of the nation’s youth mentoring movement. Since 1904, our mission has been to give all children in New York City who face adversity an opportunity to experience a strong, enduring professionally supported one-to-one mentoring relationship with adults that will help change their lives for the better. We partner with families, volunteers, organizations, and the community to inspire positive change in all.

BLACK GIRLS ROCK! Inc. is a non-profit youth empowerment and mentoring organization established to promote the arts for young women of color, as well as to encourage dialogue and analysis of the ways women of color are portrayed in the media. Since 2006, BLACK GIRLS ROCK! has been dedicated to the healthy development of young women and girls. BLACK GIRLS ROCK! seeks to build the self-esteem and self-worth of young women of color by changing their outlook on life, broadening their horizons, and helping them to empower themselves.

BRONX CONNECT is a faith-based, community-based program that offers alternatives to detention and incarceration that connect court-involved youth with positive resources in the local community through mentoring relationships to prevent recidivism and address youth-initiated goals in education and employment.

The CHILDREN’S DEFENSE FUND Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. CDF provides a strong, effective and independent voice for all the children of America who cannot vote, lobby or speak for themselves. We pay particular attention to the needs of poor children, children of color and those with disabilities. CDF educates the nation about the needs of children and encourages preventive investments before they get sick, drop out of school, get into trouble or suffer family breakdown.

FIERCE is a membership-based organization building the leadership and power of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) youth of color in New York City.  We develop politically conscious leaders who are invested in improving ourselves and our communities through youth-led campaigns, leadership development programs, and cultural expression through arts and media. FIERCE is dedicated to cultivating the next generation of social justice movement leaders who are dedicated to ending all forms of oppression.

FRESH YOUTH INTIATIVES, based in Washington Heights, engages youth in positive, community-building activities while guiding and supporting them through childhood and adolescence.

FRIENDS OF ISLAND ACADEMY is a non-profit organization bringing opportunity to youth leaving jail in New York City for the past 25 years. Friends anchors and supports young people newly released from jail, helping them to staying out of jail, out of harm’s way, and rebuild their lives and reclaim their futures.

The mission ofGIRLS, INC. of NYC is to advocate for and improve the lives of under-served girls aged 6 to18 in the five boroughs.  We pursue this mission by providing gender-based educational programs in the areas of math; science; health and safety; financial literacy; and multicultural appreciation.

GROUNDSWELL brings together artists, youth, and community organizations through our Scaffold Up!™ model to use art as a tool for social change, for a more just and equitable world. Our projects beautify neighborhoods, engage youth in societal and personal transformation, and give expression to ideas and perspectives that are underrepresented in the public dialogue.

KINGS AGAINST VIOLENCE INITIATIVE (KAVI) offers youth focused interventions that are school, community and hospital-based in Brooklyn, New York. Our programming provide youth with productive and safe alternatives to engaging in interpersonal violence.

MY BROTHER’S KEEPER (MBK Alliance) is a nonprofit that engages the private and social sectors to create pathways to success for boys and young men of color. MBK Alliance’s efforts are both national and local in scope, with an intense focus on opening doors to opportunities in the workforce.

THE POINT is dedicated to youth development and the cultural and economic revitalization of the Hunts Point section of the South Bronx. We work with our neighbors to celebrate the life and art of our community, an area traditionally defined solely in terms of its poverty, crime rate, poor schools and substandard housing. We believe the area’s residents, their talents and aspirations, are THE POINT’s greatest assets.

THE POSSE FOUNDATION Rooted in the belief that a small, diverse group of talented students—a Posse—carefully selected and trained, can serve as a catalyst for increased individual and community development in our increasingly multicultural society.

THE POWER WRITING PROGRAM teaches effective and practical mastery of the four language literacies, Reading, Writing, Public Speaking and Active Listening and our goal is to give the student participants a deep sense of ownership of the world around them and a deep appreciation of their personal life narrative.

PRISON TO COLLEGE PIPELINE (P2CP), an innovative educational program administered by the Prisoner Reentry Institute in partnership with Hostos Community College and provides prisoners with access to public university-level education, mentorship, and community support to increase their chances of timely graduation and employment upon release.

YOUTH MINISTRIES FOR PEACE AND JUSTICE Guided by a prophetic faith, YMPJ’s purpose is to transform both the people and the physical infrastructure of blighted South Bronx neighborhoods and change the systems that negatively impact them. Founded in 1994, the mission of Youth Ministries for Peace & Justice (YMPJ) is to rebuild the neighborhoods of Bronx River and Soundview/Bruckner in the South Bronx by preparing young people to become prophetic voices for peace and justice. We accomplish this through political education, spiritual formation, and youth and community development and organizing.


The BARD PRISON INITIATIVE creates the opportunity for incarcerated men and women to earn a Bard College degree while serving their sentences. The academic standards and workload are rigorous, based on an unusual mix of attention to developmental skills and ambitious college study. The rate of post-release employment among the program’s participants is high and recidivism is stunningly low. By challenging incarcerated men and women with a liberal education, BPI works to redefine the relationship between educational opportunity and criminal justice.

BOOKS THROUGH BARS provides book distribution to prisoners and education programs throughout the mid-Atlantic region. They also created a great online resource with contact information for other prison book programs throughout the U.S.

CENTER FOR COURT INNOVATION seeks to help create a more effective and humane justice system by designing and implementing operating programs, performing original research, and providing reformers around the world with the tools they need to launch new strategies.

CENTER FOR JUSTICE AND RECONCILIATION The Centre for Justice & Reconciliation is a program of Prison Fellowship International. Its mission is to develop and promote restorative justice in criminal justice systems around the world.

CORRECTIONAL ASSOCIATION OF NEW YORK Founded in 1844, the Correctional Association of New York (the CA) is an independent non-profit organization that advocates for a more humane and effective criminal justice system and a more just and equitable society. The CA utilizes its unique legislative mandate to expose abusive practices, educate the public and policymakers about what goes on behind prison walls, and advocate for systemic, lasting and progressive change.

FAMILIES AGAINST MANDATORY MINIMUMS is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization fighting for smart sentencing laws that protect public safety. It seeks a country where criminal sentencing is individualized, humane, and sufficient to impose fair punishment and protect public safety.

THE FORTUNE SOCIETY’s mission is to support successful reentry from incarceration and promote alternatives to incarceration, thus strengthening the fabric of our communities. We do this by believing in the power of individuals to change, building lives by service programs shaped by the needs and experience of our clients, and changing minds through education and advocacy to promote the creation of a fair, humane and truly rehabilitative correctional system.

The INNOCENCE PROJECT works to exonerate wrongfully convicted people in the U.S. and reform the justice system so that innocent people do not go to jail. Since 1992 over 250 innocent people have been exonerated through DNA testing (which is available in only a small fraction of criminal cases) including 17 who were at one time sentenced to death.

The MARSHALL PROJECT is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization that seeks to create and sustain a sense of national urgency about the U.S. criminal justice system. We achieve this through award-winning journalism, partnerships with other news outlets and public forums. In all of our work we strive to educate and enlarge the audience of people who care about the state of criminal justice.

The PEN AMERICAN CENTER PRISON WRITING PROGRAM believes in the restorative and rehabilitative power of writing, and serves hundreds of prisoners across the country. The program sponsors an annual writing contest, publishes a free handbook for prisoners, provides one-on-one mentoring to inmates whose writing shows merit or promise, conducts workshops for former inmates, and seeks to get inmates’ work to the public through literary publications and readings.

The non-profit, non-partisanPRISON POLICY INITIATIVE produces cutting edge research to expose the broader harm of mass criminalization, and then sparks advocacy campaigns to create a more just society.

The SENTENCING PROJECT Founded in 1986, The Sentencing Project works for a fair and effective U.S. criminal justice system by promoting reforms in sentencing policy, addressing unjust racial disparities and practices, and advocating for alternatives to incarceration.

The WOMEN’S PRISON ASSOCIATION, founded in 1865, is the nation’s oldest service and advocacy organization committed to helping women with criminal justice histories see new possibilities for themselves and their families. WPA offers a host of useful information and resources on issues facing these women and our families, in addition to housing, health, employment and family services and leadership and advocacy training.


BLACK LIVES MATTER – NYC Rooted in the experiences of Black people in this country who actively resist our de-humanization, #BlackLivesMatter is a call to action and a response to the virulent anti-Black racism that permeates our society.Black Lives Matter is a unique contribution that goes beyond extrajudicial killings of Black people by police and vigilantes. #BlackLivesMatter is working for a world where Black lives are no longer systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. We affirm our contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression. We have put our sweat equity and love for Black people into creating a political project–taking the hashtag off of social media and into the streets. The call for Black lives to matter is a rallying cry for ALL Black lives striving for liberation.

The EQUAL JUSTICE INITIATIVE is committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.

FUREE Families United for Racial and Economic Equality (FUREE) is a member led Brooklyn-based multiracial program of Fifth Avenue Committee (FAC) led by mostly women of color. We organize and unite low-income families to build power to fight against systems of oppression so that the work of all people is valued and all of us have the right and ability to decide and live out our own destinies. We use direct action, leadership development, community organizing and political education to win the changes our members seek. Our guiding principle is that those directly affected by the policies we are seeking to change should lead the organization because they are the true experts.

JEWS FOR RACIAL AND ECONOMIC JUSTICE was founded in 1990 to address the increase in racial and ethnic tension and economic disparity within our city. Over the past 25 years, JFREJ has become a vital resource inside the Jewish community and an important source of support for a diverse array of community-based organizations in New York.  JFREJ believes in a joyous Jewish community working in partnership with our neighbors, fighting for transformative change, an end to racism and a more just New York City.

MAKE THE ROAD BY WALKING builds the power of Latino and working class communities to achieve dignity and justice through organizing, policy innovation, transformative education, and survival services.

NAACP The mission of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is to ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate race-based discrimination.

EL PUENTE is a community human rights institution that promotes leadership for peace and justice through the engagement of members (youth and adult) in the arts, education, scientific research, wellness and environmental action. Founded in 1982 by Luis Garden Acosta, El Puente currently integrates the diverse activities and community campaigns of its Center for Arts and Culture and its Green Light District & Community Wellness Program within its four neighborhood Leadership Centers, and its nationally recognized public high school, the El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice. Organizing in North Brooklyn and beyond, El Puente remains at the forefront of community/youth learning and development issues and as such, initiates and impacts social policy both locally and nationally.

SHOWING UP FOR RACIAL JUSTICE-NYC is a chapter of a national network organizing white people for racial justice. SURJ envisions a society where we struggle together with love, for justice, human dignity, and a sustainable world.

VERA INSTITUTE OF JUSTICE We work with others who share our vision to tackle the most pressing injustices of our day—from the causes and consequences of mass incarceration, racial disparities, and the loss of public trust in law enforcement, to the unmet needs of the vulnerable, the marginalized, and those harmed by crime and violence.




by Alisa Solomon
Dramaturg, Notes from the Field

Anna Deavere Smith was stunned when she first heard the phrase “school-to-prison pipeline” a few years ago as she listened to a discussion among social justice experts in New York. She learned about five-year-olds being handcuffed for throwing tantrums, about older kids arrested for pranks. The sorts of mischief that once would have landed kids in the principal’s or guidance counselor’s office were now sending them swirling down the drain into the pipeline: into the criminal justice system. She set out to understand the plight of these children, using the unique and powerful form of documentary theater that she invented decades ago.

As she traversed the country, beginning in California and Pennsylvania, interviewing students, teachers, principals, mentors, advocates, judges, inmates, government officials, and more, the purview ofNotes from the Fieldexpanded. Smith arrived in her hometown of Baltimore to conduct more interviews on the heels of the death of Freddie Gay, one of hundreds of African American men to have died in police custody in 2015. She landed in Charleston, South Carolina after a young white man opened fire there on an African American Bible-study group at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Work on the play continued amid the terrible evens of this past July that saw the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and the slaying of five police officers in Dallas, and that revealed, even more starkly in this divisive election year, national discord over not only the best policies for addressing social problems, but even over what the problems are. The pipeline gushes on in a context of racial disparity, gun violence, and racial profiling, a context in which – in the astounding words of Justice Sonia Sotomayor – an individual can become  “not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be catalogued.”

During her research, Smith saw how the punitive aggression of policing in poor communities of color lines up with young people’s experiences in local schools. These students are also contending with environments that are not conducive to learning: They are surrounded by violence and poverty, suffer from trauma and physical and mental health challenges, lack the self-regulation that school culture requires, and are bereft of hope and a sense of purpose. Often schools must cede disciplinary procedures to police officers stationed in their buildings through federal and local initiatives, even as guidance counselors and nurses are eliminated from school staffs due to budget cuts. Despite the commitment and expertise of dedicated educators, schools can become places where students encounter the same arbitrary, over-aggressive policing they face in their communities. Activists say that students come to perceive the school system as emphasizing control and punishment over a stimulating educational experience, and to sense that they are being prepared more for prison than for lives as engaged, imaginative, productive citizens.

As the nation begins to review policies that led to the mass incarceration that has made America the country with the highest prison rate in the world, government agencies have also begun to address the school-to-prison pipeline.  The U.S. Department of Justice has investigated — and even sued—several states for violating the rights of children funneled into juvenile justice systems for minor infractions. In 2014 the U.S. Department of Justice, along with the U.S. Department of Education, published guidelines aimed at both curbing harsh, discriminatory over-punishments imposed for school discipline violations, and fostering safe, inclusive and positive learning environments while keeping students in school. “By ensuring federal civil rights protections, offering alternatives to exclusionary discipline and providing useful information to school resource officers, we can keep America’s young people safe and on the right path,” said Attorney General Eric Holder when the guidelines were released.

Here in New York, recent reforms put into place by Mayor Bill De Blasio’s administration reduced the use of suspension and arrests in response to student discipline problems, while increasing restorative justice programs and de-escalation techniques, and eliminated suspensions altogether for kindergarten through second grade.

These steps have been taken in a landscape of entrenched, intersecting problems of poverty, racial disparity, trauma, overly aggressive policing, and mass incarceration. The more she spoke to Americans across the country, the more Smith was convinced that solutions will take a new civil rights movement, one that brings healing to struggling communities as well as equality and justice.