How important are the arts to our community?
The arts are incredibly important to our community. Whereas most communication speaks to the mind, I believe that art speaks to our spirit. It’s why across cultures, not matter the language, socio-economic status, etc., there are art forms. The ability to create and identify with art is built into the inner part of us in a way that few other things do. Take for instance the civil rights movement; art was always a major component. For many people, it took the connection to a person’s art for them to realize the connection to their humanity. I’d say that’s rather important.
There’s a quote I heard but can’t recall the speaker, but it goes to the effect of, ‘the only person you can hate is the person whose story you don’t know.’ I’m sure I messed it up, but you get the point. The human experience is so universal that when you take the time to hear another’s story, it’s nearly impossible not to find opportunities for deep empathy. I believe that the arts are just various ways people take all of their experiences – their story – and relay it in an artistic piece – a song, dance, painting, etc.
In a world where we can’t even agree on objective facts, I believe it’s important that we continue to find creative ways to tell our stories in ways that speak to one another’s spirits rather than our minds.
Tell us about your documentary.
My documentary is entitled Letters from America’s 3rd World. It’s based on insights I gained from re-reading the journals I wrote while incarcerated. The name was inspired by the very first book I read while there, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingslover. It’s a historical fiction about a family who travels to the Congo in 1959 who finds themselves experiencing lots of misfortune. In this strange place where the language and customs where different, and danger lurked in every corner – be that alligators, or killer ants – I felt very similar to that fictional family in my transition from college to prison.
The 3rd world I reference in my documentary is right here in America, most visibly prison. Yet, beyond the very obvious ways that prison resembles the 3rd world, in my documentary I explain the invisible third world, which are the marginalized, largely ignored communities within America’s borders that operate under de-facto laws, institutions, codes of ethics, etc. These are largely black and brown communities, those battling mental health, the homeless, and the poor, to name a few. These invisible 3rd worlds are those who we see disproportionately represented in our prisons and jails – the visible 3rd World.
A combination of music video and traditional interview-style documentary, I share my journey of incarceration and the road to redemption that has been my reentry journey. I wanted to find a way to discuss things as heavy as incarceration, death, and oppression in a way that’s less heavy for me. For people in the work of criminal justice reform, it’s very difficult and heavy stuff to deal with, and the wins are few and far in between. Having personal experience of incarceration and it can be even more heavy; so, I when I decided that I wanted to use my experience to spur change I knew I wanted to do it in a way that I could still find joy in it.
So, while it starts out describing the 3rd world and how it impacts mental health and whatnot, it ends with optimism and a call to action to basically find a way to still the life of your dreams despite how hard living in the 3rd world makes it.
Tell us about your company and mission.
My company is Ship and Anchor, a social impact enterprise that offers business development, strategic communications and messaging, and general management consulting to organizations that market or serve one or more of our 4 Impact Groups: 1Current, formerly incarcerated people, 2students, 3small business enterprises, 4BIPOC (black indigenous people of color). We are in the business of inspiring organizations and individuals to transform into their best versions, yet.
We initially started solely as a consulting firm, but eventually developed a media division in 2020 with the launch of my podcast, also called Letters from America’s 3rd World. Since, media has grown to the podcast, music, and even a couple of books that are on the way. The purpose of our media division is to develop content highlighting perspectives that inspire new insights and approaches to understanding and appreciating the human experience.
What inspires you to create film and music?
I absolutely hate the overuse of the term “creative”, but I guess I’ve always been a creative. I’ve always been a storyteller for sure. I grew up an only child for most of my childhood, so I often found myself coming up with creative ways to entertain myself. Like, when I was little, I used to love cutting the grass with the riding lawn mower. I’d pretend I was driving in a movie or music video and just come up with the storyline and make up random songs. I’ve always had more imagination than I’ve had outlets to explore it. But as much as I enjoyed those things, it was simply for my pleasure rather than something I actually considered doing for a living.
Fast-forward to 2018 and I was at a critical point in my reentry journey. I’d been out for a while and had shortly finished the undergraduate degree I’d started before going in, which was a very uphill battle. I was working my dream job, working with small businesses and major corporations across the world, with paid travel and everything. But I still was struggling. I’d thought that because I’d checked off all the boxes of things I wanted to accomplish in just 4 short years, I’d overcome prison. I didn’t realize that achieving professional success wasn’t the most difficult part of the reentry journey.
Anger, anxiety, bitterness, worry, alienation were a few of the things I didn’t realize still had a hold on me, but the most profound were guilt and shame. It took an incident that almost landed me behind bars again to jar me realization that I needed to do some internal work. One of the outlets I went back to was journaling. I then connected with my cousin, who was producing music. I hopped on a few beats for exhibition and realized it was fun – particularly rapping. I enjoyed playing with the cadences, telling stories, and really just talking shit lol
What people don’t realize about the criminal legal system is that you rarely get to speak for yourself. Even if you know what you want to say and how to say it, you often have to defer to let others do it for you. And if you have co-defendants or there are victims, you’re usually advised not to speak. But what happens to expressive people like me – people born to share their perspective with the world. It becomes another cage. It’s one thing to live in a cage in prison, amongst other caged people, but to live in a cage at work, school, with friends, etc.…it’s hard.
Nonetheless, in that place of finding a safe place to express so much which I hadn’t shared with anyone expect the journals I wrote while incarcerated, I realized that music was the outlet I needed to regulate my mental health. Music therapy, if you will.
The film happened by total chance. One of my friends new that I was thinking about restarting my podcast, to share parts of my story, and shared with me an application for JUSTstories, a program to provide equipment and training to make a professional documentary film using just a cellphone. I only applied because the application looked easy, and I was looking to work on the messaging for the podcast. I was actually kind of annoyed when I got accepted because I had to commit to classes, learning new equipment, and things that seemed like a distraction from building my business. But thank God for good friends.
What would you like for people to take away from your documentary?
It’s levels to it. Most immediately, I hope it humanized people who are current or formerly incarcerated. I hope the art causes people to think differently from how they’ve always thought about us. I know that a lot of people who are responsible for someone’s death – intentionally or not – get the opportunity to talk about it for a number of reasons. I happen to be in a unique situation where I can. And, having lived with folks who could relate to that experience, I know that my remorse isn’t unique to me. So, I hope that as I attempt to speak for others who feel that kind of remorse, it initiates deep healing.
Next, I want people to think about their own 3rd Worlds, because at the most basic level of my definition, is that it’s invisible forces that determine our outcomes. Mental health is definitely one of those things. The same grief that I struggled coping with from losing my father suddenly and tragically I caused someone else to experience. That was never my intention, yet because I wasn’t mindful of that invisible 3rd world – my mental health and wellness – it impacted my life’s outcomes in ways I wouldn’t have consciously chosen. It’s the same for faith and spirituality.
Most of us believe that all humans are more than just skin and bones, that there is something on the inside that can’t be seen that comprises the REAL us. Yet so few of us have intentional, regular practices to maintain good spiritual hygiene. Even when we do, it usually pales in comparison to the attention we pay to the needs of our skin and bones. But I’ve found that we need to pay AT LEAST as much attention to our spiritual wellbeing as our natural, because that invisible [3rd] world has significant power in determining our life’s outcomes.
Last, and most importantly, I hope people take away that that was a very thoughtful, engaging, thought-provoking, creative, and overall DOPE documentary!
About Devin D. Smith
Devin D. Smith, founder and CEO of Ship and Anchor LLC, is a business consultant and strategist passionate about inclusion and working with other entrepreneurs and leaders to bring innovative ideas to life. Committed to employing his gifts and experiences to serve and build capacity in others, Devin has spent his career helping organizations align programs and operations with strategic goals. The breadth of Devin’s experience spans a variety of sectors – politics, academia, government, small diverse businesses, and multinational corporations.
Devin began his career in academia, which remains a chief passion. However, when a twist of fate landed him in prison, Smith found himself unearthing latent gifts in business and entrepreneurship. Upon returning from prison and completing his degree from North Carolina State University, Devin migrated to Washington, D.C., where he worked as a business development consultant.
However, in recent years Devin has begun incorporating his creative and artistic nature into his work. As a participant in the spring 2020 class of Mayor Muriel Bowser Presents 202Creates Residency Program, he launched the Letters from America’s 3rd World podcast; subsequently he released his documentary short, by the same name, through the Justice Arts Coalition’s JUSTstories program. Devin also serves on the board for Ally Theatre Company, which produces theater designed to engage audiences through acknowledging and confronting systemic oppression in America.
As the eldest of 5, Smith credits his faith and family for keeping him Anchored and motivated to excel despite setbacks. Overcoming adversity, trauma and prison incarceration, Devin has learned to leverage both tragic and triumphant life experiences as his superpowers. In addition to writing, he uses the mantra “what’s your anchor,” as a guide for achieving personal and professional actualization no matter where you are in life.