Dr. Shanequa Smith and the Importance of Restorative Practice

By Joe Severino, for Black By God

Healing people before they reach crisis is just some of the important work done by a restorative practitioner.

Dr. Shanequa Smith has grown awareness around her profession, which focuses on the importance of internal healing in breaking the cycle of generational poverty and trauma. While many people focus their life’s work on external factors, like opening food pantries, procuring grant money or running after-school programs, Smith goes a step further to tackle the internal issues that stunt mental and emotional growth.

Dr. Shanequa Smith has lived in West Virginia for more than 20 years. In that time, the community organizer has earned degrees from Marshall University, West Virginia University and West Virginia State University, launched civic engagement initiatives, and cultivated individual and organizational relationships across the state that have spurred legislative action. Photo by Kyle Vass.

Restorative practice is also a type of preventative care that seeks to limit further hardship in a person’s life that’s rooted in childhood trauma. Smith said she learned this as an adult who returned to school and reflected on being that neglected child who lacked support. Through her studies, she learned there could be a different way to fight systemic oppression and discrimination.

“My work focuses on joy, education, and connecting people to their desired opportunities,” Smith said in an interview. “When people feel better, they’ll do better. They can sustain themselves.”

Originally from Harlem, New York, Smith has lived in West Virginia for more than 20 years now. In that time, she earned degrees from Marshall University, West Virginia University and West Virginia State University, launched civic engagement initiatives, and cultivated individual and organizational relationships across the state that have spurred legislative action.

Smith also puts in the legwork to fight these external factors. She’s worked for decades to foster civic engagement in marginalized communities that goes beyond the voting booth. She helped create Black Policy Day and the Black Policy Agenda and is the head of the West Virginia Black Voters Impact Initiative.

The Black Policy Agenda fights for four main issues: closing the racial disparity for Black families in the infant mortality rate, lowering the disparity of Black children being suspended from school, codifying the CROWN Act, and addressing nutritional food disparity in Black communities.

But it’s Smith’s consistent personal outreach that builds on her external work. She volunteers as a Girl Scout troop leader in a local housing complex, mentors children of all ages, and is a fixture behind youth-centered community events. Dr. Smith consistently hosts a series of family-friendly and informational events in public housing complexes throughout Charleston.  Through her passion, determination, and connections she has been able to facilitate events during the fall and spring seasons each year.

People know they can call Smith anytime for counseling or guidance. Maybe they missed the bus and they need an Uber to school, or they need some new shoes to work. “Building those relationships with people where they know in those intimate times that they can actually call and depend on you or get some knowledge, or wisdom, or just even a safe space,” she said. ”Which, these are things that we were supposed to have gotten in our younger years as children, but a lot of people didn’t.”

Restorative practice is meant to be transformational, not transactional, Smith said.

When her daughter graduated from Capital High School four years ago, Smith co-organized a Community Graduation Ceremony at Charleston’s Magic Island. Now in its 4th year, the celebration is intended to be educational – providing postgraduate information, financial literacy, and employment opportunities – but the main goal is to celebrate their achievement. Smith said they hoped a community-based ceremony would ensure all local graduates receive their flowers, especially if their families cannot afford it.

Smith is also an organizer behind the first The Big Black Joy Festival in Charleston. A new festival celebrating black joy for families with workshops, speakers, vendors, and a Joy Fest Block Party happening in June 2024. 

“Joy is not about a happy feeling. Joy is like validation. It gives you purpose. It’s like fuel for your soul,” Smith said. “Some people have lives where they get it all the time. Others, we have to intentionally create that space to make sure we restore what was taken from us.”

By having such close relationships with local youth, and being one of the few adults in their lives who actually ask them their opinions, Smith said she guides kids into following their internal wisdom. She asks them about what they think their purpose is, and what they believe they’re good at.

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men,” said Frederick Douglass many years ago. It’s a quote Smith and restorative practice leans on heavily.

Read more stories like this at Black By God: The West Virginian.

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