• Jerrid P. Kalakay

Episode 10 - Disability Rights Activism with Crystal Smith

Mums the word this week on Teaching Change as the hosts' interview Professor of English, disability rights advocate, and secret-keeper extraordinaire Crystal Smith.  For Crystal, Valencia College was supposed to be a temporary detour along her journey through life. However, Valencia quickly became a destination when Crystal connected with her students, her peers, and the campus culture.

Crystal plays a unique role in the college’s social entrepreneurship program. She, along with Teaching Change host Jerrid Kalakay, are participants in Valencia’s First 30 course offerings where faculty team-teach a group of students using a common theme. Last year’s theme was social entrepreneurship. Crystal felt this was the perfect marriage of the social justice ideas explored in her composition class with the economics and sustainability inherent to social entrepreneurship.

Crystal is also an active member of Valencia’s Peace and Justice Institute. She has taught workshops for Peace and Justice week. One of these workshops focused on the power of love letters to transform and heal. Participants wrote letters of encouragement to strangers and penned the missives on a designated tree. This past year’s theme was letters to the world where students expressed thoughts on news events such as the Syrian refugees and the Pulse tragedy.   

For Crystal, teaching is a deeply personal experience for both her and her students. “The curriculum comes in the room when the students do,” says Crystal. The first essay prompt she gives her students is “tell a story only you can tell.” The intimate nature of the responding narratives often moves Crystal to tears as she reads stories of abuse, hunger, and trauma. These papers are deeply private and Crystal holds them in confidence as the ultimate secret keeper. This assignment builds a relationship with her students and paves the way for community building in the classroom.

Crystal identifies herself as both learning disabled and physically impaired, both of which she readily shares with her students. For Crystal, the disclosure is empowering and models self-acceptance to those who may face challenges in their own lives. The first time Crystal articulated living with a disability was through a college essay when she applied to Stetson University. This proved to be a major stepping stone to the advocacy she practices today. Crystal encourages everyone to embrace their personal power and to claim their personal identity as she did all those years ago.

Crystal Smith’s Biography

Crystal Smith is a professor of English with a bachelors and a masters degrees in English as well as an additional bachelors degree in American Studies focused on American sub-cultures.  In 2005, her work in American Studies and disability awareness campus activism at Stetson University led to her winning multiple awards, including the Dian Christensen Award for Community Activism. Her dissertation in language and literature and continued scholastic interest was on the role of disability, embodiment, and femininity in the literature of Flannery O’Connor. As a professor, Crystal’s interests include social entrepreneurship, and she was on Valencia College’s first team of faculty that developed social entrepreneurship into a meta-major pathway. With regard to disability activism at Valencia College, in 2016, Crystal served on Valencia College’s Accessibility Advisory Group, which is a sub-committee of Valencia College’s Faculty Association.

Links For more information on topics discussed during the show, see the list below.

First 30

The World Needs More Love Letters

Peace and Justice Programs

#peace #justice #loveletters #disabilityrights #activism

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