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 Choices and Consequences stressed at HCC event

“It's all about choices,” said Kemba Smith, guest speaker at the Halifax Community College event “An Evening with Kemba Smith: Good Girl, Bad Choices” on June 26. Addressing a large audience in The Centre, Smith detailed her traumatic experience after becoming involved with a man who turned out to be a drug dealer. Her goal was to make the drug culture real for those in attendance and counter how music and videos inaccurately depict it as “cool.” During the presentation, she repeatedly credited God and her parents for pulling her through the ordeal.

Smith, who is originally from Richmond, Va., grew up in a sheltered environment. After graduating from Hermitage High School, she chose to attend Hampton University. While at college, she was curios about girls who dated drug dealers, especially when she saw their hair, nails and new clothes. “In my mind, I looked at them and was a little envious and wondered what it was like.”

Desperately wanting to fit in with the crowd and dealing with insecurity and low self-esteem, she became involved with a man who was a drug dealer. Initially, everything was good, but then the abuse started. Red flags went up in her mind, but she thought she could change him.

During Smith's relationship, she endured physical, mental and emotional abuse. Under threat of physical harm to herself and her family, she began to carry money and weapons for him. Then, in 1994, she was indicted as a member of a cocaine distribution conspiracy and was charged with conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine, money laundering and making false statements to federal agents.

“Don't depend on relationships or other people to make you feel good about yourself,” advised Smith. Valuing oneself, focusing on education and having goals and dreams were themes she also stressed. “Use your mind,” she added. “The decisions you make can change your life forever… It's very easy to get caught up in this drug culture.”

“Have a vision and goal of what it is that you want to become in life…You are beautiful, you are a child of God and you have a purpose… I held on to faith and knew that God could make it work,” she added.

Smith also cautioned, “Nothing will be given to you on a silver platter. Be persistent. Don't let anyone steal that dream from you.” She urged people to learn about their history. “If I had that history, I would have made better choices.”
Although prosecutors acknowledged that she was a first-time offender with no prior record, a survivor of domestic violence and pregnant, she found herself convicted and sentenced to 24 years, of which she served six and a half in federal prison. Smith was granted executive clemency in 2000 after the NAACP Legal Defense Fund took her case.

Her story has drawn national and international attention in a crusade to reverse the trend of lengthy sentences for first-time, non-violent offenders. She is currently on a mission to educate the public about the devastating social, economic and political consequences of current drug policies. She acknowledged that some punishment is deserved, but today's drug war seems to be more of a “war on people.”

In 2002, Smith graduated from Virginia Union University and was awarded a two-year Soros Justice Postgraduate Fellowship for advocates the following year. She has completed her first year of law school and is continuing work on her non-profit foundation, the Kemba Smith Foundation, www.kembasmithfoundation.org.