Founding Executive Director of I-CREATE YOUTH Jessica (Jess) Kim interviewed S.E Smith, a writer editor, and disability activist.
s.e. smith is a Northern California-based journalist, essayist, and editor. smith's work on disability, culture, and social attitudes has appeared in publications such as the Washington Post, Time, The Guardian, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and Vice, in addition to anthologies, most recently Body Language (Catapult, 2022). They received a National Magazine Award in 2020 for their work in Catapult.
I-CREATE YOUTH is an organization that empowers, educates, and connects disabled youth through language in its various forms, from poetry to programming. We teach creative writing workshops, host fellowship and summer research programs, and curate monthly exhibitions featuring disabled changemakers, all in an effort to connect disabled youth and communicate their stories with the world. Learn more about us at icreateyouth.com.
Jessica Kim: You’re a writer and journalist who is empowered and excited by the written word. Why is writing a form of adventure and survival?
S.E. Smith: I grew up in a house where both reading and writing were highly valued, and therefore, both became an important part of how I directly engaged with the world. For me, the thought of not doing either is unimaginable, whether I am reading a book (Violet Kupersmith's 'Build Your House Around My Body' at the moment) or interviewing people for a feature about farmworkers and heat exhaustion. Thomas Paine claimed 'the pen is mightier than the sword,' and I think he was right: Though the devastation and horror of the sword lingers, the story of same is told through the pen, and powerful writing has inspired resistance and revolution and reshaped societies. That means writing can also be used for evil, which is a heavy burden to bear.
JK: You write in many different styles, ranging from columns and personal narratives to investigative journalism. What do the different approaches and perspectives you take in writing have to offer?
SES: The decisions I make around storytelling depend on the story, audience, and what I am trying to accomplish. Sometimes I'm interested in educating about something like upcoming legislation, where a reported feature might make sense. Critical analysis or a column might be more appropriate for something like critiquing social attitudes. And while I am sparing with personal essays, they can be a powerful tool for putting readers into my shoes, and leaving them with provocative questions that encourage them to rethink the world around them.
JK: As someone who writes about disability, LGBTQIA issues, and feminism amongst other topics, why do you think it’s essential to speak up about these social issues?
SES: As a culture we are also a community, and we owe each other a duty of care. Exposing discrimination and its results in a way that humanises communities is vital to getting people to understand why action is necessary, and demonstrating what that action could look like is also important. It's also important to get people thinking about how issues affect them; nondisabled people are still affected by disablism, for example, and showing them how can make them comrades in the cause.
JK: How are disability and environmentalism intertwined?
SES: In a myriad of ways! Care for the environment is perforce care for disabled people; we are more likely to suffer the effects of climate change and least capable of mitigating them, and this runs especially true for disabled BIPOC. In one simple example, disabled people are often forced to live on the ground floor, which is more prone to flooding, so low-income disabled people with few options can get trapped into a cycle of endlessly flooded housing. We are also held to blame in individualistic approaches to the climate crisis, as though a disabled person who generates medical waste is equivalent to a pop star who constantly flies private. Environmental disasters also cause disability, as we see when polluted military installations make people sick and cause congenital disabilities. In every corner of environmental work, disability follows.
JK: Your fierce words and advocacy inspire me a lot. Who are some changemakers who inspire you?
SES: Alice Wong (her book, Year of the Tiger, is coming out soon and you should buy it) has been a guidestar for me: She does so much transformative work and does it honestly and with integrity. I also really admire Mia Mingus for her thoughtful, patient, complicated work, and Azza Altiraifi, an unapologetic firebrand who ferociously advocates for herself and others. And I respect all the people I will never know who are doing small, important things that don't get flashy headlines but are still vital: The person who delivers food to an elder, or shows up at every city council meeting to comment on the housing element, or works in solidarity with a disabled comrade on the factory floor. All of us are changemakers.
JK: Last but not least, do you have any advice for young disabled writers?
SES: Establish webs of connections not because you cynically want to network or hope it will lead to work, but because genuine friendships are vital for surviving in journalism, publishing, or anywhere else. Those contacts might help you find work, but they can also help you become a better writer, support you through difficult times, and create safe spaces to learn.