Kyle Smiddie ’11 was raised to believe that what a person does for, and with, others who are less fortunate is the measure of that person’s worth. It was the lesson taught by his parents – a potter and a school psychologist – on their 45-acre farm in Appalachia, surrounded by a community marked by poverty and struggle. And it was the reason for his applying to the highly-competitive U.S. Department of Justice’s Honors Program, the only way for entry-level attorneys to join the DOJ.
Learning of his acceptance, Smiddie reacted with characteristic enthusiasm and humility. “I hope to make my father proud,” he said. “He worked for civil rights during the 1960s from the outside; I hope I can only do so much from the inside.” Growing up in a community in which the poverty rate was 16% and only seven percent of the residents had a college degree, Smiddie saw early “how unfair America is to poor people.” The unmet need for advocates for the powerless such as childhood friends “whose only meal was the free lunch and whose only way out of the county was the military” was again made plain by an assignment during his senior year at Haverford College. As he tells it: “I interviewed low-income people in laundromats to study their impressions of government. Their near-unanimous view can be summed up by the response of one customer, Bob, who described the powerlessness he felt: ‘They don’t care about us. I’m just here in my rinky-dink house, with my rinky-dink car and my rinky-dink life.’” The interviews were conducted for his senior thesis, titled “Why Poor People Don’t Participate in Politics,” which won the school’s Herman M. Somer Prize for best political science thesis. After receiving his B.A., with honors, in political science, Smiddie spent two years completing service work with Haverford House, the Red Cross and AmeriCorps. He did community outreach for heating assistance programs in Philadelphia, helped Hurricane Katrina victims to rebuild their homes in New Orleans, and mentored foster kids in southeastern Ohio. Before coming to Rutgers, he also worked for the Ohio Fair Schools Campaign, organizing high school students to speak to their State representatives, and managed a candidate’s campaign for the Ohio legislature.
“In each of these experiences,” he recalls, “I felt a sense of pride in watching the people I served become empowered to do things they might not have thought were possible.” Smiddie had already decided to pursue a master’s degree in social work when some friends and family members “encouraged me to see that law school would give me more power to work for justice for people who often don’t have advocates.” In May he is scheduled to receive both a J.D. from Rutgers School of Law–Newark and a M.S.W. from the Rutgers School of Social Work. Why Rutgers? The Rutgers Law School application “asked applicants to describe hardship experiences they had had during college, like raising kids or taking care of family members, or struggling with housing or poverty. That told me,” he explains, “that Rutgers was committed to serving students who were not simply the fortunate ones. And after hearing about the Minority Student Program that supported racial minorities and poor white students, I knew this was the environment where I wanted to come to learn about justice.” At the law school Smiddie is New Jersey Developments Editor of the Rutgers Law Review and alumni liaison to the Moot Court Board. He has been awarded a New Jersey State Bar Foundation Scholarship, a Whitman Family Scholarship, and a Charles H. Revson Law Student Public Interest Fellowship. In 2009-2010, he was an Eagleton Fellow and worked in the New Jersey Office of Legislative Services as a Henry J. Raimondo Legislative Fellow. In addition to thriving academically in the joint J.D./M.S.W. program, Smiddie has been an enthusiastic participant in the Minority Student Program (MSP) and in numerous public interest activities. Of the MSP he says: “The students in this program take on an identity that makes you feel like you have a family that is sharing the difficulty of law school together.
1L year was exhausting and it was hard at times to know what we were supposed to be doing. Having close friends to bounce ideas off of made everything much easier. I have also,” he adds, “gained a perspective on what it’s like to be marginalized in America just because of the color of your skin, even if you are privileged in other ways.” As a 2L Smiddie was co-vice chair of the Public Interest Law Foundation, whose 2010 auction and other fundraising efforts enabled PILF to award grants to 11 students who accepted offers of unpaid summer public interest jobs. He also taught disadvantaged youth about the law and government as a volunteer in the Street Law program. Currently, he serves along with faculty, administrators, and alumni/ae on the board of the school’s Loan Repayment Assistant Program.
Looking back on his five completed semesters of law school, Smiddie cites hearing Equal Justice Initiative executive director Bryan Stevenson speak at the 2010 Rebellious Lawyering Conference about racial bias and representing death row inmates in the south as a particularly influential experience. “One statement that continues to ring in my ears is when he said that if we want to affect justice, we have to be willing to position ourselves in hopeless places and be a witness and say something. And because this work of saying something is going to make us ‘tired, tired, tired,’ we have to form an identity with others like us to create a community of justice seekers.” Smiddie has furthered his practical experience in meeting the needs of the underserved as a legal and social work intern with the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, where he has written memoranda on federal abstention doctrine and prisoner re-entry laws in New Jersey and conducted workshops for ex-offenders.
In his application to the DOJ’s Honors Program, Smiddie wrote: “An opportunity to work for the Civil Rights Division would fulfill a dream I have been working towards for so long.” He cited the values with which he had been raised, the impression that the deprivation of his rural community had made, and the litigator on behalf of vulnerable populations that the U.S. Department of Justice would help him become. Accepted into the program, Smiddie is “enthusiastic about the opportunity and humbled by the responsibility to represent the Justice Department.” And what aspect of his background in Appalachia, which has so clearly shaped his career goals, does he think will contribute most to his work at DOJ? “I saw the people in my hometown who are extremely hard workers. However, their skills, which had kept their families supported for years, don’t seem to work in our economy today because we don’t seem to need factory workers anymore. We don’t seem to need coal miners anymore. We don’t seem to need mill workers anymore. We have to,” he continues, “acknowledge their humanity and find ways, not to blame them for not fitting into the economy, but to make sure they are not cut off from new opportunities.”