The Activist: Nicky Smith


When he was a sophomore at Northwestern, Nikolai "Nicky" Smith lived at the Rock for 40 days to raise awareness about homelessness.

This doesn't even scratch the surface of his commitment to activism.

As a freshman Smith says he did volunteer work as an almost altruistic reflex: He never really thought seriously about what he was doing, he just knew he should be doing something. Now he laments the idea of simply volunteering but not letting the work trickle into other areas of his life.

"I became a lot more aware of my complacency at Northwestern — just doing volunteer work and not seeing the larger problems," Smith says. "My volunteer ethic was just work, work, work, without a lot of critical reflection."

A social policy major in the School of Education and Social Policy and international studies major in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, Smith began his volunteer journey at Misericordia, a Chicago-based Catholic organization that supports the developmentally disabled. He spent time with residents and built strong personal relationships. He also worked at the Inspiration Café, a restaurant for the homeless on the city's North Side (see "Even Exchange," Karen Skalitzky's [WCAS91] summer 2007 Purple Prose on volunteering at the café), and has been a friend to nonagenarian Ruth Locin at the North Shore Hotel in Evanston through Senior Connections, an Evanston program that pairs older adults in the community with volunteers.

But when Smith, who was born in Germany and lived in Italy before moving to Milwaukee at age 5, traveled to Amman, Jordan, during freshman year on a grant for Arabic language study, his priorities broadened from the Evanston community to the communities of the world.

"I got really interested in international advocacy," he says. "The 2006 Lebanon War between Lebanon and Israel was going on at the time. When I got back to Northwestern, no one really talked about it."

Inspired by his Arabic tutor in Amman, a Palestinian refugee, Smith worked with fellow Northwestern students to launch Students for Justice in Palestine.

Still, Smith didn't feel satisfied just doing typical group activities on campus. "I realized that it's too much [about] just putting on speakers," he says. "People come, take notes and leave. There's no actual movement."

Since then, members of Students for Justice in Palestine have connected with Chicago-area antiwar groups and antiwar and political groups on campus to work on Palestinian advocacy.

As a sophomore Smith traveled to Gulu, Uganda, on the Northwestern Center for Global Engagement's Engage Uganda program. He lived with a host family and worked for Chaford, or Charity for Rural Development, a community-run organization that works with the rural population in northern Ugandan. He helped design and implement educational programs for displaced youth in the area. In Uganda Smith learned the importance of working directly with communities, rather than relying on external involvement and governmental programs. He also saw the limits of this type of work as larger structural problems sometimes block community work.

This summer Smith will be a Humanity in Action fellow, working with the U.S.-based international program that sponsors educational programs for students to study minority and international rights in the aftermath of World War II. The foundation started after the Holocaust to look at systemic racism.

"I get to leave June 3 and miss graduation, which is awesome," says Smith, who will be a fellow in the Netherlands. "I like moving on to other things."

In the spirit of moving on, Smith will travel to Istanbul after working in the Netherlands on a Northwestern Turkish studies grant to study Iraqi refugee service providers. Next the Udall Scholarship winner will work in New Jersey parks in late August as part of the Udall Foundation Parks in Focus program, a project designed to help low-income urban youth learn about art, science, sustainability and environmental justice.

Ultimately, Smith hopes to work for an organization that does "interconnected" work, activism that is not about a single issue but rather considers larger structural change across several issues. "When you address inequalities in education, for example," Smith says, "you also need to look at inequalities in health, wages and environmental issues."

— Elizabeth Weingarten (J10)