Casey Smith ’17 is known for her work as co-founder of the Wesleyan Refugee Project (WRP), which spreads awareness about refugee issues and works with refugee aid organizations to help provide funding, tutoring, and paperwork assistance for those settling into the United States, most notably in the Hartford-New Haven metro area. Smith sat down with The Argus to discuss her work with WRP, her experience as an activist at Wes, and her freshman-year acting debut.
The Wesleyan Argus: A lot of people on campus know you in the context of your WRP work. What’s something folks might not know about you?
Casey Smith: I think one thing that people don’t know is that I’m from North Carolina. I’m from total basketball territory, from a college town. I have a lot of friends from New York and California and the places where Wesleyan people are commonly from, and I don’t have a southern accent, so I feel like people don’t really know I’m from the south. But I do feel this inherent connection to Southerners.
Another thing people might not know is that I actually came to Wesleyan because it has such an awesome Dance department—I wanted to major in dance. I sort of wanted to be more artistic. I had this whole other vision for how I’d spend my Wesleyan experience. And then I got interested in law and policy and international affairs. I think I’ve gotten—the positive term would be more focused, the negative would be more type-A—just a little more of a perfectionist, because everyone here works so hard and is so motivated, and has pushed me to be more focused.
A: Any other little-known artistic endeavors?
CS: I starred in a film thesis my freshman year. I had never acted before, and I’ve never acted since.
A: What thesis?
CS: It was Amanda Sonnenschein’s [’14]. I was playing like, a girl whose boyfriend murders someone, so that was really fun. I loved doing that, even though I haven’t been involved in film since then.
A: Is the footage anywhere?
CS: Probably, but I’m not going to comment on that.
A: On a more serious note, how did you get involved with refugee issues?
CS: I’m from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where there’s a pretty sizeable population of Karen-Burmese refugees. My sophomore year of high school I had a friend involved with tutoring refugees. We got involved with the community, and we wound up bringing in more tutors and starting a summer camp. It was kind of my first international experience, my first time meeting and learning what a refugee was and learning about global conflicts and issues.
A: How has being at Wes affected how you think about these issues?
CS: My sophomore year I was interning for Integrated Refugee Immigrant Services in New Haven. People on campus seemed like they’d be interested in getting involved, and that’s kind of what we started WRP out of, just wanting to bring more people to these agencies, wanting to build this relationship between Wesleyan and IRIS, between Wesleyan and the New Haven refugee community. People at Wes have been really motivated to get involved in this type of work, and I think that’s driven my efforts at well.
I think Wesleyan’s really unique in that everyone wants to get involved in social entrepreneurship or community engagement. There’s a ton of resources at Wesleyan for that sort of initiative, and so I definitely feel like it’s a Wesleyan-specific sort of interest. People on this campus have so many really interesting, creative talents that they’re always looking to bring to social impact work. We always get people reaching out volunteering to teach a yoga class, or host a benefit concert—they want to use their skills to raise funds or do something that would make an impact. So I do feel like that’s a Wesleyan-specific thing, that creative mindset behind a lot of those initiatives.
A: What advice would you give to students interested in getting involved in this type of activism?
CS: I think they should try and build as many relationships as possible with different organizations and groups, and even faculty on campus, and to try and think broadly about how to use the resources on this campus to do something productive. There are so many people here who want to get involved in things, who bring a lot of personal or even professional experiences to working on advocacy or organizing, so just making the most of those resources, and talking to as many people as possible, would be my biggest piece of advice.
A: I remember hearing you speak about the issues with a lot of sympathetic media narratives about refugees—could you talk a bit about that?
CS: It’s something that I think about a lot with WRP—how do we avoid sharing content on Facebook or talking about refugee issues in a way that uses these tropes. A lot of the time, film or media about refugee crises will give this one narrative, where Syrian refugees are victimized in these different ways and they’ll show these very sad images of people. I see why they’re doing that—they’re trying to raise awareness, and a lot of NGOs will do that to raise funds, but a lot of these images only show the worst thing that ever happened to a person, and I think that’s kind of problematic just because often people don’t get to tell their own stories or determine how they will be represented. One thing I’m always thinking about when looking at documentaries or media stories is, are they [the filmmakers or reporters] coming in with a narrative already in mind about who this person is, or is the subject able to tell their story the way they want to. I’m not sure if there is a right way to approach these very sensitive issues, but that’s something I’m always critical of.
A: You’re a very busy person—what do you do in your free time?
CS: I really like bands and music from North Carolina—my mother is really into local bands and music—so when I’m home I really like to go see local music with her. I’m taking Ebony Singers and that’s been really fun—not something I’m good at but really fun.
A: WesFest is upon us—do you have any advice for incoming frosh?
CS: Try and do a few activities the best you can, and not like a hundred different things. At first, I think it can be useful to get involved in a bunch of different activities, but over time narrowing in on the things you’re really invested in can be much more rewarding, and I think you can get more out of that kind of experience.
A: If pre-frosh abound, graduation must be nigh. Have your post-college plans been influenced by recent events, and might we see a resurgence of your artsy side?
CS: I’m working for a legal organization, so I doubt that my artistic side will return…
I had always planning on doing some sort of fellowship abroad, and I ended up deciding not to do that. Looking at the American political system, I feel like there’s a lot of work to be done in the realm of refugee and immigration law. The job I accepted is working on impact litigation for this organization called the International Refugee Assistance Project, which represents refugees. The work I’ll be involved with directly ensues from recent policies, and that was something I felt very invested in doing, given recent events.