Full Biography

Charisa Kiyô Smith, Esquire is a graduate of Harvard University’s undergraduate History Program (’00) and has a Juris Doctor degree from Yale Law School (’05). She is licensed to practice law in NY, NJ, and VA. Charisa is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Michael Rockefeller Fellowship, the Harvard Foundation Award for Outstanding Contributions to Race Relations, the Harvard History Essay Prize, and the Arthur Liman Public Interest Law Fellowship. Charisa Kiyô Smith conducted over one hundred hours of taped interviews with Tom Malloy to create his biography, Blending Colors From Life: Trenton's Own Watercolorist, Tom Malloy (Africa World Press / Red Sea Press, 2007). Charisa is also the author of Delinquents, Denials and Daring Reform: The Modern Juvenile Justice System and its Mental Health Treatment Capabilities (on file with author, 2004), various political writings, and numerous published poems.

Charisa has worked in juvenile justice for nearly 10 years and in youth service for 15 years. She is a Staff Attorney at Advocates for Children of NY, Inc., where she provides legal assistance to families of youth on probation; advises government officials; and also trains professionals, youth, and communities, in education advocacy, self-empowerment, and ways to create system reform. Charisa is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Children and Youth Studies Program and the Africana Studies Department at Brooklyn College, part of the City University of New York (CUNY). Charisa is the former Coordinator of the New York Task Force on Racial Disparities in the Juvenile Justice System, at the Community Justice Network for Youth of the W. Haywood Burns Institute for Juvenile Justice Fairness and Equity. Charisa seeks to empower court-involved youth, their families, concerned students, high-incarceration communities, and any others who seek to join the struggle.

Charisa challenges policy-makers and communities to eliminate racism and racial disparities, over-arrest and incarceration, the prison industrial complex, poverty, homophobia, child abuse and sexual assaults, sexism, xenophobia, ageism, and discrimination against people with disabilities.

Charisa writes frequently and is available to deliver public presentations on a variety of topics. She also conducts media work and policy advocacy.

Charisa is fluent in Spanish and enjoys calligraphy, writing, dance, travel, and singing. Charisa writes frequently and is available to deliver public presentations on a variety of topics. She also conducts media work and policy advocacy.

At an early age, Charisa was enamored with contemplative and monastic lifestyles. Her mother had studied Transcendental Meditation, and they meditated together when Charisa was a small girl. She dreamed of being a nun while attending Catholic school at Stuart Country Day School and Villa Victoria Academy, but put the notion aside when she realized she wanted to raise a family someday. Y et, attraction to a spiritual path of deep meditation and devotion to service never left Charisa. As she grew up, she daydreamed about being a monk but thought it would mean keeping distance from the secular world and social action.

While exploring several Eastern religions between 2004 and 2006, Charisa began to do guided meditation exercises by Buddhist teachers. She soon joined the Meditative Inquiry group at Ekoji Buddhist Sangha in Richmond, VA. During her time in the Meditative Inquiry group, Charisa learned the teachings of Toni Packer and the immense joy that can come from meditating and discussing teachings with a group. Some members of Ekoji's Meditative Inquiry group also belonged to the Zen group at Ekoji, and Charisa began to practice Zen, as well.

Charisa received her first Zen instruction during daisan (interview) sessions with Tai Ta Ku (Pat Phelan) from the Chapel Hill Zen Center. In the fall of 2008, Charisa found a spiritual home at the Village Zendo , a Zen Buddhist meditation center and sangha (community) in downtown New York City. In May of 2009, Charisa committed to being a formal student of Zen under the instruction of the inspiring and compassionate teacher Roshi Pat Enkyo O'Hara. In August of 2010, Charisa took Jukai (vows to live by the Buddhist Precepts, or moral code), and received the dharma name Kiyô, which means "To express what is essential." Charisa is elated to know that in her Soto Zen tradition, she can ordain as a lay priest one day, meditate intensively, study the dharma (teachings), contribute to a sangha (community), possibly teach the dharma, and still have a partner and a secular job if she chooses. Charisa sees spiritual devotion and social justice activism as one in the same. Her path towards ordination could take many, many years, but she rests securely in the notion that the path itself is both the means and the end, and neither of those limited concepts, from a Zen perspective.

Previously, Charisa Smith co-directed Yale Law School’s Legislative Advocacy Clinic, where she lobbied CT legislators on justice system issues, staffed task forces, wrote op-editorials, and conducted policy research.

With her passion for public service and Spanish fluency, Charisa Kiyô Smith, Esq. has worked for human rights organizations in Latin America. She spent six months at La Fundación Mujer-Iglesia, a woman's rights organization in Santiago, Dominican Republic. That same year, Charisa worked at Niños del Camino for six months, in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. At Niños del Camino, Charisa had a life-affirming and life-altering experience providing education and social services to young boys involved in international, commercial child sexual exploitation. During law school, Charisa also worked at El Centro de Acción Social Panameño (CEASPA), a Panamanian non-governmental organization, in the Gender and Development Project.

Charisa Kiyô Smith is a former Intern Service Coordinator of the late U.S. Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy. Senator Kennedy will remain a true force for justice in Charisa's heart. Charisa also served as a Legal Intern at the Covenant House Youth Advocacy Center in Newark, NJ, and at the Youth Law Center in Washington, D.C. (now the Center for Children's Law and Policy (CCLP)).

Charisa clerked for the Honorable F. Lee Forrester, a remarkable and devoted New Jersey Superior Court Judge. The 2007 Volunteer of the Year award was given to Charisa for her highly rewarding work empowering and educating lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning (LGBTQ) youth at the Richmond Organization for Sexual Minority Youth (ROSMY) in Richmond, VA.

Before moving to New York in the fall of 2008, Charisa Kiyô Smith was part of the Legal Aid Justice Center’s JustChildren Program through an Arthur Liman Public Interest Law Fellowship. There, she spent two years conducting re-entry advocacy for juveniles in VA and engaging in a wide array of juvenile justice reform work.

Charisa Kiyô Smith, Esq. is NJ native and a trained mediator certified by the NJ Superior Court. She recently became the President of Cooperation for a Non-Violent Future, Inc. (CNF), a 501(c)(3) Non-Profit Organization. Visit the CNF link at the top of this website to find out more.

The founder of Zen Connect, a small business, Charisa aims to continue the timeless work of other Buddhist activists throughout the ages, who apply the principles and spirit of Buddhism to social justice work, community and personal empowerment, and the written word.

Charisa's book Blending Colors From Life: Trenton’s Own Watercolorist, Tom Malloy (Africa World Press / Red Sea Press, 2007) won an award at the 2010 New York Book Festival. She is a devoted daughter of Risa Cardwell Smith and Charles H. Smith, and has a beloved extended family and many friends throughout the world.