An Interview with Smith Center Director Lisa Simms Booth
by Kyra Epstein, Commonweal Communications
Twenty-five years ago, an artist from the Washington, DC, area found herself in a tiny town in Northern California, meeting with Michael Lerner about the work he was doing in the Commonweal Cancer Help Program (CCHP). The CCHP had already been breaking ground in integrative cancer care for more than a decade. This artist, Barbara Smith Coleman, had just gone through a life-transforming cancer journey with her brother, kindling a passion to create a center that offered the healing powers of art and creativity to people facing life-threatening illness in the Washington, D.C., area. Barbara and Michael co-founded the Smith Farm Center in 1996, with Shanti Norris as its founding executive director.
Over the decades, the center became the Smith Center for Healing and the Arts, following a parallel but different path to the CCHP. Today, Smith Center is directed by Lisa Simms Booth, a dynamic cancer patient advocate whose experience has included work for the Children’s Defense Fund, the Democratic National Committee, and the Biden Cancer Initiative (founded by Joe and Dr. Jill Biden to build on the momentum of the Obama-Biden administration’s Cancer Moonshot effort).
In my conversation with Lisa, we talked about how the Smith Center and its community are weathering the pandemic, what conversations Smith Center staff and participants are having now, and what it’s like leading the Smith Center during a challenging time of pandemic and racial unrest.
What is a day at Smith Center like?
Every day of the week we offer multiple Zoom events. There are support groups, yoga, reiki, nature, art, movement, psychology, ritual, nutrition, and many more events.
We have our health and wellness programs, which are open to everyone and range from knitting, to zumba, to qigong, and many more.
We have our cancer-specific programs, retreats, support groups, young adult offerings, and individual navigation as well. Our cancer retreat programs are similar to the CCHP model, where we take a small group to a healing nature site for an immersive, integrative healing experience. We started with 7-day retreats, and we transitioned to 3-day residential retreats. We have also hosted 1-day retreats as well. Due to COVID-19, we are re-imagining retreats in a virtual format and will launch a new series later this spring.
Our goal is to be completely responsive to our community, creating what is needed. For example, a group that works with young adults with metastatic cancer came to us to use our space. Based on the success of that group and the need it generated, we started offering a group for cancer patients over 45.
And we have our art and healing programs, which are offered through the Joan Hisaoka Healing Arts Galleries, where we show four exhibits a year with a focus on local artists of color. For each exhibit we have a variety of events where we connect the exhibit to healing. We also have an artist-in-residence program where we work with musicians and artists to bring music and the arts into hospitals. We partner with hospitals in the area, bringing healing artists to lobbies and infusion centers―doing fiber arts, poetry, and music. The artists encourage patients, visitors, and staff at the hospitals to participate. One musician, Anthony, plays his violin in the infusion centers.
How have things changed for your center with the pandemic?
In the past, our schedule was limited by the space we have in our center. We might have had morning, afternoon, and evening events. We have several physical spaces. Now, with Zoom, there can be many more things going on. This has opened up our calendar, and now we are only limited by staff availability. We’re reaching people we couldn’t before. Also, we’ve started three or four Healing Circles, based on the Commonweal model, in the last year which can be volunteer-led. People need the opportunity to be together with other people who understand what they are going through.
Our artist-in-residence program of course changed and adapted to the COVID situation. While hospitals were closed to many, we created art kits to leave for people. Now we are allowed to be back on site at some centers.
While so much has changed, I would say the one thing that remains constant is the power of community and connection. While we miss being together onsite, we have been able to maintain that sense of community in the virtual world.
What conversations are happening at Smith Center right now?
Now that most people are catching up to the need to look at the whole person we’re seeing more mainstream acceptance for some of the approaches we’ve been working with for decades. We’ve focused on the mental and spiritual aspects of having an illness, and pulled back from looking for “cures” to looking at healing. We’re at a point of people finally seeing integrative healing as something that works. Smith Center has been known as the “best kept secret in DC”―but we don’t need to be a secret. We’re talking about how to serve more people than we have been.
And we’re talking about self care right now with COVID. Physical, mental, and spiritual care. And not just for those with cancer, but for everyone and for ourselves.
How have you, personally, navigated this past year? How was it to be a woman of color, leading the Smith Center staff during a year of racial unrest?
It was really heavy. I felt very strongly that if we were going to speak out, we had to be united as a staff. I wanted everyone to be aligned on what we were saying. I wrote a statement, and I asked everyone on our staff to read it and asked if they could and would stand behind the words. And they did.
For myself, singing is my go-to way to take care of myself. Music has always been balm to my soul, and, when I need comfort, I put on music and sing. I’m active in the music ministry and community outreach efforts for my church, Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopol in Washington, DC.
A 25th anniversary is a big deal! How will your community celebrate the Smith Center’s 25th year?
For our 25th anniversary, we have a number of things planned. We’re starting a “Did You Know” series, which will include events on nutrition, movement, and many more. We will also launch our 25th Anniversary Conversation Series. Our first guest will be Michael Lerner, and then next is Shanti Norris, and then others that have been part of Smith Center’s history. The last event will be someone interviewing me.
Throughout the year, we will highlight special moments in Smith Center’s history via Throwback Thursdays on social media and other platforms. Our 8th Annual Alchemical Vessels exhibition which is held through the Joan Hisaoka Healing Arts Gallery will honor the 25th Anniversary with a “Silver Linings” theme. Hundreds of artists will share their artistic interpretation of the theme for our exhibition in an original piece of art. We also hope to have a party to celebrate the anniversary onsite at Smith Center (pending COVID protocols) later in the year.
Thank you, Lisa, for the interview and happy anniversary to the Smith Center!
You can hear more from Lisa Simms Booth from Michael Lerner’s interview with her last summer on The New School’s website.