“Let Us Never Discount the Power of Words” – A Conversation with Dwight Smith
During Black History Month, we sat down with entrepreneur, philanthropist and all-around empowering word champion Dwight Smith. Together with his wife Renée, in 2015 he co-founded My Special Word, a nonprofit organization dedicated to sharing the power of words to inspire and uplift children. He’s also the co-author of ‘My Special Word’ and ‘What’s My Word?’, two books that help children discover the power of positive words to build their confidence and inspire others – now available on BookSmart.
Worldreader and My Special Word partnered to launch the My Special Word Collection, a unique series of books and activities designed to support the development of children’s emotional intelligence and spark key conversations at home and in the classroom.
Thank you so much for joining us during Black History Month. Can you tell us about your inspiration to empower children through words?
When I was a young man in college, I remember praying “Lord, what would you have me do with the blessings and the talents you gave me?” And as clear as a bell I heard the response – “Help my children. All of my children.”
My Special Word is for all children. Because it’s my belief that all children are special, and that all children deserve a special word, something they can own, live by, and be celebrated for. Yet in America, many Black children face extraordinary challenges.
I don’t tell this story often, but when I was in high school my family had to move out of the city. And I went to a new school with some 600 students. It was a rural area and some of them had never really met or interacted with a Black person. So you can imagine – I’m in a new school, and I don’t know anyone. And nobody looks like me. I thought I was bound to face discrimination and even aggression.
And even though at first I had to set boundaries and it took time and work, soon enough we all settled and made friends. And I remember that we used to sit around and talk in school, and we would say, “We’re going to love one another, and we’re not going to have the racist views that our parents had.” Because it was some of the parents of the kids I went to school with that were uncomfortable with our friendship. But the kids never were.
What do you hope will happen when we help children harness the power of words?
I strongly believe that children are our future. If you think about some of the biggest problems in our society today, too many are tied to division, racism, and hatred. But if you really think about it, you’ll realize that kids don’t have innate hatred, anger, or racism. You’re not born to be racist. You’re not born to hate.Dwight Smith
I meet many children through our My Special Word school visits. And I see how this generation of young people is excited about interacting with people who look different. You can take kids from different backgrounds, neighborhoods, and communities – Black children, Caucasian children, rich and poor, boys and girls – put them on a field and give them a soccer ball, and they’ll all have at it until some adult comes around to point out differences and discourage friendships.
Children just want to give love and receive love. They want to be listened to, and they want to listen. And I believe our children can teach their adults how to live by positive words like empathy and love and family. So we should ask ourselves – how do we protect our children’s innocence and create a positive environment for them to thrive?
What does Black History Month mean to you? How can the stories we tell help honor Black history?
When I think of Black History Month and its efforts to remember and celebrate the history and diversity of our society, it strikes me as a little odd that we have this one month when everyone comes together and focuses. I think that we should embrace and celebrate and learn about diversity every day.
And that also means being able to teach children about our history. If you start hearing there are parts of history that can’t be taught or books that must be banned, you start to worry. I worry about Black history disappearing from the education of our children and the stories we tell them. But I know that kids want to learn.
And I believe that as a society, we know how to fix many of the major issues we face today – but only if we address them together and stretch our boundaries, and sit down to have uncomfortable conversations. We need to talk with people who don’t look, walk, talk, and think like us because there’s unmatched strength in our diversity.
The impact of positive words has long been an inspiration for your work and is celebrated in writing in your books – What’s My Word? and My Special Word. How has your relationship with words evolved since co-creating these stories?
Over the years, in my work and with our first book, I learned that words are incredibly powerful and need to be respected. Yet unfortunately, we don’t always acknowledge this power.
Let us never discount the power of words. You lay a negative word out and the harm is done – you can’t always take that back. Negative, dismissing words can dehumanize others, making them feel like they’re less than a person. But positive words can build other people up and remind them of their potential.
I often wish I had a special word as a child. A word like ‘love’ or ‘team,’ a word that reminded me of the person I wanted to become, and that I could hold onto as a guide. So now, I keep these bracelets in my office that some kids gave me several years ago. They show each child’s special word. I promised those children I’d always have their words with me so I could see them and remind myself of how special they are every day.
Worldreader excites me because of its scalability. Its global focus allows impactful, powerful words to reach kids everywhere. As I often say, if we can all change the words we use, we can change the conversations we have. If we change the conversations, we can change behavior. And if we change behavior, we can change the world.
What is one word you’d like to hear and read more in 2023?
There are actually two words I hope to hear more. One is resilience. Our children have been through a pandemic, school closures, social distancing. They’ve all suffered the impact of isolation on their health and behavior.
To build their resilience, we need to focus on this second word – empathy. If we could all feel more empathy and read stories with children that can help them exercise theirs, we can change conversations and behavior in the world.
Black History Month is a great time to start. To make Black history more relevant is to have more empathy – people who aren’t Black can say “I can’t walk a mile in your shoes, but I can empathize with your history. And I can appreciate your journey and respect where you are today.” Understanding that the journey continues means making it inclusive, and why not, even fun. Sharing stories of Black history and excellence with all children is a great way to do it.
➤ Want to celebrate Black history with your child? These engaging books will get the conversation started.
➤ Interested in learning about how books can help children develop empathy and social-emotional skills? Learn about the My Special Word collection.
➤ Read Dwight Smith’s My Special Word and What’s My Word? for free on BookSmart.