An interview with Bathsheba Smithen, founder of Cage Free Voices
Bathsheba Smithen is an artist, writer, speaker, educator, and founder and CEO of Cage Free Voices, an educational entertainment company in Washington, DC, that seeks to educate youth and young adults who struggle with self-image and identity through literature, spoken word, workshops, conferences, seminars, music, and events. Here, Smithen speaks passionately about why her work means so much and how she navigated her own journey by turning pain into purpose. Smithen has written three books and released music on iTunes, continues to perform nationally, and is currently curating her one-woman show, From Divorce to Restoration (The Profoundthought Press, 2011). She does all that and more while also being a Solo Mom to her seven-year-old daughter, Zoe. Smithen is no doubt a truth teller who radiates sparks of divinity with her energy and light. Her passion is contagious, but don’t take my word for it—read on to see for yourself.
Q: Bathsheba! Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with ESME today. So, tell us about you.
A: I’m 33 years old, and I’m finally at a place where I feel like I’m in my sweet spot, where I am doing what it is that God has called me to do. Now, it took a long while to get here—and I traveled a lot of rough terrains. My company, Cage Free Voices, has been the result of my own birth pains.
Q: Tell us about those rough terrains and birth pains.
A: I was born to a Solo Mom who had nine children. I was number five, which placed me right smack-dab in the middle, and to me, the number five represents grace. I’ve definitely seen grace at work in my life! My father was in the picture, but not really in the picture. He was a married pastor, so according to societal standards, I was considered an illegitimate child. Although I definitely don’t consider myself illegitimate today, I struggled with my identity as a youth. Up until I was 18, I had to prop up my existence with a lie. Because he was married and also the pastor of the church we attended, I had to lie about not knowing who my father was. Having to make up stories in school and not participate in things such as “The Family Tree” activities, in addition to growing up in a rough, disenfranchised environment, fueled my creativity.
Q: When did you realize you were an artist?
A: I was in the sixth grade when I was introduced to the late Dr. Maya Angelou and fell in love with poetry. I wrote my first poem then and was so passionate about music that I can clearly remember standing in front of the mirror with a pretend microphone, thanking God and all my “fans” for receiving my Grammy Award! Because I was struggling so much with anger and identity issues, I needed an escape, and creativity was the perfect outlet for expression.
Q: Tell us more about your organization.
A: My company, Cage Free Voices, is an educational entertainment company that educates youth and young adults who struggle with identity and self-image, and we do this by merging academics with real-life issues, such as bullying and low self-esteem. I construct powerful learning experiences in the process. My business is deeply rooted in identity issues, using my own weaknesses as strengths. For instance, having struggled to find my own identity is now a strength because I understand that other young people struggle with the same thing. My first book, Who Cares What You Think . . . So What You Think?, was born out of this journey. I started writing it because as an educator, I was frustrated with the things that were going on in education at the time. Sometimes educators have this mindset “that we’re gonna focus on academics,” but then there’s this whole wave of leaving out the performing arts. That’s terrible! We need to include this for our students! Performing arts has always been my outlet. Writing was my way to escape my environment without actually leaving.
Our primary focus right now is getting this performing arts and production and managerial arts into school districts. My goal is to re-engage disengaged students, like those who may seem like they’re not vested or interested, or feel that curriculum isn’t relevant, but maybe they’re just not connecting to it? What’s missing from assessments is performance-based assessments. I had a group of ninth graders who read To Kill a Mockingbird, and they had to do a mock trial that was performance-based. Each student played a character from the book; some were on the defense team and others, on the prosecution team, and they had to read, analyze, and write essays. They were so into it! We also included school staff to act as jurors, and parents came in and watched because it was a performance! And it was so much fun watching them connect to this literature in a way that was engaging and entertaining. From that point forward, it really clicked for me that we can’t just focus on the responses we get from students on paper. We live in a performance-based culture. We have to begin infusing entertainment into education and engage the youth of today in a way that meets them where they are. Kids today have YouTube, social media, and access to all kinds of tech tools that we aren’t using in the classroom. My ultimate goal and very grand vision are that every young person is able to engage in a way that fits his or her learning style.
Q: Sometimes, as Solo Moms, we find it difficult to balance the demands of our work with our kids. How do you approach this?
A: So I just recently made the transition to being self-employed full time. It’s crazy trying to juggle this business, manage my own performances, all while taking care of my child. But the way I see it, I’m a mom first, before all those other roles. As much as I love teaching and love to connect with my students, I realized that I cannot spend all this time helping other people and not pour into my child. I make sure that my daughter gets what she needs, and one of the ways I do this is by taking her with me when I travel to do workshops, and I also allow her to be a part of the creative process. Recently, she sat with me in a boardroom and decided to do her Spanish homework while I was giving a presentation. She’s been with me to several meetings, and even once contributed her opinion for a creative project. She doesn’t always accompany me, but when she does, it’s so important that she knows her voice is heard. This is legacy building.
Q: What advice would you give to other Solo Moms?
A: Go for it! Go for your dreams. I started my business without any money. Don’t wait for a hero to come and rescue you from the struggle. You are stronger than the fight you are up against. You’re powerful beyond what you believe about yourself but will only come to understand the power you possess when you take a step forward. When you stand up for what you believe and for the dreams you have, your child(ren) will do the same. They need to see that you love yourself, so they can learn how to love themselves as well.
Q: Tell us about your upcoming one-woman show, From Divorce to Restoration.
A: At the age of 30, Bathsheba suffers a devastating blow and is left to deal with a nasty truth: her marriage is over. At a moment’s notice, she must find refuge for her and her four-year-old daughter while managing the shame and guilt she “feels” she must hide after having portrayed a picture-perfect life as a Christian woman. The emotional damage is too much to bear, and Bathsheba can no longer hide behind the veil of pretense. Now that the rug has been snatched from her image, she must face the truth about her situation and the real woman who lies within: a broken soul with many emotions that do not fit the world’s image of being a God-fearing woman. Through it all, she must find comfort and solace in knowing that despite her shortcomings and circumstances, God’s grace is sufficient to cover a multitude of her sins.
From Divorce to Restoration is raw, relevant, recent, and relational. It appeals to all, as we all must face the truth about ourselves: we are imperfect beings hoping to be loved by a broken world.
Former Solo Mom VersAnnette Blackman-Bosia, ESME’s Resource Guide for Domestic Violence, is a painter, published poet, speaker, and facilitator. Through her business, Soul Revival Healing Arts, she offers original paintings and products, and teaches workshops. Her first poetry collection, Butterfly Spirit, was published in 2015. VersAnnette is passionate about empowering women, eating great food, and traveling the world. She and her family currently reside near Chicago.
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