Growing up in Jamaica in a culture in which she remembers as a child that “women should be seen and not heard,” she now works to ensure their voices are being heard along their journey to becoming leaders.
A student Antioch University Graduate School of Leadership and Change, she is completing her PhD this year and writing her dissertation that explores the lives of women in executive leadership positions in law enforcement in the United States. Her work looks more closely at the unique factors that got these women into positions of power in this male-dominated profession.
Her previous work at the Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center involved working with law enforcement around the country. On many occasions she would often enter rooms, she said, being the only female and minority in a position of authority. If other women were in the room, their voices were minimized. She said it piqued her interest in wanting to learn more about the experiences of women in law enforcement.
“It showed me how women were being silenced,” she said. “Out of 18,000 law enforcement agencies, about 2 to 3 percent are women in executive leadership positions.”
Her experience, she explained, highlighted the missing voice of females in conversation and at the table.
Smith-Kea, one of six children, had her mother as an early role model.
“She broke all the molds,” she said, teaching her to stand up for what she believed end and always help others less fortunate.
When Smith-Kea was doing her undergraduate work at the University of the West Indies, she was very much a part of student leadership, often heading marches and protests in defense of women’s rights and against intimate partner violence.
“I wanted to give voice to women being abused on-campus,” she said. “I’ve always been interested in supporting and defending women’s rights and female equality and equity. I’ve never been one to stay within the mold of what I should be. I’ve always challenged what society dictated should happen with me as a female.”
She moved to the United States 13 years ago but was introduced to Antioch University in 2003 when she was leading an undergraduate student leaders group from the University of the West Indies on a trip to Guadalajara, Mexico for the International Leadership Association conference.
One of the Antioch students presenting that day would become her husband, Howard Kea, who is an executive coach and works as a senior human resource business partner for NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.
“He was presenting a paper on the Challenger explosion,” she said.
During that same trip she also met Laurien Alexandre, provost of Antioch’s leadership school.
At the time she was a master’s student in sociology with a concentration in social psychology at the University of the West Indies.
“I noticed similar studies in leadership,” she said.
She began her third master’s at Antioch University in leadership and change in 2014.
In the eight years prior to beginning that program, when she had first moved to the U.S., Smith-Kea felt her voice as an immigrant and as a woman was minimized.
“The Nikki who I was, was being chipped away,” she said. “I lost some of who I was. Back home (in Jamaica), it was never about race or class.”
She has never been afraid to talk, she went on. One day in her criminology class, she became an example during a discussion and she said she felt her voice got smaller.
As part of an Antioch cohort, she was part of a 50 percent minority in a class with students who looked like her and were not afraid to speak their truth in how they felt in an elite academic space.
“Antioch helped solidify the significant parts of me as a black Jamaican female,” she said. “I began to express myself again – the program forces you to do so. You have to dig deep and identify why you are where you are, and why you are who you are. In my first year of the program, I pledged to myself then I would increase my voice.”
Being an Antioch student, she added, also forced her to be a more reflective writer.
Smith-Kea wrote two op-ed pieces that were published this year giving voice to women in the criminal justice system. In both she touched upon the increased criminalization of women in California and throughout the country. She also highlighted the current system failure to acknowledge or understand women’s pathways to prison amid an alarming increase in their arrest and incarceration rates and discussed the missing voices of women in the criminal justice system and calls for women to be included in writing reforms intended to move people away from the system.
These pieces were informed by some of the earlier work she completed for her first master’s (in sociology) from the University of the West Indies in Jamaica that looked at the identity of mothers who were in many cases unwilling participants in the drug trade and now imprisoned in a foreign country away from their children.
In her current position as criminal justice manager at Arnold Ventures in Shady Side, Md., she continues on a familiar path, giving voice to those experiencing mental illness, substance abuse disorder and/or homelessness who come in contact with law enforcement. She started this work at the CSG Justice Center. She works with law enforcement agencies around the U.S. to create or enhance their police-mental health collaborations, focusing on diverting persons experiencing a behavioral health crisis away from the criminal justice system and into appropriate services.
“There’s a huge gap in resources in the United States,” said Smith-Kea. “Law enforcement are called in many cases without much training, resources or knowledge and there’s no connection to long-term services and effective treatment. There’s no robust collaborative response. We’re trying to disrupt that cycle.”
With her PhD, her hope is to continue on her current path helping the most vulnerable populations but also work toward increasing the number of women working in law enforcement and at the executive leadership level in the United States. She would eventually like to do work in Jamaica promoting female equality and equity in law enforcement and other sectors.
“I don’t ever see myself not being in this space – whatever it may be – of defending women and giving space to women, especially those stripped of their voice,” she said.