Anthony Smith is the Executive Director of Cities United – a national network focused on eliminating violence in American cities related to Black men and boys. In this episode, Anthony and Chanda talk about Anthony’s path to Cities United, the importance of inspiring our youth, and how to build an ecosystem for community safety.
Souphak Kienitz 00:02
Up next, you’ll hear the amazing story of Anthony Smith, and Anthony’s journey in becoming the executive director of Cities United. Cities United is a national network focused on helping cities work better with their communities, to create a comprehensive public safety strategy. And not only does Anthony want to keep black men and children alive, but create a space for them to grow by slowly investing in the prevention and intervention and move away from jails and detention centers. And it’s only then, Anthony believes, we can start moving other community members that know how to keep the family safe, healthy and hopeful. Enjoy the show.
Anthony Smith 00:59
So Cities United started, we actually are celebrating our 10th year anniversary, so it got started in 2011. There was a conversation, Dr. Bell from the Casey Family Programs happened to be in Philadelphia, with Mayor Nutter, who was the mayor then and they had a conversation, and Mayor Nutter was saying to Dr. Bill, I have way too many young black men dying in my in my city. I don’t have a place where I can go, to talk to other mayor’s. I’ve talked to other folks about solutions and how we change that. So from that conversation, they had a few more with their teams and build out what is now Cities United. They asked Mayor Landrieu who was the mayor of New Orleans to join them. They also brought in, Chanda, who was running the campaign for Black Girl Achievement, and then the National League of Cities and really said how do we create this space in this place where mayors and their teams can go and really understand the best strategies to reduce violence in their communities, and to create safe, healthy and hopeful community. So our theme and our tagline really is Cities United. We’re committed to create a safe, healthy and hopeful communities. Again, starting with this vision of what you want for young people, and not about what they’re going through and what’s happening in their lives now. So we want to create a space to safe, healthy and hopeful. So it ran as an initiative for about five years with all of those national partners coming together using their teams to kind of move it along. And in 2015, I came on board to build it out as the first ED, the first executive director for the organization, and has really over the last five, almost six years, taken their vision and put programmatic stuff around it and some structure around it, and a team around it, which now we’re at about a team of 17 folks. And over the last 10 years, we work with over 130 cities, and it really is, again, our goal is to come in and help cities work better with their communities to create a comprehensive public safety strategy, that we believe that will not only keep kids alive, but create space for them to grow, and for them to realize what their purpose is, and live out that purpose. And we do that in partnership with cities, because mayors in cities have convening power, but also have policy power, but also have their budget, right? They allocate the budget, so we can get them to really think about public safety in a different way. We believe that they will still invest in the prevention and intervention and not so much in law enforcement, and move away from the jails, detention centers and law enforcement and start moving to the things that you and I and other community members know that really keep our family safe, healthy and hopeful. Quality education, for affordable and safe housing, access to livable wage jobs, great transportation to maneuver through the city, right? So all of those things that we know the communities have lacked is what we’re asking mayors and their teams in the cities to invest in so that we can get a different outcome for our people.
Chanda Smith Baker 04:20
I know that Minneapolis has been part of Cities United for a while. Do you remember where we, sort of, came in? Was it under Mayor Hodges?
Anthony Smith 04:30
Yeah, it wasn’t the mayor Hodges, and it was a believe when I came on in 2015, we had already decided to come to Minneapolis for our convening. We do annual convening in 2016. So I think Mayor Hodges has been around since about 2014, is when she probably joined. So it came in under her leadership and we’ve been a partner ever since.
Chanda Smith Baker 04:52
And what are ways that you have partnered with the city? Like how does it look just like on the ground?
Anthony Smith 04:57
Absolutely. So a couple of things we’ve done, more than we’ve done, when Mayor Hodges was in the office, we came in and helped her think about her collaborative public safety. Strategy that she was putting in place. She called me one day and said, I want to, I’ve got $500,000 that I want to split between two communities, and I want to make sure that it gets to folks who want to do some upstream work over the summer that I’ve heard from my community, and they want to be a part of the public safety strategy. So we came in and helped to really build that out, and helped her figure out the strategy to get money to community partners who wanted to do the work over the summer. We spent some time when Nicole, when she was there before she went to the state, really helped her think her strategy. She was building out the violence prevention strategy before from Mayor Hodges’ office. But over the last couple of years on the mayor fry, we have been working in partnership with Sasha, and the team and really helped her think through the build out of her office, but then also the strategy and her plan that she’s going to be putting in place. So again, we you know, Minneapolis was one of the first cities with a youth violence prevention plan with you all have the blueprint out. So we believe that that needs to be rebranded updated, and really pushed back out to the community, because you all were leaders in this work for a long time, and have the potential to get back into that mode. So we come in and just serve as an advisor and help folks convene. But our main goal is to work with the city staff to help them be better prepared to work with community. The beauty about where you are now is that you all have a team of folks who were working at office. Who have really, really tight community relationships, and can maneuver, in ways, that a lot of cities can’t. But still, you know, the stress of the murder of George Floyd and other stuff as kind of made the office do other things that are part of public safety, but while still trying to focus on the task at hand.
Chanda Smith Baker 07:05
So this is why I wanted to talk to you because of everything that we’ve been going through, and then the surge of violence. Talking about compounded grief, our young people are going through it. The uncertainty of what’s happening in the world, and for those young people, particularly, or even some of the adults that really didn’t have a sense of hope before, with their conditions and what we’re witnessing right now. It feels like, you know, there needs to be some clear interventions that allow them to see a future.
Anthony Smith 07:38
Yeah. No, and that’s, you know, when you think about the work that we do in Cities United and other places and across the country, and you know, the push for us has always to make this bigger than violence prevention and make it really about that, Chanda. It’s how do we create space for the young people who, we know, are most at risk? To see what’s possible and to believe what’s possible, and to help them get to what’s possible, right? Because when we talk to folks, it’s like, it’s one thing to keep people alive, but what are you doing to help them thrive, and see a vision, right, because we’ve not changed that yet. Right? We know, to a degree, how to interrupt balance, right? You know, what the different models that are there, but we’ve not disrupted the systems that created that space. We have not figured out how do we make sure that young kids, young black kids and young brown kids can get the best education where they feel engaged and feel supported and feel like they’re supposed to be there and not pushed out, right? Because we’ve been watching the same things happen in the same communities at the same schools for decades, for centuries, right? You know, in most neighborhoods, and most communities we go into, folks can take me to the neighborhood that has experienced homicides and trauma over years and they look the same no matter where you go. They had dealt with urban renewal, they had dealt with redlining, they have dealt with disinvestment. And then they can also point to me the same schools, where kids don’t get the best outcomes, right? So until we can shift those things, it’s hard for me to believe young people are going to see themselves in the future. So why not live the best life I can now? Why not engage in things that I know that are going to make me happy now, because I don’t see myself in the future?
Chanda Smith Baker 09:39
Yeah. So as part of what you’re suggesting here is that we do have good strategies to interrupt violence. What we don’t have is hold on stopping the pipeline.
Anthony Smith 09:54
Right. Right. Yeah, we don’t have the prevention and intervention work figured out, in a way, that’s inclusive of all, right? We have not figured out how to do a lot of the prevention and intervention work. It’s mostly prevention work that would keep young people from getting into the cycle and the pipeline imbalance. And we’ve been terrible with once I decided that that’s, I’ve committed some stuff, I’ve done some wrong stuff. How do I, then, now come back in, right? We re-entry and restoration and restoring folks has been a bad process for us too, right? So I make a mistake. You want to hold it against me for the rest of my life. So I can’t get a job. I can’t get school. So there’s all these things that we, as a country, have been so punitive about, and it starts in kindergarten, when we can suspend you, and can’t it go. And we’re already telling you that, you know, your actions have made you an outsider and outside of the room, so therefore, and that continues on down the pike, right? So we just have not been able to and I don’t understand it. Well, I do understand, but we just not have been able to, are willing to make this system work for everybody.
Chanda Smith Baker 11:14
What do you understand about it? Like what?
Anthony Smith 11:17
That the powers that be, the institutional racism and the way it best works is that it benefits folks, right? We’ve built industries of not giving young black and brown kids the right opportunities, right? We’ve got detention centers, we’ve got jails, we’ve got prisons, we’ve got a whole industry, that’s waiting to take them in, because we have not figured out what’s up, we’ve not been willing to figure out what’s up front and faced this country’s racist policies that create these environments to happen, right? You know, here in Louisville, where we’re headquarters and where I live, we have been fighting our school system to change their code, to say you will stop suspending elementary aged kids. Where you will not suspend them by we will figure out another way to help get them back on track or whatever you want to call it, and they’re still school board members who want that policy to stay the same as it is, because they believe those kids deserve to be suspended from school. Then instead of trying to figure out how they got to where they are, you didn’t want to have a tool to punish them and not figure out how to help them.
Chanda Smith Baker 12:39
Right. So we have institutions that are ready to take them in and institutions that are pushing them out.
Anthony Smith 12:48
Yep, there you go. Institution that push them out, because they don’t want them there. Institution to take them in do it because they can make money off of it.
Chanda Smith Baker 12:58
Yeah, I remember reading, I think it was a report that the Children’s Defense Fund put out a while ago, and I remember this one page in the report where there’s a little kid going into a courtroom and couldn’t see over the table that was in court for something that they did in school, and it just broke my heart.
Anthony Smith 13:24
What in a sense, does that make?
Chanda Smith Baker 13:28
I mean, it seems to be making a lot of sense to a lot of people.
Anthony Smith 13:34
And again, it’s because our perception of what public safety is, our perception of what how folks need to be punished and controlled have been this way, since you know, we’ve been it, right? It’s been this ideal that some folks need to be contained and controlled, and this is how you do that. And this system continues to do the same thing, and just when you talk about the court system, when I used to work for Mayor Fisher here in Louisville, one of the things I would do, and I was just trying to get a sense of the whole system, would go over to juvenile court. It would sit and watch the cases and watch young people and their families show up, because when they had to, but hopefully still trusting in the system to do the right thing for the kids, and that never happened. Right? Are you would have parents who was like, I can’t figure out what to do with my child, I need help. And then they take them to the court system, and then it puts them in that pipeline, but really I’m just asking for help, right? And that’s the only place I know to go to get help.
Chanda Smith Baker 14:42
Yeah, so and you were working with Mayor Hodges I think that’s when we met. Because I remember the 250 that went to Cedar-Riverside and then I think it was Cedar-Riverside in the Northside.
Anthony Smith 14:56
Chanda Smith Baker 14:58
Or maybe it was Philips. Yeah, you’re right, it was Little Earthly northside. Yes, and then Nicole Archibald, who’s now working, work for Mayor Hodges, and now she works for Commissioner Harrington. And then Sasha Cotton, who is the Director of the Office of Violence Prevention. And then the blueprint was under Mayor Rybak, who I worked for now, R.T., and so we can see sort of the continuum. So, so many outstanding people that have been and then, you know, Mayor Hodges, there’s been so many outstanding people that have been part of this yet, we’re in a place where we’re not seeing sort of the collective result with a surge of violence, and you mentioned George Floyd. Like, what? What do you think is happening? Like, I mean, because there’s days, Anthony, where you just feel like, I mean, come on, like, is it gonna get better? I mean, it’s hard sometimes to see the light, and I know, and I see the light all the time, as you mentioned, Sasha has incredible relationships. Jen White has incredible relationships. I mean, there’s people within the city that are doing amazing work, and unfortunately, it’s not always highlighted to the extent it needs to be.
Anthony Smith 16:11
Yeah, so you know, a big part of this is, again, it goes back to how we invest, right? Having the blueprint, having an office, having a person, and having a vision for what is different than truly investing in it, right? So, and we, this happens across the countryside, so it’s not just in Minneapolis. This year, will be the first year, I think, Sasha and her team have truly had resources to do the work that they’ve been asked to do, right? So when we have this conversation around, creating and having wonderful, smart, great people in roles, if they don’t have the right resources to do the work, they can only do so much. So, Minneapolis has been in the forefront of this work, but has never truly been able to get the office and the folks in the community who are doing the work, the dollar that they need to be as impactful if they could be. When would you say resource are you just talking dollars or are you also talking support? I’m talking dollars and support, right? So there’s the dollars that need to happen that are very important, but there’s also a level of importance that needs to be put on this work, which is another reason why we do this work with mayors. We need mayors to be out front every day. Having a conversation about what this is, why it matters and how it can be different because their job is not to only talk to the folks who are most impacted by it, they need their business leaders, philanthropy leaders, hospital, university leaders, to know that they have a role to play. So the mayor and other elected officials job, in my opinion, is to get everybody else who don’t think that this is their issue, to make it their issue. But they also need to make sure that if they’re going to ask a Sasha or Jan or whoever to do this work, I got to get you the right resources, and I got to say to the rest of city government, you need to support this work. So Sasha comes to parks and RECs and say this is what she needs. Yeah, I need to help her figure out how to get that book, right? So that political wills got to use this leverage, to move, to remove the barriers for things to happen. And I think all of the mayor’s that we just talked about had, or saw this as an important thing and saw that as an issue that they needed to be talking about. But there was other stuff that needed to happen. There’s some stuff that needs to happen with their relationship with Metro Council. There’s some stuff that needs to happen with how they advocate at the state level for this, right. So there’s work that got to happen and all of these different places, and it’s just got to stay a focus and a priority. And one of the things that mayor’s at times and other elected officials don’t help tell the narrative of why we’re doing the work the way we’re doing it and why it’s important. We can talk about public safety and why we have a police department where we can talk about why we have offensive violence prevention, and what it means and what it’s supposed to be doing and how it’s supposed to be helpful. So I think, you know, we’ve got to get better. and elected officials got to get better at telling the story and raising the awareness of what the issue is so that people can support the offices in a different way.
Chanda Smith Baker 19:37
Yeah, and whatnot. How do you frame the argument for people that think violence is in neighborhoods that have always been violent with people that are always been violent? Like, I mean, I think that people have relegated it to a neighborhood into people without necessarily understanding the conditions, right? That’s a whole another maybe argument but how do you frame it to get people that have an investment in this issue to be invested or to think about it differently.
Anthony Smith 20:05
Yeah, there’s multiple ways, right? One is just, you know, we’re losing way too damn many of our kids and you should just care about that. Right? So there’s a moral issue that we, there’s no way in hell that you should be okay with this many young people, there’s this many people die. Every year, you are okay with that. So there’s one is that, and two, there’s economic impact, right? The the folks in Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Comptroller and other folks that really did the cost of balance and talked about what it cost us, as a country. As we’re spending way too much money on burying kids, patching them up, when they go to the hospital, sending out police. There’s just way too much money been spent on this issue that if we spent it on prevention and intervention, we will have better outcomes. So the report that the comptroller in Philadelphia put out, said to Philadelphia that if they spent $30,000, per homicide on prevention and intervention work, over five years, I think it was five years, they will see this amount of reduction in homicides. But they would also see this kind of money coming back into the community from property taxes going up, because communities are now saying for more income taxes from the people who were not losing to homicides by working. So there’s a moral case, there’s an economic case, and then they’re just a political case, because you know, if we truly want to be the cities that we say we want to be, then we’ve got to figure out how to not be, not help so many of our people down in our streets, right? And then I’m also you know, COVID was a curse and a blessing at the same time because it helped people understand how to address a public health crises that a lot of people just did not understand, right? For a long time we’ve been talking about community violence as a public health issue. People did not understand what that means, they did not understand why you need interrupters, who are they what they do, but then when they saw contract, tracers go out, and these folks who were able to go say, okay, so head COVID, who were you around? Let me go tell those folks what they need to be doing the same thing with violence interrupters. I know, Anthony, this is Anthony’s crew, let me help interrupt and get all of them in a space where they can be better, right? So I think, you know, this COVID, and pandemic has shown us, as a country, that we can move differently if we truly want to.
Chanda Smith Baker 22:35
Yeah, and the model that you just were talking about is GVI, that Group Violence Intervention where you identify someone who is in trouble, or who was a shooter, or who was likely to be a shooter. You identify them, who they’re around, you get the resources, right? You give them an opportunity, you let them know that they are not invisible, that there is, you know, there is a community here that cares about their success and their lives. And then you bring in people that understand community to support them. Is that how it generally works?
Anthony Smith 23:10
Yeah, that’s that, you know, there’s the GVI model, you know, then there’s other models, right? There’s advanced piece, there’s the turbulence models, as folks talk about, and then there’s also the hospital based intervention strategy. And you all have three of those models, I think up and running now, right?
Chanda Smith Baker 23:25
I think we do. We have Next Step.
Anthony Smith 23:28
Next Step, which is the hospital base, and then you have a turbulence on the ground, and they all do different things, right? So you think about, but yeah, to your point, is that right? We’ve got to get to people to get them resources, to help them see that there is another way, and they got to be real resources. They got to be like, it can’t be like, I got to go through a 20-week program to get to a job, right? Because nobody’s got time for that, right. And we’ve been doing all that wrong for a long time, too. Because we make poor people jumping too many damn hoops to get to the services that they need. So you know, I think, you know, when we think about it, it’s like, how do you have credible trusted messengers, who can be out in community saying to folks who might be the victim or might be the perpetrator? There’s another way, right? These folks are skilled at conflict resolution, mitigation, helping people who might need to leave the city, get out of the city, right? Because it takes all of that to get to a place where we have more peace in our communities. But the big piece is that we’ve got to truly invest differently in our neighborhoods if we want to see a different outcome.
Chanda Smith Baker 24:43
Anthony, how did you get to this work? Like what has been your route?
Anthony Smith 24:49
That’s the and I tell folks all the time, there was no way in the world that I couldn’t have written out a career plan that would have landed me here right. So more than a high school dropout status grew all the way to 12th grade but never really participated. Got to a place where like in sixth grade where I really knew school was not for me this traditional way of school. But I always knew I wanted to go to college, I always knew I was going to graduate some form or fashion. So when I was, when I dropped out, I was pushed out whatever term you want to use, I ended up going to get my GED. Then I went to college, went to the community college, ended up graduating from Northern Kentucky. But all along that way, when I was in college, my thought process was, I need to find a space where I can be helpful to young kids who were in a similar situation that I was. I thought it was a teacher, I thought that I needed to be a teacher to do that, learned quickly that teaching was not going to be for me. I had to go watch classes and watch teachers do their thing, and and they’re amazing people that just was not my thing.
Chanda Smith Baker 26:03
I did the same thing, by the way.
Anthony Smith 26:06
Like I love you all, I appreciate you all, but I couldn’t do that. So graduated college ended up working at our local child support office. But then one day just woke up and said, I need to be in a space where I can help young black kids. I started with young black boys, because you know, I’m a young black man, find their way, right? Those who have dropped out of school, who have graduated and don’t know what’s next, whatever it is. So I applied for a job that was called back then Project and Power. And I don’t know, if you remember is a part of this Yogi branch, they came out of the Department of Labor in 2000, and they put a lot of cash in some cities that said to folks, we need you all to help get disconnected you back connected, you know, opportunity used back in the day, it’s called disconnect, right? So I started that, and I started doing that as outreach, like in communities, talking to young people, getting them connected to resources, bringing them into our shop and helping them find their way. And then from there, it just continued to move right went from there to help open up another youth center. And then while I was there, some friends of mine asked me if I wanted to come and do some organizing around in some neighborhoods. We had Eddie Casey Grant and at the time was called Making connections or remember those grants. So I went and did that and served as director of organizing there. I was hoping you know, us organized family, build power and communities and help people think about education and employment. And all of a sudden we were at the mayor’s office one day, and the mayor had, we had just experienced a triple homicide in Louisville. The mayor had put together a word group they spent about six months thinking about what we need to be doing differently as a city, and he created office called safe and healthy neighborhoods and they were looking for their first director. Somebody in the office has said, some people in the office asked me if I wanted, if I was going to be applying for it or looking for work. And I applied for the job with doing an extensive interview with a lot of other people ended up being the one. And that’s, you know, did that for three years, and then Cities United came along, right? One of the first things I had to do when I worked for the mayor’s office was join Cities United, right? So it was sitting on my desk, when I got there to meditate wanted to be a part of it. I joined this thing called Cities United got really engaged in it and was like really, really like impressed with this national movement, talking about young black men and boys in the weather, they were talking about it and join the National Planning Team. I was on the planning team, when we made the announcement that we were looking for an executive director, but not apply originally, somebody called me so I applied for this job. So I did and then that’s how I ended up here. Again, it’s like I could have never have written this because most of the things that I’ve been able to do, were not there until it was time for it to be there that makes it
Chanda Smith Baker 29:03
It makes absolute sense. And I think the point I want to elevate and all of that, which is quite amazing, and I have a lot to say about how leadership looks and who the experts are in work is also not always aligned with your route to post secondary education, like recognize that it’s important, but you know, I’ve said this on the podcast before is that, you know, I got my job at Pillsbury United Communities, and I applied for one job, you know, and I didn’t have my college degree, and they were like, you know, do you mean did you mean to apply for this because this job requires it, not like, actually I did, what I want to accomplish. I can write like I can do what you want to get done. You have to decide whether or not you think I’m right, right? Like, I mean, if that’s your indication, you know, whatever. But, you know, I’m so thankful that they allowed me to come in, right that they saw the talent that I brought to the table, because I went into that organization in 2000. I became the CEO in 2011, and I was able to get my undergrad, my Masters while I was there, I’m not sure there was another environment that would have nurtured me in my mind. I don’t know if, you know, because it also allowed me to be the mom I needed to be. But I think that there’s so much that is similar in our story, including this, you know, I wasn’t in sixth grade, when I realized this go wasn’t for me. And I finished like, I was real close to the hell with it, but, and I tell people I was smart. I just didn’t appreciate always how things went down and in the school. And so can you just talk about like, how did you know that school wasn’t for you at sixth grade?
Anthony Smith 31:06
Yeah, so I appreciate all that change. I think that’s the pain, right? And when I look at leadership, not in my role, it’s not really about the papers, it’s about you and the work and can you get this done? To your point, I value education, I think it’s important, but also value work, and ethics, and you know, all that good stuff. But I think, one, I’m really not good at structure in a way that is so rigid. And then two, I did not really, truly see myself in any of the things that was happening at school, right? So I would walk into a space, see other kids who look like me, but not see us portrayed, or talked about, or gauged in a way that made me feel like this was a place that I was supposed to be, right? So when I got to a place where I could disconnect, still be in there, but disconnect enough not to get in trouble at home, except for when report cards came in. Just that the ideal of this structure, and this movement in a traditional way just didn’t work for me, right? And and it was a thing that came out of me early, and you know, my mom talks about it. Now she’s like, you know, we used to fight about it, right? She like, you know, I knew you could get good grades, because you did when I promise you stuff and when you need her stuff. But you was just so hard headed about this thing called school, that we had to get to a place where she had to get to a place, I didn’t think I had a choice in any of getting to a place that she had to let me grow and be who I was going to be and figure the world out. And having that kind of support made it easier to write to be able to say, okay, when they pulled me in, on the last day of school, I think when I was in the 12th supposed to be in the 12th grade when I had been in school for 12 years and said, you know, you hit 18 there’s no real reason for you to come back. You only have this many credits. I did not feel like it’s rejection, because I think I already felt that throughout the rest of the time. It actually felt like a relief, right? Well, I don’t have to do this shit no more, right, I can go do what I think I need to do. And I was working at the time that I was making good money. We’re gonna check, and the reason that that’s important, though, was that I was at Chucky Cheese. I had turned 21, and they had this assistant manager position open, and I wanted it. And they like you got to have a high school diploma or GED to get it, right? So I walked out, when I got my GED, it was one of the quickest things I think I ever did, right? It’s like you, back in the day, they made it harder now to get your GED. I had to go take a tape assessment, pass that and then they say come and take the test, and I passed that. And so it’s like this without me working at Chucky cheese, I don’t know how long it would it took me to get my GED, right? Because I was comfortable, but it’s ideal that I wanted more and always wanting more. Pushes me to move in that direction, and I think the thing that I take from my mom all the time is she just has such a strong work ethic. And she was always in school, right? So she’s a nurse, she’s RN, and she had always been in school my whole life, right from LPN to RN, to a BA to all of these things that she kept doing, but all along work, so I knew it was possible that I knew I was going to do, but I just had to find my own way. And I think that’s the struggle for me is that we have created these pathways that we think all kids are supposed to walk along, and instead of trying to figure out how to help those kids, and that doesn’t work for we try to force them to fit into and until they feel like they got to either drop out or we push him up. We’re so mad and we just have to kick them out,
Chanda Smith Baker 35:01
When I was at Pillsbury United Communities, we authorized charter schools. And one of the things we saw number one, we were the probably one of the most criticized authorizers in the state. Because of the performance broadly of the students, right on paper in terms of MCA, or whatever, not the norm, but what I appreciated the most about our portfolio is that we actually came in at middle and secondary Ed, which a lot of folks don’t want to take a risk on kids that have already gotten so behind. We did have some elementary schools, I get that that’s a little bit of a different case. But one of the schools that I loved, I loved them all, but I really loved High School Recording Arts. And there were other schools were really the schools go was the get the kids, like you were that it already disconnected, that maybe even dropped out earlier, that maybe had gone back and forth to like a juvenile detention center, but to go get the kids that are disengaged, bring them into school, get them engaged, and in some cases, I mean, you’re talking over age freshmen, right, 17 years old reading at second, third grade levels, and what I’m, what I think I wish, more broadly people understood is the importance of those kids getting reconnected them, right, that their inability to connect with school is not an indication of their brilliance, right, and that those norm tests, like if they’re coming in, they’re at a third grade level, and they’re advanced in two years, a year or a year, you know, or they’re making connections, and they’re no longer going to jail, and they’re getting on the right path. They may not get to a 10th grade proficiency, right. But we can get them we can get them very close, right? We could get them to a job we could get them to be healthier, and hopeful. And so this idea of these multiple pathways, because I think that sometimes it gets boiled down to, because I do think this fits in the safety right on the perception of safety, psychological safety, but that, that we have schools that either show up like cookie cutters, or we think that the alternative solutions to schooling are destroying another thing versus they’re creating opportunity for other students that don’t fit, for students that don’t fit here. Here is some options for you. It’s not this or get out, right? It’s this or, you know, this isn’t working, we have some other solutions that might work better for you.
Anthony Smith 37:40
Absolutely, and I think that’s the push and the way that we got to move away, because I think to you, and I do that, getting folks to this 10th grade level, to your point, right? I used to say when I did that work, we used to work with adult ed and all these folks like that. And I used to say to employees and other folks, there’s some kids who are not going to get, but they are going to raise a family. They are going to have, you know, and how do we make sure that they can participate? And we don’t, everything does not require these papers, and these documents and these diplomas, but all of these kids deserve an opportunity and a chance, and we got to make sure that we give it to them. And I think again, it this this country in our culture is so called up own veins bent a certain way that was hard for us to maneuver and even imagine a world different because to your point, everything is an either or either, we’re going to all go to public schools, and they’re going to be the same, or we’re going to create these models, and that’s against the public school system. When you’re what you’re saying, that is not as a both end, and we’re giving parents options on what’s the best for their kids.
Chanda Smith Baker 38:55
That’s right. I mean, I remember saying at one point, we were graduating, I think 50 to 60% of the black male students in our in our district, in our schools, right, I don’t, I should know what the I know, the graduation rate has gone up, but there was a school or their schools or whatever, right? Like there’s a dropout rate that is, you know, it’s terrible, right, like, so, but when we’re talking about how to get what’s the four year graduation rate, what’s the five year graduation rate? And I would always say like you do know, that’s only for the kids that are actually in school, right? There’s a percentage of young people that already made a decision to not show up in high school. Like in high school, they didn’t show up for ninth grade. They didn’t show up for 10th grade. They didn’t show up for 11th grade, they’re off our radar. They’re on someone else’s radar, and they’re causing some trouble in some cases in our communities, and so, you know, as part of the work you’re doing for those students that have fallen off the radar, except for in ways that we sort of, the patterns would show that we would just lock them up and get them out of our sight, out of the community until they’ve sort of get fixed, and then come back. You know, what, what strategies? Are there other strategies that we haven’t discussed that you think would be good like for, for our community to understand about what to do with this particular population of students that are not connecting with our systems?
Anthony Smith 40:26
Yeah. So, we showcase a what folks across the country are doing, and then there’s things and then strategy that we believe could work. To your point, it goes back to justice prevention models and thinking about when we see kids are disconnecting, or being disconnected, we need to move in quickly, right? We need to understand to your point, that this is not working for them, and it’s not just their fault. Some of this is on us. And how do we shift that and how do we make that deal? I’m really big on Adult Ed, I think adult education is a value as, as a bane that we need to put more value on because a lot of kids try to find their way back that way, but then there’s a lot of stigmatism on getting your GED, right? And we got to get over that right, we got to get over that as a country, and as people who have GED, we got to understand that we had to work hard just as hard to get that as a kid who got their high school diploma. So I think Adult Ed, we need to refresh it, we need to think about it differently, and we need to bring it into the fold a whole lot more. I also think that we need to be clear about how we think about community colleges and technical schools because I think there’s such a foundational place for young people. And because we have so marketed that the four year college is the way to go, a lot of our kids don’t think going to a two year college or trade school is going to make them just as successful as our value, nobody knows successful that what value does go into a four year school. So I think making sure that we have clear pathways for young people who want to go plumb be a plumber, who want to do age back who I mean, because those are jobs that we need. That’s a retiring field, and we need more people in that and gotta let young people know that there’s good money to be made there, and you can be your own boss, right? You can be an entrepreneur and those feels way more than you could by having a four year degree and going and work in the fields that we go work in. So I think how we talk about education and how we talk about what’s possible, and what the possibilities are is got to shift. But also I think you know, there’s a program that Mayor Nutter put together in Philadelphia called Philly Chord, and it helped young men and women who were turning home, get back connected and get a job and get into places. I love Youth Build. I think Youth Build is one of the best programs out there. So I think those kinds of programs just need to be more invested in have more capacity to help our young kids find their way. We got to be real clear that that’s a road to success, and that alternative pathway is not a bad thing, it’s actually a good thing for you because this is better for you. So let’s go get your GED, and let’s help you move along. And you know, I talked about the program that I started with, it’s called Project and Power the live network. One of the things that I loved about what we were doing there, and we were able to reconnect young people give them a safe space to come and work on their GED because we did it all under one roof, while also helping them find jobs, but also helping to find mentors. And we had a team of folks who really cared about each of those young kids, and then when that money goes away, because there was a grant, the city can’t figure out how to keep that up and running. So we find that to your point, bright spots, and we find hope. But we don’t fully invest in it, right? We tried for a little bit, and then we let it go, and then we wonder what happened to our kids because now they don’t have the same space to go anymore, right? We’ve not changed things. We’ve changed their conditions, but we just don’t support and fund right? So again, I just think we’ve got to invest more in alternative pathways for young folks and create those and we’re trying to help as soon as you name it, one of our jobs is to elevate and showcase what’s happening across the country and what’s possible, because I think even in US community, we talk about probably not gonna remember the name of the homeless shelter the youth homeless shelter there.
Chanda Smith Baker 44:45
The Youth Linc.
Anthony Smith 44:47
Youth Linc, who I love, they do amazing work, and they might be one of the few in the country, that’s like that, and we think because the youth population of homeless young people is rising, we need more of those, right? So we, when we came to fill it up, we took people there for they need to see it, and we need more of those right? Because we got young people who, that’s just the reality for every day and we don’t have anything formed and we’re missing the boat.
Chanda Smith Baker 45:16
Yeah. Dr. Heather there is really outstanding. One of the one of the thoughts that I had while you were talking about those pathways is a conversation that I had when I met Dr. Sharon Pierce, who runs our community college here. She’s also a trustee on the Minneapolis Foundation Board, but we had a really wonderful conversation that helped me, sort of, reframe a little bit, the options, and she’s basically saying that it’s kind of like, if you’re not good enough, smart enough able to get your high school diploma, like I’m adding this right, then you go get your GED, like I’m adding this piece. But you know, then if you’re not equipped enough and ready enough, for your four year degree, then you go get a two year degree, right? And so there’s this value chain in the options that have the kids that do choose those options to feel less than, right, the folks that chose the four year and then within the four year if you go to Harvard, and then it’s different than if you go hit right, like there’s a lot of choices in here. But what she was talking about is that there are educational pathways that looked very different, right, especially post High School, like there’s probably I mean, there’s even High School choices, right? PFCO, you know, taking college courses while you’re in high school, just doing High School, you know, going the DD route. But once you get out of it, you have choices that are actually very fluid when you become an adult, right? So you can start out with a two year and got a four year you could start to walk the four year and say I want to go back and get this, this too, you know, a certification. I want, you get a certification, now you want to go and get a business degree, like they’re just very fluid choices that help you advance on your own pathway, and all of them should be viable options. And we should know that as we go, as we mature, as we see what’s coming up in our lives, we make different choices about how we want to opt in, and I think the judgments around those choices can sometimes interfere with people choosing them.
Anthony Smith 47:29
Yeah, absolutely, and I love the way you just lay that out. Because if you we were able to say that to a young person, think about in a ninth grade, you showed me all of these pathways, without your value judgment, right, and that you are a young person when you graduated high school, you have all of these options. Right? We didn’t need to get you through this part, so that you can go take advantage of all those days, right? That’s where you get the whole, right. That’s where you get the vision, that’s what you get, oh, I can be any of these things. And I think part of it for me, when I think about pathways, it’s like I’m saying to our community colleges and other places, put some numbers on that so people can see, right? if you get this certificate, within three to five years, this is what you can be making? Why? Because money is a value for us, right? Money is a thing that we need to have to survive. So if you’re telling young people like they just started this new program here with our gas, electricity place, global gas electricity, where they got a 10 week or 10, I think it’s a 10 week, lines men training, and they’re saying to these young people that if you go do this, you can make about 65 to 100k in 10 weeks, and it’s only gonna cost you 8000 to get through it. Where there’s also money that could pay for it to get you do it. But because we don’t talk to our young people about all of this possibilities and taking risk and being open to you know, things that might seem foreign to you. We won’t have too many young black kids, that’s a block away from the college where this is happening, showing up.
Chanda Smith Baker 49:20
Yeah, look, I have this, so my 18 year old Rylan is an age back apprenticeship program right now, and my son Maleek has air conditioning went out of his house. We tried to go the traditional route. They were cutting up with this a little bit. So we called Kevin Lindsey who owns the H bag company to come and fix it. He shows up that day comes in next day, Rylan goes to just observe I don’t know why he was over the house or whatever. But at the end of the day, Kevin had invited him into an apprenticeship program, right? So I promise you this same week, he’s been picking him up two or three times a week to take him to go on jobs, so we can learn from him and get him in this program, right? And you know, we’re equipped. But I need a community that also sees who he was capable, and he needs to see what he wants to do himself. And so it’s just amazing to me how everything worked out, like it needed to be, and I, you know, and my father in law’s a lineman, and so, you know, he’s like, I need to be electrician, and I’m like, you don’t even, you know, so, but before we go, one of the questions that I do have for you, because in our work, we have this fund for safe communities that is looking to reduce violence and community. It aims to reduce community violence, but there’s also a focus on improving police, criminal justice reforms that are embedded in the same strategy. And so often time, people see them as separate community safety, and policing, and I’m wondering if you see them as separate? Or do you see them as part of the total sort of community safety model? Or how do you see those two issues?
Anthony Smith 51:15
I think they’re because of where we are, and the nature of where we are. Now, if you are asking me to develop a public safety structure and model without having anything that I have to work with, like, if you just came to me today, and say, hey, we’d never had a public safety strategy ever in the country or in the world? Would police be a part of that? I don’t believe so, and I don’t think so. The way that we see policing today, they would not be, but because police are here, you’ve got to figure out what the structure is and what their main task is, in creating public safety in our communities and in the country that we live in. So I think it’s a both end to your point that you got to be able to and I think what we’re trying to do is to say there is an alternative. Let’s help build it out, let’s make it work. So that we can get to a place where when we think about public safety is a broad spectrum, and police have their role to play, community have their role to play, and all other sectors have their role to play. But I think because of where we are today, as a country, it’s almost impossible to do this work without engaging police, and having them at the table and having them a part of the conversation. Because we’re education reform and police reform, we’ve been trying that for decades, and it does not seem to get us where we need to be.
Chanda Smith Baker 52:44
So I just had a moment in my head, which was, we talked about alternatives to policing, but really, I think what we’re talking about is an ecosystem that comes together to improve community safety, right? because some of like having proper mental health services, having schools that we’re, having all these things are part of an ecosystem, right, that allows for people to move through life in a way that is more equal, safer, respectful, inclusive, you know, all of these things, right. And so even the alternative is like this, or this, versus having things work together towards the same end.
Anthony Smith 53:33
Yeah, and I think part of that, though, too, has been real clear on what the function of policing is, and getting them to understand that they need to move differently, they need to be better, they need to be more just they need to do all of those things, so that folks can trust them to be a part of this system. Like right now, in black and brown communities, the trust of police is so lacking, that it’s hard for folks to even have a public safety, conversation and inclusion. And they’re so caught up in their stance of what it is they do and who they are. This is as a collective as individuals and all of these things that see we’re different, but as a whole. Police believe that that’s their main responsibility, right? That’s what they do, and they believe the other stuff don’t work. So it’s like, we’ve got to get to a place where we can to coexist, but coexist in a way that we all have the same view of what public safety is and how we get there. Right? Because the way I think about it, the more we invest in prevention and intervention work, the more we invest in all the things that we talked about, the less need we would have for police, right? So then what do they do and who do they become? Do we still put aside all of the money that we put aside every year for policing, if they’re not being used as much? Right? So there’s this whole idea of how do we shift our mindsets around what public safety is, I think will help us get to a new place.
Chanda Smith Baker 55:05
Yeah, I mean, I think any sort of change man is but will say though it will cost more money before it costs less money. And I think people want to call it cost less money before we have a fault for infrastructure build out, right? You know, what a complicated, a complicated time we’re living in. By the way, I was really looking forward to coming to the annual meeting that you pulled together in Louisville, because I needed to go see that Muhammad Ali. COVID here out of pocket.
Anthony Smith 55:39
We just had to schedule a meeting here, but we can do some work together and do it at the Ali Center.
Chanda Smith Baker 55:44
Can we please do that. I’m like, I just knew I was gonna be there. I told my daddy and everything and oh, man. So do you have, are you guys are gonna go back to the sort of the annual gatherings?
Anthony Smith 55:57
Yeah, so we’re looking at doing it this year, we’re gonna be doing a partnership with Denver. There’s going to be kind of a hybrid, the team the board, some of our young leaders will be on the ground, but the rest of it to be virtual, depending on what this new Delta very ado and other stuff. So the goal now is to kind of do a hybrid model, and hopefully in 2022, we’ll be able to pull everybody back so that we can come back together, but we’re waiting to see what this COVID does and how the world respond, and we can get more people to get vaccinated and get their shots.
Chanda Smith Baker 56:33
Yeah, I got a couple in my, home team that is, you know, my body, my right. So I’m like, Okay, okay.
Anthony Smith 56:44
My two older boys are that way and my younger son looking at them both like they’re crazy.
Chanda Smith Baker 56:47
I know, I mean, I’m doing my best. If folks want to learn more about your work, where would they go find more information about Cities United.
Anthony Smith 57:00
They can check us out online, citiesunited.org, social media. We’re on platforms, I think @citiesunited and they can check us out on all three of those. I think we’re on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. So they can check us out on all those platforms, and they can always email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions they have, as well, but you know, we’re always looking forward to catching up with folks.
Chanda Smith Baker 57:26
You do and as we wrap, I just want to make a plug for people that are interested in this work to actually go and check out the website and the social platforms. I know, you know, me attending that annual meeting was a launch of our advisory committee for our fund for safe communities. I invited the young men that went on that trip with us, from the city, including what my summer league to become advisors on that committee and their voices have spoken so loudly and their expertise and knowledge on this, but being in that room focused on how do we reduce violence and improve safeties for brown and black communities with something that is very rare, to be part of a community of people that are is reflective, that can talk about the problem of being completely respective, respectful of the community and the people was, was it just like my whole heart, on a topic that is really, really heavy, right to be part of a community that’s focused on making sure that we all survive and thrive is quite remarkable. So thank you for your leadership, and I appreciate you being in this conversation with me.
Anthony Smith 58:48
Thank you, I appreciate you. We really enjoy our partnership not only with Minneapolis but also with you and the amazing people who we got to meet in Minneapolis. So really appreciate this.
Souphak Kienitz 59:02
And that’s Anthony Smith from Cities United and our host Chanda Smith Baker. If you’re interested in sponsoring this podcast, or looking for ways to do more, please contact me. You can find my information on our website at minneapolisfoundation.org. Thank you to Sarah Gillund for making our artwork and copy for this episode. And thank you to Darlynn Benjamin for coordinating and making this conversation happen. This is Souphak Kienitz from the Minneapolis Foundation. Thanks for listening and I’ll talk to you soon.Close Transcript -
Anthony D. Smith is the Executive Director of Cities United – a national mayor lead initiative focused on eliminating the violence in American cities related to Black men and boys. Before joining Cities United, Anthony led the Office for Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods for Mayor Greg Fischer and the City of Louisville.
Anthony earned his bachelor’s degree from Northern Kentucky University. Throughout his professional career, he has made a priority of creating positive outcomes for youth and cultivating up-and-coming leaders.
Anthony was born, raised, and still lives in Louisville, Kentucky with his wife and family.