Coffee Break: Ryan Smith on James Baldwin, His Mother, and Why Black Minds Matter

Jul 20, 2016 12:00:00 AM


Ryan Smith is the executive director of Education Trust-West, in Oakland, California, and part of a crop of young education reform leaders vocally pushing for equity. His drive to turn the page for low-income students of color is not only professional, but personal. In a conversation with Ryan, he shares why his mother is the reason he pursued a career in education, the harsh realities of being a Black student, and the importance of leading a “policy think tank for the people.” Do you drink coffee or tea? What kind? I drink coffee. I’m from Los Angeles, so I tend to drink iced coffee, black, large, in the morning. When I moved to the Bay Area, I realized that the weather actually fluctuates from a perfect 76 degrees every day, but I’ve gotten in the habit over the last five years or so drinking iced coffee, so it’s the only way I drink my coffee. What are your hobbies? I’m an avid reader; I love to read literature, particularly from the civil rights era, so I’m a big James Baldwin, Bayard Rustin, and Martin Luther King, Jr. fan. I try to consume as much as I possibly can from those activists and scholars. I also enjoy volunteering. The great thing about the Bay Area is there are a number of amazing places to volunteer, and I’ve had the opportunity to give back. I’m also a fan of James Baldwin. What work of his do you particularly like? As a kid, my mother for some reason had the entire James Baldwin collection and I was an only child, so I read every book by the age of 14—”Giovanni’s Room,” “Just Above My Head,” “If Beale Street Could Talk,” and “Another Country.” I love his fiction, but the one that resonates with me, particularly in this role, is The Fire Next Time. It’s hard not to read that and not want to start marching on the streets and say we all have a stake in the future of our country. You were raised by a single mother and she moved you to Culver City so you could go to a better school. Describe your childhood. My mother was phenomenal. She realized that it was a challenge to raise a Black male. And truthfully, as a single mom, she was scared to death over what my future held. Many people look for where they’ll permanently stay based on a number of factors. She did research based on where opportunities laid for young, Black men to not only graduate from high school, but go on to college. Through her qualitative research, Culver City seemed like a great place for that, so she spent her life savings to move there so I could have access to high-quality schools. The reason why I sit in this chair is because of my mother’s sacrifice. I’m also really angry about that. I don’t believe anyone should have to spend their entire life savings to move from one community to another to have access to high-quality public schools. The right to a quality education is part of the backbone of our democracy. How much does that experience fuel your work? The experience of my mother’s sacrifice as well as going to University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) post- Proposition 209 where, in a class of 4,000 freshmen, I was one of 27 Black men to enter the university on academics alone, cemented my belief that the way I could give back is to help fix the system. Most of the work I’ve done has been connected to education, whether it was working as a parent organizer, working with (former L.A.) Mayor (Antonio) Villaraigosa for the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, building the Parent College, to my work at the United Way of Greater Los Angeles about how we create a coalition that supports student success, to EdTrust-West, where we’re thinking about how we do our work so that we’re the policy think tank for the people, providing the type of information necessary to close achievement and opportunity gaps. You were one of 27 out of 4,000 freshmen?! It was absolutely shocking. Although I’m happy that the numbers rebounded this year, when I went to school, the number of Black students was lower than in 1967—and this was fall of 1999. We could have easily worn T-shirts that said, “Black male students are an endangered species.” You got a really good sense that although this was a diversity issue within California, it was also a pipeline issue. We had to ensure that we were giving all students the type of education necessary for them to not only get into a UCLA or any other university, but also graduate. You said earlier that EdTrust-West is a “policy think tank for the people.” What does that mean to you? When we think about the research and policy space, we often create content in vacuums. The same 500 people read the same 500 reports, while the masses are left wondering. We like to think of ourselves as a go-between—we are doing the state advocacy and policy work, and we are creating research that we think is important and accessible. We came out with the Black Minds Matter report, which was a snapshot of how California’s African-American students were doing. That report came out last year with phenomenal results—not only have we had to reprint the report almost seven times over because of the demand, but we saw 1,000 Black students go to a state board of education meeting wearing “Young, Gifted, and Black” shirts and saying accountability for their success matters. Do you have children? What do you think of the argument that people without classroom experience or children shouldn’t weigh in on education? I don’t! I like to say EdTrust-West is my baby. As someone who’s done parent organizing, I understand the importance of parent voice. But I will say this: I am the son of a single mom who fought for my success. I have seen the difference that my having access to an AP course has made in my life compared to other Black and brown children who were not chosen to be on the AP track. I saw the difference of being accepted to UCLA compared to students who didn’t even know how to apply to college. I saw after I got out of college, the importance of education in having a successful and rewarding career. We need everyone standing together and saying, We can do something for our children now, with a sense of urgency.

Caroline Bermudez

Caroline Bermudez is chief storyteller at the Charter School Growth Fund and former senior writer at Education Post. Bermudez has been a journalist for almost 10 years. She was staff editor at The Chronicle of Philanthropy, covering the nonprofit world, with a particular focus on foundations and high net-worth giving. She has interviewed prominent business, political and philanthropic leaders including Colin Powell, Ronald Perelman, Carl Icahn, Patty Stonesifer and Eli Broad. She also assisted with The Chronicle's Philanthropy 50, its annual ranking of America's most generous donors. A proud graduate of Chicago Public Schools, she has a B.A. in history from Swarthmore College.

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