Shannon Smith, 28
Through and through, Shannon Smith, 28, is a son of Detroit. A product of the Detroit public schools, he's running for Detroit Public Schools Community District Board to bring opportunity and a brighter future to his city.
What is the best advice you received before you ran for office?
To whom much is given, much is required. That’s something that I always remind myself of. Public office is the great responsibility so do the due diligence and take it seriously. Obviously, we are millennials, but every step of the way in this campaign we’ve taken it seriously and we want to connect with those who are really concerned about our education system.
How do you stay informed, not with national news but with what's going on locally in Detroit? How do you keep grounded with what the issues are in the community?
When I was working on city council, I was a community advocate. I've really learned the value of block clubs and community associations. So from just a real grassroots level, I know how to tap into those networks through social media, through local events, but also all local media. I also read six different news sources a day locally to keep up to date and informed.
Tell me one interesting fact about yourself that has nothing to do with your politics?
I'm fluent in American Sign Language because my mother is deaf. I grew up knowing American Sign Language, and I'm very close to the deaf community here in the Metro Detroit area. It’s a very important part of my life. It’s really one of the reasons why I'm an advocate for accessibility for all people. My mom was one of the early advocates for me.
Many people are unaware of how local positions affect them. In your own words, what position are you running for and how does it affect your community?
I'm running for the Detroit Public School Board. It's the legislative body over the largest public education system in the state of Michigan. It has an $800 million dollar budget that really decides the educational outcomes in the state of Michigan. Our state averages have been really on the decline over the past two decades, and the city of Detroit has been on the decline with it.
So this is important not only to Detroit, but it's also important to our state. As the national narrative around Detroit really starts to go in a positive direction, we have to understand that our education system needs to also sustain this growth. If we don't focus on our education system, we won't be able to sustain this recovery or this “revitalization” as the media puts it, unless we make those long-term investments.
Speaking to that, the Detroit school system and Detroit itself are well covered in national media. But what are the small issues that you think are getting neglected and need to be addressed in your school district?
Our platform really does get at the small issues that we need to focus more on. My platform is about students, teachers, classrooms. Our public school system last year was just voted as one of the worst performing the school systems in the country. This is not reflective of the potential of our students. It's just the curriculum. I think we need to dig deep into the type of curriculum we're preparing for students that come from different backgrounds, different socioeconomic backgrounds, different racial backgrounds. We need to really reassess that.
Additionally, our entry teachers aren't paid enough. We need to really address the physical state of the classrooms in Detroit. They are at a point where no student wants to walk into some of the classrooms. They’re too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. It’s not an environment that really encourages those who are going through the school systems to learn. It’s more like a daycare facility in some instances. We really need to focus on those three areas and make the adequate investment there to really get them to a place where we have an education system that can sustain itself. Really getting back to the basics with students, teachers, and classrooms.
Before this campaign, you were working for JP Morgan in Detroit, before that you worked for the city. You’ve always stayed local to the community. Why did you choose to focus on local issues in Detroit instead of moving to work in other major cities?
When I graduated from the University of Michigan, a top university, a lot of my friends had job offers in Chicago, New York, California. And my dad sat me down right before I graduated, told me about the brain drain which is when kids are educated in inner cities and then are fortunate enough to go off and attend university, immediately take the opportunity, the skills, and talents that they’ve learned and go elsewhere. I wanted to take what I learned at the university level and bring it back because I knew that the city of Detroit would benefit from it immediately.
When I moved back, I wanted to be a part of the change and the timing was just perfect. A year after I graduated from the University of Michigan, Detroit filed for bankruptcy. And so the prospects in the city really pivoted at that moment, and I saw an immediate way that I can get involved in. I spent a lot of time with nonprofits, and eventually worked with the Federal Reserve, then worked with the City Council. I saw that I needed to step up and work in more of a policy realm, targeting the areas that needed the most support which is our education system.
Campaigns always talked about the worst parts of the community, and Detroit has no shortage of bad press. What is something you love about Detroit? What keeps you tied to the area?
It's the culture Detroit has. It's a very tight-knit community, those who are from Detroit have this tremendous amount of drive and really one of the things that I always have to recognize is that when Detroit was on the decline, one of the demographics that really stayed here to make sure that this city survived were the black matriarchs. I've been able to be mentored and gained wisdom from the black matriarchs in the city.
They’re the ones who really gave me the guidance, they are the ones to challenge our education system to be better, to improve, to challenge our representatives to do more for us and they remind us that we deserve better. That was really one of the reasons why I wanted to come back because I wanted to really show that I was raised by them, I'm a son of Detroit. I want to show the city that this is what you invested in and this is what I'm giving back.
Speaking of mentors, who have been your greatest mentors? Who has helped guide you throughout this process?
My mom and James Baldwin. Baldwin was a thought leader that I read and look up to. His literature and his speeches really inspired me. People like James Baldwin showed me examples of people who have made it.
My mom gave me the motivation to keep going. I was a very shy kid, but she gave me courage. Sometimes she’d be the only one telling me that I could do whatever I want, I just have to believe it. That's what really gave me the motivation to do this. My mom steered me in a direction of the Academy of Finance when I was in high school which steered me in the direction I am in now.
You majored in economics and you've already worked with the city to research economic growth. What do you think the city of Detroit needs to do good to sustain economic growth and where does education fit into that puzzle?
Honestly, over the last five years, that's something that I realized. As I research these projects around economic growth, everything goes back to education. We have talent shortages for new jobs that are coming into our city that we can't fill because we have a 43% illiteracy rate. That’s what is preventing some of our residents from gaining employment which can really create wealth. Our education system is a direct connection to these companies and we lose a lot of corporate headquarters and corporate interests because they see that our education system doesn't have a pipeline.
Detroit is a large city geographically, we have 138 square miles, and a large block of that single-family homes. We have to attract families and families are attracted by a stable education system that they want to send their kids to.
Then you think about our small businesses. These are businesses that will fill out our neighborhoods. We’re talking about our neighborhood pharmacies, our neighborhood grocery stores, and the inability to hire from within those neighborhoods was very clear, because we weren't preparing our students from the school system that was supposed to be in those neighborhoods.
We also went through a period of emergency management here in Detroit, where our school system was run by the state for well over 12 years. This was not an emergency around quality education but an emergency around costs. And as a result of this, we had to close schools in many neighborhoods.
You are trying to join a board that manages one of the most underserved school districts in the country. What experience do you think really prepares you for that challenge?
Being a DPS student from kindergarten to 12th grade. Having that first-hand experience of some of the challenges and gaining those opportunities. I had many challenges during my first year at the University of Michigan coming from DPS, revealing how unprepared I and other students from DPS were for college. My mom had a challenge identifying the best middle school and the best high school for me, which weren't my neighborhood schools. When I came back to school, just my experience being on boards of different non-profit organizations that have allocated resources to really spur economic growth in the city, that really came back to education, and really creating a pipeline for the future of Detroit.
Going to the University of Michigan, one of the things that really was alarming to me is that if I said I was from Detroit, the assumption was that I went to one of the top schools here, which was called Cass Tech. That really offended me sometimes, it really showed me that we created the funnel system that requires gifted and talented in Detroit to go to a particular high school. There’s only one channel for them to access of opportunity when I think access to opportunity should have been for all and it wasn't distributed widely.
If you could wave a magic wand, what’s one thing you would change in the school district?
I think I would make the physical state of the schools more welcoming to students, more like college campuses, more of a place that concerns the needs of the student inside and outside the classroom. Kids nowadays have so much access to technology, that I think I would really foster that technology in a way that kids can really see the world beyond their blocks. And that's sometimes the most transformational thing that you can do. Show kids that there's a life that you can create yourself. You will work hard but you can make it. I would just create the environment where that exists.
What do you think are the biggest doubt people have about you as a candidate? And what do you say to people who think retreat and to run?
I'm 28 years old, but I do appear much younger than I am. And so people think I'm actually, 18 or 21. They automatically don’t think that I have the experience. But when I show them my resume and some of the things that I've worked on and the projects that I've supported, I can get them to come around. When I started talking about the issue, it becomes clear to the constituents that I've done the research that I've been working in this space for a long time.
What advice would you give to a young person is considering running for office?
Don't wait. You would want to do it a lot sooner than you think you would.
I think one of the things that millennials tend to do is second-guess themselves and second guess their abilities. They’ll say to themselves maybe next year, maybe a year later when I'll be more prepared.
Fail fast, learn and iterate. It's okay to fail but the important thing is to learn from your failures and then really make the iterations that you need to make to improve upon that and then keep going. I think some millennials may just stop if they get the initial no. But you can always find another way to do it.
I think it's a great time for millennials in America to run. I would encourage all millennials who are thinking about it to really just do the research in your local community. Definitely start locally. We know more about the communities that we grew up in. Millennials are engaged. It’s just translating that engagement into votes.
The views expressed in this interview are those of the candidate, and do not reflect the beliefs and views of Ballot Breakers or its staff.