When working with kids in D.C. public schools, you have to gain their trust. Helping out at a Ward 1 school in Adams Morgan, Asha Smith understood those challenges. D.C. students see plenty of college-age workers and volunteers shuffle in and out, and there had been some staff turnover at this particular school.
One 6th grade student—we’ll call him John, but that’s not his real name—is an immigrant whose father passed away. He had serious behavioral problems, and Smith tried to give him special attention.
“He took a special liking to me because I used to always listen to his side of the story, no matter how in the wrong he probably was,” Smith explains.
After a year and a half, John knew Smith was sticking around, and he told her she was one person he could trust. “I think that was a really defining moment for me,” she says. “That is what really motivates me to just build relationships.”
It also reflects Smith’s dedication, and she was recently honored for her work with a Newman Civic Fellowship. Smith is a law and society major at American University’s School of Public Affairs. She’s entering her third year as a Politics, Policy, and Law scholar, and she’s also a program coordinator for PPL.
The Newman Civic Fellowship recognizes college student leaders committed to finding community solutions and creating lasting change. Smith was nominated by Robin Adams, assistant director at the Center for Community Engagement and Service. With one student honored per university, AU President Neil Kerwin selected Smith as AU’s 2016 fellow.
“Her unwavering commitment to ensuring the fair treatment and dignity of marginalized communities is inspiring,” Kerwin wrote about Smith.
Smith’s recent fellowship is related to several of her endeavors, on and off campus. She’s been a mentor and elective teacher with Higher Achievement; she’s a team leader with DC Reads; and she’s also vice president of the AU chapter of the NAACP.
As a student in Washington, D.C., Smith wasn’t content to watch the city’s misfortunes fester from a distance. She was disturbed by struggling schools and high illiteracy rates, and she decided to do her part.
“I went to private schools my whole life, and my parents were fortunate enough to have me in those situations,” she says. “It was expected of me to go to college, and I want that for everyone, especially students of color. I feel that, as a society, we don’t expect students of color to achieve at the same level of other students. I want to set that standard for them, and show them, ‘Listen, I’m black. And I’m here. I can help you.’”
NAACP and Civil Rights
Smith has worked in a D.C. school up to three times a week, yet she’s still found time for campus activism. Since the NAACP AU chapter had lapsed, Smith and a few other students re-instated the storied group’s presence on campus. They work closely with The Darkening on civil rights issues, and they’ve also joined forces with NAACP chapters at other D.C. area universities.
In addition, her academic studies have informed her community engagement. Two classes she praised are “The American Constitution,” taught by SPA professorial lecturer Lara Schwartz, and “Roots of Racism,” from CAS anthropology associate professor Rachel Watkins.
Through her DCPS teaching, Smith even launched her own weeklong initiative for 7th and 8th graders about landmark court cases and laws that institutionalized discrimination.
Growing Up Indianapolis
Smith hails from Indianapolis, Indiana. The daughter of two Baptist ministers, she inherited her parents’ passion for social justice. Even though she’s now engrossed in D.C. life, she still sees the benefits of her Midwestern upbringing.
“It’s a whole mix of people there. There’s a lot of left wing and there’s a lot of right wing. We all live in the same place,” she says. “I can sit here and I feel very comfortable talking to conservatives and liberals just the same.”
Yet after leaving Indiana for AU, she’s appreciated meeting international students and an even greater diversity of people.
While living on the East Coast, Smith still has connections to home. Her mom now works in the Washington office of the anti-hunger group Bread for the World, so they enjoy Sunday dinners together. Her father is a professor at University of Pittsburgh, and he also visits when he can.
This summer, Smith has been teaching middle school kids in Boston. A rising senior, she plans to apply to graduate schools to earn a master’s degree in social work, and she’s considering a career in social welfare policy to help youth.
In the future, despite her ties to Indiana and D.C., she’d like to live somewhere else. “I want to figure out the different dynamics of this country,” she says. “I want to go somewhere new. So, who knows? I may come back. I’m not sure where life will take me.”