A rising senior at Dillard University in New Orleans, Toiya Smith has pursued her passions and gained hands-on nonprofit experience while handling a full schedule of classes. A devoted lifelong learner, she already has interned for Operation Restoration, the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice, the Center for Advancing Opportunity, Beloved Community, and the Children’s Defense Fund, worked as a page for the Louisiana State Legislature, and started outlining her vision for an organization to help African American boys.
“I don’t know for sure what I’ll be doing in the future, but I do know that I am passionate about law, education, and policy,” Smith said. “I can advocate for people, be a voice. In everything I do, I keep moving toward that light.”
An entrepreneurial spirit and a heart the size of Texas
Smith took the Youth Entrepreneurs (YE) course her senior year of high school in Fort Worth, Texas. “YE gave me a space to think about how I can solve problems,” Smith said. “It taught me I don’t have to wait. I can create something right now.”
For YE’s Market Day, where students create a pop-up business, Smith saw an opportunity to offer a new product — and serve her community. Her group’s presentation focused on how to build “a know-your-rights camp for elementary and middle school age students.”
Smith was impressed by the caliber of students she met in the program and the diversity of their interests. While Smith decided early on that she was passionate about finding ways to help empower marginalized communities, her best friend in the YE program was more interested in STEM. “What excited us both about YE is the belief that there are no ‘right’ answers,” Smith said. “The program gave us space to be creative and to think about solutions to problems that concerned us most.”
Smith has continued to be involved with YE through a mentorship role, working at its summits as a counselor.
Combining classroom and real-world learning
Smith’s experience with YE led her to attend a UNCF/Koch Scholars conference and apply for a UNCF/Koch scholarship, which helped to crystalize her sense of purpose. “As a high school student, it would have been easy to just float along,” she recalled. “But I got very engaged. I mixed with college students who had their own clothing lines, or were published authors. I had never seen someone my age doing things like that.” At the conference, Smith worked with a team of high schoolers on a Black Wall Street project, writing a presentation about O. W. Gurley, an Oklahoma businessman who paved the way for a lot of black entrepreneurs.
Then, in the summer after her college freshman year, Smith heard Gerard Robinson, then the executive director of CAO, speak. “His energy was infectious and he was overflowing with knowledge. So, I followed up with him,” she said. CAO supports faculty and students interested in exploring how to remove barriers to opportunities in fragile communities.
The following summer, Smith became a CAO intern, writing op-eds based on her experience touring prisons that had thriving entrepreneurship programs. She traveled with Robinson to assess those programs in four Nebraska prisons. “To spend so much one-on-one time with an executive director and former secretary of education has been a great gift that turned into a very genuine mentorship.”
Juggling college requirements and outside interests isn’t always easy. “Things fall through the cracks sometimes,” Smith admits. “My sophomore year I was elected student body president. In my public speaking class, you earn your grade by giving speeches in class. No postponements. No exceptions.” When Smith missed a speech because she was attending a conference, her grade in that class dropped her GPA just below the 3.0 needed to be student body president. “I took summer classes to raise it, then discovered those classes were not eligible.” The lesson she took from this experience is that you cannot hurt over what you cannot control and no matter what you must persist with a resilient spirit and a servant’s heart.
Expanding her purpose through law school, and beyond
While the coronavirus pandemic has made the course of her senior year somewhat uncertain, Smith is driving full speed into her future. She spent the pandemic summer focused on taking the LSAT, determining which law schools she’d like to attend, and completing a UNCF-Walton K-12 Education Fellowship.
Smith also intends to keep working while she gets her law degree. “I have loved my classroom experiences,” Smith said, “But if you want to define what you care about, and to find what you have to offer the world, you’ve got to talk to the people impacted — the people closest to the problem are closest to the solution.”
Smith also plans to continue developing her organization, the Just(US) League, which she hopes will create pathways to education for Black boys. “It started off as the know your rights project from YE, but in the future I want to work with implicit bias,” Smith explained. “I want to engage judges, attorneys, police officers to show what bias can look like when it’s not intentional, like harsher punishments for people of color.” Just(US) League has received gold medal recognition at the NAACP’s Act-SO competition.
And what inspired this life of service?
Smith said it was her family. “I’m an only child to a single father. My father just got teaching certification and is in his second year teaching special education.” She also cites her aunt who lost a husband and son, but who also beat cancer, and a cousin who has found success as a comedian and writer. “There are no weak people in my family,” Smith said. “And we always take care of each other.”
Now, Smith wants to add to her answer. Who else inspires her? “My first class of students I taught in the detention center. Things that were so normal for me, being told ‘I love you’ every day, being reassured of my power and potential, were unheard of for them. I see all that they are, and all that they can be. When things seem ‘tough’ I think of my students, their potential, their dreams, all locked up in four walls” Smith’s particular gift is twofold: the ability to see potential and the skills to make it flourish. She values her family for taking care of each other. Smith wants nothing less than to take care of the world. She just might do it.
Photo credit: Fred Seigel