Anthony Smith likes to say he believes in second chances for the young black men he works with. But often, he says, those kids need the third, fourth and fifth chances to survive and thrive in inner-city neighborhoods.
Smith is the CEO for Cities United, a national organization of 130 city mayors whose purpose is to reduce violence in neighborhoods. His base is an office in the Dolfinger Building in West Louisville, and he’s responsible for administering millions of dollars that will help residents get educated, get jobs, and get moving down a positive path.
But when Smith was growing up in the Shawnee neighborhood in the 1990s, he could have ended up on the wrong path. Eventually he dropped out of Eastern High School.
“When I dropped out of high school, I could have easily stayed there,” he says. “But I had people around me who supported me who said you can still make it. How do you get your GED, how do you go to college? It takes a lot of us to get to where we’re supposed to be.”
Smith found a way to get his GED and embarked on a career path that went through Baltimore, a community college, and Northern Kentucky University, where he earned a degree and discovered his mission.
“My purpose in life is to really make sure young black men have the best outcome possible,” he says. “What that really means is that we need to create opportunities for them to not just survive but thrive.”
For much of the last two decades, Smith worked in Metro Government, eventually being named director of the Office of Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods. In 2015, he was tapped to lead Cities United from his hometown.
“Cities United helps mayors all across the country to create strategies and partnerships in their community to make sure all of our young people have a safe and healthy environment,” he says. “The ultimate goal is to reduce homicides of young black men and boys ages 14-24. We have strategies not just to keep them alive but to provide the paths to education and workforce training, keep them out of the criminal justice system.”
In part because Smith is located in Louisville, he has been able to use his hometown as a place to experiment with programs that, if successful, will become national models. One such program, the THRIVE Fellowship, will offer 10 young black men with criminal pasts a clear path to leadership training, education and jobs in city government.
Smith is also working with city leaders to administer a $5 million grant from the Kenan Charitable Trust, called “Russell: A Place of Promise,” that will help residents of Russell build wealth through home ownership, better wages and creation of small businesses.
“We do it all across the country, but we’re really focused on what we’re doing in Louisville,” Smith says. “We’re creating opportunities and pathways for young men to really be the next generation of leaders. How do we stop warehousing our talent in local jails, but create pathways to succeed.”
Smith gets frequent reminders of his work in the invitations to weddings, graduations and house blessings that he receives from those he’s helped along the way. He tells of a 10th-grader from Shawnee who really wanted to work but couldn’t find a job, in part because of transportation. Smith found a way to get him on a bus where he worked several years in the same restaurant. It’s those connections that make a difference.
“It’s not a straight and narrow path. People want to believe it is, but we all have bumps and bruises along the way,” he says. “I need young people to know they can still make it.”