As CEO of AmeriCorps, Michael D. Smith is a history-maker and trailblazer in public service. Not only is he the first openly gay Black man to lead the federal agency coordinating community service programs, but he is the highest-ranking gay Black man in the Biden administration.
“To be sitting here in my full-self, being supported by the president of the United States and making an impact on thousands of communities, it means the world to me,” Smith told theGrio during an interview spotlighting his historic role for Pride Month.
As the head of AmeriCorps, Smith shepherds about 200,000 members and volunteers serving in more than 40,000 locations throughout the country. Service projects range from tackling climate issues and responding to disasters to tutoring and mentoring students to working in food pantries.
Nominated to the role by President Joe Biden and confirmed by the Senate, Smith has led AmeriCorps through efforts to continue diversifying the agency since 2021.
“What I love about this administration’s focus on equity is that it isn’t a talking point,” he said. “It shows up in our first-ever diversity, equity and inclusion plan [and] our first-ever chief diversity officer.”
Smith noted that AmeriCorps is “more diverse than America” itself, with more than 40% of its members coming from low-income backgrounds.
“It’s not only a true tool to support communities of color, but it’s also been a transformational tool for AmeriCorps members that are people of color,” he said.
That inclusivity includes members of the LGBTQ+ community. Smith recalled a recent Pride Month staff call where a transgender employee expressed gratitude working for AmeriCorps, a place where she “feels safe and comfortable,” Smith said.
“We’re going to create community for them and … have their back,” he added.
Before working for the Biden administration, Smith served as executive director of former President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Alliance. The alliance is a product of the Obama administration’s My Brother’s Keeper Initiative. In the Obama years, Smith served as a special assistant to the president and managed the White House program.
Smith recalled working at AmeriCorps when Obama famously said, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon [Martin],” the unarmed Black teenager fatally shot in Florida by a white vigilante in 2012.
“I remember sitting in my office crying, thinking, ‘I can’t believe I work for a president who sees me,’” shared Smith, who said he had just lost his brother to gun violence at the time.
He said he was awed by the fact that America’s first Black president used his powerful perch to say to the world that the country had a responsibility to “make sure young men of color know that their country cares about them and is willing to invest in them.”
Building community and support for vulnerable communities has been a mainstay in Smith’s life, who grew up in a poor neighborhood in western Massachusetts, where he participated in a school desegregation busing program as a child.
“We didn’t have a whole lot of resources, but we had a community that took care of each other,” said Smith, who was raised by a teen mother, foster grandparents and members of the community – including at the Boys and Girls Club, where he was exposed to a life of service.
“I knew at a very early age that I wanted to lead a career that was honoring them … and making it easier for kids like me to achieve their dreams,” Smith said.
While he experienced firsthand some of the vulnerabilities that exist for young Black boys, he also experienced the challenges many young Black LGBTQ+ children face today.
“I grew up as a closeted kid … in a Pentecostal church,” said Smith, who recalled his pastor saying, “They’ll never have a sissy preach in his pulpit.”
“I had to change my whole life trajectory when I realized that I wasn’t being delivered for being gay,” he told theGrio. “If you would have told me that I could live my full, authentic self … that I could have a man that I love, that I have work that is truly meaningful and impactful, I don’t know if I would have believed you.”
While the LGBTQ+ community is currently enduring what it sees as legislative attacks on their freedoms amid a wave of bills restricting aspects of their lives in public spaces, Smith reminds that the fight for LGBTQ+ rights is not much different than the battle for Black freedoms long fought for and won during the civil rights movement.
“We got to keep bending that moral arc. It’s going to bend towards progress,” he said. “We’re going to have some setbacks, we’re going to have some slips. But let’s celebrate the victories.”
Smith encouraged Americans who are interested in serving to consider a career at AmeriCorps.
“There is something for you, whether you care about the environment or you care about food insecurity, or if you care about mental health,” he told theGrio. “You get a living allowance, you get an education award, and you also get a transformative experience that can change the directory of your life.”
Gerren Keith Gaynor is a White House Correspondent and the Managing Editor of Politics at theGrio. He is based in Washington, D.C.
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