Chanel Smith (Courtesy photo)

During the OJ Simpson trial, Chanel Smith was about nine years old when she recalls her realization that women need somebody who’s going to fight for them. Smith remembers wanting to be an attorney at that moment. She had made her family record the trial for her on VHS while in school so that she could come home and watch.

Smith has been serving as the executive director of the Women and Girls Initiative (WGI) since May 2022. The WGI was established in 2016. Its mission is “to establish Los Angeles County as a leader in creating opportunities and improving outcomes for all women and girls,” its overarching goal is to “provide countywide sustainability for gender equity,” according to their website.

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“I remember being absolutely fascinated with the [OJ Simpson] trial. At the time, all of my community was very much villainizing Nicole Brown Simpson and saying, ‘This white woman is trying to take down this Black man,’ and I, as a young girl, was like, ‘This woman is dead- why is she the one who’s under attack? She’s no longer alive,” Smith said.

Smith said her career took a lot of different twists and turns. While she did not end up becoming an attorney, most of her career has been spent working with survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking. From a young age, she knew the importance of supporting women and changing the narrative.

Smith said she was hired specifically for phase two of WGI. Her plan was to take two years to identify a few key areas that she thought they could make some traction in the allotted period. According to Smith, WGI is set to sunset this June.

Smith speakis at many events in Southern California. (Courtesy photo)

“My goal coming in was to be able to institutionalize this work within county departments. And so that’s what we’ve spent the last two years doing, so we are kind of like the policy hub. But I’ve been working with departments over the last six months or so to take on all of our key projects. That will be the next phase of what WGI will look like,” Smith said.

Before WGI, Smith said she spent most of her career working in crisis intervention, so she wanted to broaden her experience. She enjoyed her work with women who have experienced crises but felt that the opportunity to work with women who are small business owners or women who are at the peak of their careers and hitting the glass ceiling intrigued her about the WGI Director role.

“I don’t think that we look at resources for those kinds of women and we also don’t really look structurally at what are the barriers that are stopping us from being able to be our full selves. After working at the City of Los Angeles, I realized over the years that what I think I’m very good at is systems change and really being able to identify what are the systematic barriers and then how can we change those within the structure of government. So that’s what this phase two really was about,” Smith said.

WGI has held many events for women during Women’s History Month. Their most recent event was on March 27 at LA Trade Tech. It was in combination with Microsoft and the LA community college district that focused on women in academia, the best practices for women working in academia, and women going to school and pursuing higher education. To discuss how the community can use education and technology to support women in reaching their financial and career goals in a new way.

“If I could impart one thing on women and girls coming up– is honestly truly spend the time learning how to love yourself. That sounds simple. It is not. It is incredibly difficult,” said Smith.

“But if you can figure out how to be comfortable with your good, your bad and your ugly, not having to be perfect. All the things about yourself that you don’t like, spend the time owning that rather than trying to hide it. We really can accomplish things that we never thought were possible.”