As a 15-year-old teen, Ryan Smith landed his first job as a student organizer working with high school leaders affiliated with Community Coalition. Currently poised to receive his doctorate degree from UCLA, he’s once again connected to the nonprofit known as CoCo, but now he’s a member of the executive team.
As the organization’s inaugural chief strategy officer, Smith will develop initiatives to support South L.A. residents – especially Black and Brown Angelenos – in overcoming systemic and institutional barriers in education and other areas. He will also assist in guiding outreach efforts and launch the group’s new National Center for Community Organizing.
“I am so excited about this new position at Community Coalition and to join an organization that’s doing so much for South Los Angeles and for Los Angeles in general. It feels like a homecoming in many ways,” said Smith.
“I know the leadership – Aurea Montes-Rodriguez (executive vice president) and Alberto Retana (CEO) fought for students who look like me to attend UCLA, which I ultimately did. So, I’m really delighted that this is not only a new position, but it feels full circle in my career,” he noted.
Prior to CoCo, Smith was the chief external officer sat Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, an –n-district organization dedicated to transforming schools and empowering students with high quality education.
Also, he was the director of Education Programs and Policy for United Way of Greater Los Angeles where he managed education program and policies. Prior to that position, he served as vice president of Strategic Advocacy for the Education Trust, an education civil rights organization that aims to close opportunity gaps.
Smith is the author of several editorials and opinion pieces that have appeared in major publications. On a national level, Education Week named him as one of “Ten Education Leaders to Watch” and Families in Schools presented Smith with its “Parent Engagement Leader of the Year Award.”
A native of Los Angeles County, Smith is quite familiar with the issues and concerns of the region’s communities of color. In fact, his doctoral thesis explores how Black families navigated the pandemic as well as distance learning education.
“”What I learned is that our families are navigating so many systems. They’re navigating the housing system and navigating how to work with jobs and they had to buy all this technology while they were losing income,” explained Smith.
“We often talk about these issues in silos. But, the great thing about Community Coalition is that it focuses on these issues and doesn’t see its mission just as a single-issue mission, but sees the intersections of these and how we can support Black and Latino residents. So, I’m excited to support intersectional advocacy that Community Coalition has spearheaded for 30 years now,” he said.
Outlining his top goals as chief strategy officer, Smith shared that his emphasis will be on aiding constituents in rebuilding and healing from the pandemic. The areas of concern range from health to housing to jobs and the economy.
He will also be alert for opportunities to influence government policy that improves the quality of life of South L.A. residents. In addition, he aims to address the myriad of challenging issues surrounding the criminal justice system and its impact on Black and Brown young people.
“Under my new tenure at Community Coalition, [I] will continue to listen to the community and make sure that we’re creating space so that they’re informing policies and we’re not passing policies and programs that aren’t in the best interest of South L.A. residents,” said Smith.
“The other thing that’s really exciting [is] that [we’re] launching a Center for Community Organizing. We often talk about when you come out of South L.A., come back to the community. We also have to make sure we’re building that leadership pipeline of folks and residents who are committed to building power and change. I’m excited to invest in the future as Community Coalition has done for the last two decades,” Smith admitted.
His passion for helping those less fortunate likely stems from his late father, who desired to end homelessness. His parent’s dream influenced Smith to assist others facing challenges created by unfair and racist structures and systems.
As the new chief strategy officer, Smith will play a critical role in CoCo’s approach to relieving some of the societal pressures that South L.A. residents are experiencing along with equipping citizens to achieve a reasonable standard of living. Fulfilling this mission requires that Smith relies on the three mantras that guide his life.
“Frederick Douglass said ‘without a struggle, there can be no progress’ and I believe we’ve seen a lot of struggle because of the pandemic. This provides an opportunity for us to think about the future. We are a people who are resilient folks. But we are about progress and one of Community Coalition’s mantras is ‘People, Power, Progress.’ So, I’m excited about that,” he said.
“Number two, Fannie Lou Hamer is somebody that I am inspired by – a Black woman in the South that fought against so many of these systems. She said, ‘Nobody is free until everybody’s free,’ so [we must] work in tandem across communities to make lasting change,” shared Smith.
The last thing is there’s a great scripture that says, ‘Without vision the people will perish.’ Hopefully, it’s our collective vision that makes that impact. Community Coalition wants to make a difference in lives every day and I’m just honored to work alongside the men and women who continue to give of their lives in order to support South L.A.”