“I grew up in one of the poorest areas in Atlanta: a crime-stricken community, the largest heroin market in the southeastern United States. It’s called ‘The Bluff.’ Growing up in those circumstances is not the ideal environment for a child, or really anyone, but especially a child, because foundation is so important. When you come home from school you shouldn’t have to walk past five drug dealers to get into your house.” - Josh Smith
According to the numbers, Josh Smith probably should not be here. Yet, here he is: a beloved intern at the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, a Public Policy major heading into his senior year on a full scholarship at UNC, a recent applicant to the UNC School of Law, and a young man with strong political aspirations that hopes to one day be governor of the state of North Carolina.
“We have to make sure everyone can have something to live for,” Smith said. “I can tell you, growing up in the ‘hood, that’s all you really have is your dreams. We’re only here talking right now because I do have big dreams. Because of those dreams, I’m able to wake up everyday and do what I do. I have to tell myself these things, ‘That you are going to be governor one day,’ so I can wake up and do the things I need to do to get there.”
Smith was raised by a single mother, his father never involved in his life, in one of the toughest neighborhoods in the United States. A quick Google search of “The Bluff, Atlanta” reveals scores of stories and statistics on its notorious nature: sky-high crime rates, rampant drug trafficking, lacking many resources for advancement, and mired in poverty.
During difficult times growing up, Smith says he found hope “in realities that I didn’t occupy,” such as being able to somewhat identify with the first black president in the history of the United States, or watching comfortable families live on reality TV.
“I had never met [Obama], but here he is, a young African-American, with a story that’s not too different from mine, and here he is the leader of the free world, in a country that I call home,” Smith said. “Regardless of whether you agree with his political philosophies or not, as an African-American, that’s powerful for me. Or when I see someone on [TV] with a nice home and kids, I would say to myself, ‘I want that one day,’ and because this is America, and we always talk about the American dream, I assumed that’s possible that I would have that one day.”
Statistics gleaned from a 2014 New York Times piece titled "For Poor, Leap to College Often Ends in a Hard Fall” showed that “less than 30% of students in the bottom quarter of household income nationwide enroll in a four year school. Among that group – less than 50% graduate.” A September 2015 synopsis by the Urban Institute titled “Child Poverty and Adult Success” showed “compared with children in the most advantaged neighborhoods, children in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods are 28% less likely to complete high school.”
Yet here he is. In Smith’s own words, he is not a “self-made man.” He has benefited from, and appreciates, the help of numerous people along the way. However, many of the advancement opportunities Smith has taken advantage of have been borne of his own initiative.
As a junior in high school, wanting to learn more about how government actually worked, Smith reached out to Georgia General Assembly Representative Billy Horn via email, out of the blue. To his surprise, he got a response. That connection led to Smith working as a page for Horn, where he was able to observe the state legislature up close, meet the governor of Georgia, and “see constituents and different interest groups lobbying for their attention; everybody has an issue they’re concerned about.”
“Now if you think about Billy, you see both us together, you might think these two have nothing in common: he’s a Republican, he’s a middle-aged white guy, and he’s probably more well-off than I am,” Smith said. “But he gave me a shot. He thought it was important that I see the wheels of government up close, and that was a valuable experience.”
“There’s a saying: ‘Even a broken clock is right twice a day.’ You never know where your knowledge is coming from, and what experiences you can have taking risks.”
The page opportunity sparked Smith’s interest in politics and he started to believe a little more in himself, thinking “maybe [I] can do this.”
Clarity in Carolina
After high school, Smith received a scholarship to attend Alabama State, but during his first year there he found himself feeling lost. After realizing he needed a change, Smith researched scholarship programs around the country and came across UNC’s Carolina Covenant program. The program gives “eligible, low-income students the opportunity to graduate from Carolina debt-free,” according to its website. Initially skeptical such a great debt-free opportunity could be true, Smith called the financial aid office numerous times, and “once they verified it was true, even for an out of state student, I didn’t have any other choice but to apply.”
Smith was accepted to the program and moved to Chapel Hill for his sophomore year having never visited the state or set foot on campus. He decided to major in Public Policy, and has thoroughly enjoyed his time as a Tar Heel, taking in basketball games when he can and running three miles around campus most days to stay on track.
“I’ve been consumed by the atmosphere here: the people, the campus, the free bus system,” Smith said. “Where else are you going to go, you get on the bus, try to pay, and they say ‘you don’t have to pay here.’ Like, what?”
Smith has similarly been impressed with the school’s public policy curriculum, and particularly a standout member of the program’s faculty.
“They give you the tools you need to be a serious maker of public policy, really understand what it is,” Smith said. “When I show up to a job and it has something to do with public policy, I’ll feel confident knowing I can do what my degree says I can do.”
“There are a few people there that are very inspirational to me. One of them is [UNC Teacher Assistant] Ludmila Janda. I was struggling in a class [Quantitative Analysis], and she was always willing to be there to lend a helping hand, working outside her office hours, stuff she didn’t have to do. She wants me to be greater than I already am, and it’s not just a want, she’s willing to put in the time and the effort too. That’s really what Carolina is about, people helping each other, whether it’s the Carolina Covenant, or at the cafeteria...they just want you to be well.”
Learning from local law enforcement
Another person that has helped Smith along the way is Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood. With tensions between U.S. citizens, particularly among African-American communities, and the police escalating nationwide over the past year, Smith decided he wanted to form his own opinions about law enforcement by getting a first-hand look at the local force’s operations.
Once again, Smith reached out to a community leader, this time Sheriff Blackwood, by “sliding into his DM’s [direct messages],” on Facebook to see if he could schedule a ride-along. Blackwood quickly got back to Smith, and after the ride-along and a few additional visits, the Sheriff’s office was so taken by Smith they created an internship for him this summer. Smith’s internship is funded through UNC’s Brown Grant, which provides opportunities for students that are not able to afford living expenses while having an unpaid internship.
“I think I’m in a unique position in this [Sheriff’s] office, because, I’m a black guy in law enforcement, with an office that’s predominately white, and a white sheriff,” Smith said. “When you think about the narrative that’s going on right now, and the discourse that’s taking place, I’ve heard about blacks feeling like they’re being treated differently by law enforcement agencies, and that puts me in a unique position. On one hand I’m here and seeing officers doing their best. I see people that are kind, that have dignity and integrity, and that would do everything for you, that includes taking a bullet, regardless of color. And on the other hand, I see my community hurting because they feel betrayed, they feel excluded, disrespected. So here I am in the middle.”
Despite the current challenges, Smith believes now is when a connection between the police department and community engagement is needed most.
“It might be a challenging time to be in law enforcement, but it’s not the time to pull out,” Smith said. “It’s the time to get involved and see what we can do to make our communities stronger for everyone.“
The opportunity has allowed Smith exposure to the many layers of police operations, including seeing how and why officers stop or pull people over, and getting to know the humans behind the badges. He spends much of his day-to-day time with the community engagement and investigations teams, while also occasionally giving the public a glimpse into the Sheriff’s office by handling their Snapchat account. Smith even recently helped solve his first crime, a larceny, from information he found online, flexing his social media know-how once again.
“To me nothing is greater in life than those that are willing to to lay down their life for someone they don’t know,” Smith said. “That’s important, because some people think everything is related to race, but that might not be the case. That’s important for me to see as someone that wants to be involved in policy and also because of the connections I have in the black community that not a lot of black sheriffs might have.”
Franklin Street to the Future
After he completes his internship this summer, Smith plans to graduate next spring and (ideally) enroll in UNC’s School of Law. He mentions a potential stint as a prosecutor after law school before getting his political career off the ground.
“I want to get involved in politics and run for state legislature and get the tools I need to be governor,” Smith said. “So I understand the budget, the debate, the issues closest to the people of North Carolina, and what needs to happen to make this state a better place for everyone.”
Smith is here, having already beaten the odds, and continues to climb toward lofty goals fueled by hard work and the power of believing.
“Dreams are very important, they can carry you a long way,” Smith said. “They’ve carried me longer than substance. What I mean by that is, growing up in the ‘hood I didn’t have a lot of tangible examples of, ‘This person’s a doctor, this person wants to mentor me, this person’s dad does something cool, this is the kind of house I want to live in.’ The house I grew up in wasn’t too pretty. I didn’t have a base for ‘I want my family to be structured just like that.’”
“I want to make sure the opportunities I have aren’t the exception, but the rule. There are a lot of people I grew up with that are still back in the ‘hood, and they’ll never make it out. It’s sad, because we’re always taught that this is the best country in the world, the land of opportunity. But we have to make sure we’re expanding the opportunities for everyone. It doesn’t necessarily have to come through government, it just has to come through a leader that’s bringing people together. I like to say all politics are local, and everyone has to participate and be involved. We can’t just say, ‘We’ll let the local government fix it.’ It has to be everyone.”
According to the numbers, Josh Smith probably shouldn’t be here. Yet, here he is: right on time.