by Jessee Perry
For as much as this is a tribute to an amazing man I have the privilege and fortune of calling a friend, this is also about self-discovery.
I met Sean Smith in 2012 when I was judging a debate tournament which, if I recall correctly, was at Morgan State University in Baltimore. Sean had just started at Randolph-Macon to finish his degree and was competing in the tournament. I remember being intrigued when this tall, strong, attractive, confident, black man waltzed into the lobby of the Best Western where the team was staying. I remember sitting next to him in the car on the way to dinner trying to talk to him. He paid me no mind. I remember being frustrated that no amount of talking or flirting would reel him in from the aloof, distant stare out the window. As I would realize a year or more later, flirting was the most ineffective strategy I could have cooked up since Sean is gay.
Then Sean started talking. A lot. He also posted on Facebook. A lot. Without fail, his timeline was almost always an epicenter for radical ideas and controversy. Or at least, that's how I saw it. I couldn't tell you what he posted but I remember always being exasperated and annoyed with the absurdity of his claims. Eventually I hid his posts from my timeline. At some point one of us unfriended the other and while we were cordial at tournaments, we never spoke. My next memory of Sean was after he graduated and came back to judge a tournament at Morgan State. He had a different demeanor about him. I remember thinking, "wow, he has changed! He is so much less angry. I'm glad he grew up." (Spoiler alert: it would take another 2-3 years for me to grow up and realize that no matter how unintended, my thoughts were patronizing and racist.)
We became Facebook friends again and life went on as normal... for awhile. After moving to the city in March 2016, I saw Sean posting some cryptic, yet intriguing Facebook statuses looking for help. I reached out to him and as it turned out, he decided to run for school board in the 4th district and was looking for a campaign manager. I referred him to my significant other at the time for official help but pledged my support and attendance at events. There we were, in City Council, with a room full of people and Support RPS signs begging for money. Sean was near the front of a very long line of speakers. By the end of the night, I was so fired up and angry, I found myself at the podium on a shaky rant about return on investments. Next thing I knew, I was running for school board.
Sean and I talked daily about petitions, data analysis, platform ideas, and more. Never once during the seven month campaign did Sean tell me what to think; however, he was always there as a resource and sounding board as I worked through formulating my own opinions. He endured text after text from me unwinding the system to its core only to realize the whole thing is rigged. I think he found my shock/horror/dismay to be amusing. Even so, he never held it against me that it took me so long to open my eyes to the truth. Instead he challenged me with research and encouraged me by entrusting me with his honest opinions. Throughout the campaign (aka #TruthTour2016), Sean was my rock of sanity.
The Great School Board Race
From the beginning Sean had a unique perspective on the issues; however, his hallmark was starting a dialogue about the impact of trauma on students and the lack of trauma-informed teachers. He got some press for his criticism of Dr. Bedden which led to Sean meeting with Dr. Bedden. After the meeting, Sean dished the deets. He told me that while he still had his reservations about Dr. Bedden, it was a productive conversation and he was able to share some of his ideas. Specifically, they talked about the need for trauma-informed teachers and administration. With the marathon of forums, about halfway through the campaign, we noticed almost every candidate was using the exact verbiage and talking points that Sean brought in at the beginning of the race. Neither of us won, but shortly after the election, we saw that the new 4th district School Board representative hosted a meeting about trauma and students. In January, Sean heard an NPR story about Dr. Bedden "realizing" the need for trauma-informed educators and the partnerships RPS has forged to establish a training program.
It was such a privilege and honor to work with Sean. To be allowed in and talk about the behind the scenes, I was able to see a tangible change that most people will never know he planted the seed for. Sean's dedication energized me to be better, do more, and work harder.
At the beginning of my race, someone told me I needed to find my authentic self and voice. Sean was my sounding board through this process. Most vividly, I remember the NAACP School Board forum when I was sitting next to Sean. The candidates were asked if they support Dr. Bedden. Knowing the direction the microphone was going, I could see that I was going to be the first person who was going to say no. I was terrified. I knew without question that I did not support Dr. Bedden but it was a terrifying prospect to stand up and be bold by saying it. I leaned over to Sean and said, "...you're saying no, right?" He responded in the affirmative, I took a deep breath, stood up, and said no. It meant so much to know that I wasn't alone during this unfamiliar process. Having that supportive rock made it easy to find and own my voice.
Lessons from Sean
Sean didn't just introduce me to the world of local politics... I had two of the most valuable conversations I've had in my life with him. Both were about white privilege.
I've never questioned that white privilege exists. I accepted it as a fact because who am I to question the validity of someone else's life experience? While I believed white privilege exists, I didn't have an understanding of how it exists and what it looks like. Then Sean came around and flipped my narrative upside down in two brief conversations.
What Sean taught me through door knocking...
When you run for local office, you knock on a lot of doors. I had people welcome me into their home to play with their dog while others would barely crack the door to take my campaign literature. But one day, Sean told me he knocked on a door and the person cut him off during his pitch to tell him they are sure he has great ideas but they just can't vote for him. Because. Of. His. Race. In that moment, I realized... I have never had someone not give me the opportunity to be heard because of my race. And that... is white privilege.
What Sean taught me through a traffic stop...
It couldn't have been more than a couple of weeks later when there was a sequence of police killing innocent people. Sean and I were talking about police and he asked me if I have been pulled over by the police before. I laughed at him because I'm a terrible driver so obviously I've been pulled over one or two... or ten... times. He asked what the very first thing the police said to me. I was confused because it was such an easy answer that it had to be a trick question. I told him they always asked if I knew why I had been pulled over. He told me he had never been asked that question. He was asked if he had anything on him like a gun or drugs. I was blown away. I started to test this by asking other friends of mind (did I mention I have amazing friends?). Without fail, there was a dividing line between the answers from my minority friends and white friends. And that... is white privilege.
One summer with Sean changed my perspective on so many things. Understanding white privilege better was just one of them.
Your Loss RVA
So now the real reason for this post... Sean is moving to Baltimore. He is leaving Richmond to accept an opportunity with House of Ruth to make an impact and change the system instead of just working inside of it. Sean is leaving and I am pissed off.
Richmond, you don't know what you are missing out on. You don't know what you are losing. You can't even begin to comprehend what a resource we are losing when that moving truck drives out of the city limits onto I95.
During the campaign, Sean received an offer to join a dream program in Baltimore AND HE TURNED IT DOWN because he wanted to use his talents to improve his home city. After the campaign, he was looking to jump out of the system and into a role where he could generate change. No one would have him. He was too much of a threat to the status quo so he was effectively blackballed from jobs that were practically written for him. He fought to stay here but since we didn't value his talents here, he found a city that does. And now he is leaving.
Most mind blowing to me is that he isn't even fully leaving. While he will be in Baltimore working a full time job, he is coming back monthly to help coach the I Vote For Me debate team in the East End. I admire and respect his unshakeable devotion to positive change and kids in Richmond.
You have no idea what a void this leaves in our city. Your loss RVA.
I would be remiss if I didn't end this post without directly saying thank you. So...
Thank you Sean M. Smith.
Thank you for your eternal patience with me. Thank you for your insight and perspective. Thank you for sharing everything and not holding back during our conversations. Thank you for your brutal honesty. Thank you for never quitting. Thank you for inspiring me to be a better person. Thank you for trusting me in your space. Thank you for giving me a second chance at a friendship with you. A million thank you's would not touch the surface of my gratitude.
Without you, there is a litany of things I never would have done. I never would have run for school board which set in motion a series of events that took my life to where I am today. If I hadn't run for school board, I never would have...
- met Melissa Vaughn
- gotten addicted to RVA politics
- developed my own voice and opinion with supported facts
- started RVA Dirt
- started Stoney Watch
- met a massive list of people including (but not limited to!) Earl Bradley, Montigue Magruder, Nate Peterson, Chad Ingold, Don Harrison, Krysti Albus, all of the council and school board reps, Mayor Stoney, Hassan Fountain, Donna Joyce, Rebecca KW Keel, Mike Dickinson, Scott Barlow, Francesca Leigh-Davis, Coleman Pride, Jack Berry, Lorraine Wright, Alan Schintzius, Candice Lucas, and so so so so so many more people
There is a lot more but I think the point has been made... Sean, you changed my life.
It's not goodbye...
Well, there's not a good way to conclude this emotional journey of self-reflection and thanks. I hope people read this and see the impact one person can have on the system. I hope people read this and are inspired to get out there and do SOMETHING. ANYTHING. I hope people read this and realize what this city is about to lose.
Sean, you brought out my inner angry black man. You also taught me that it isn't anger. It is hurt, frustration, pain, sorrow, helplessness, and many other words. But it's definitely not anger. I can't thank you enough.