Alum of the Month

September 2020 | Alum of the Month |  Sheria Smith '01

Sheria Smith '01 is a civil rights attorney for the U.S. Department of Education. In this role she represents our country by enforcing Federal laws aimed at preventing discrimination based on race, sex, and disability in schools and other recipients of Department funding.

Smith learned of Hotchkiss after being accepted through A Better Chance (ABC). ABC provides access to college preparatory schools for under-represented minority students with high SSAT scores; Hotchkiss began its affiliation with the organization in the 1960s. Smith explains, "I applied to ABC, but did not know the member schools to which my application was sent. A representative of the Hotchkiss Admissions Office, Annie Crum, came to my hometown (Gary, Indiana) to have dinner with me and a number of other accepted students, most of them my friends. My mom and I met her at my favorite restaurant at that time, Cracker Barrel! That memory makes me chuckle!"

Having fielded offers from several schools, including Groton, Hotchkiss, Exeter, Lake Forest Academy, Cranbrook-Kingswood, and La Lumiere, Smith narrowed her choices to the three on the East Coast (Hotchkiss, Exeter, and Groton). "From there," she recalls, "my selection was akin to the story of Goldilocks...Groton was too small, Exeter too big, but Hotchkiss felt just right. Out of all my other choices, I felt that I could make my mark at Hotchkiss." She entered as a prep in 1996 and would go on to become a member of the "four-year club."

Smith enjoyed many of the course offerings at Hotchkiss. Of note was "Latin with Mary and Bob Albis. Their Latin classes inspired my interest in figuring out how antiquity connects with modernity; English with Charlie Frankenbach was always a joy; and 'Shakespeare and the Bible' with George Faison was life-changing, because it was the first time I engaged with the Bible as an academic text instead of a book of canon. 'Shakespeare and the Bible' taught me to question authors' motivations, particularly when they are claiming to speak for a deity. That lesson continues to serve me."

Aiding in Smith's transition from a Midwest public school experience, Hotchkiss's Black and Hispanic Student Alliance (BaHSA) proved highly relevant. "My race is my primary identity in the United States, and BaHSA allowed for some familiarity in a wholly unfamiliar place. The friendships I developed through BaHSA gave me the confidence to engage in the broader Hotchkiss community. The second most significant extracurricular activity was the St. Luke's Society. Through St. Luke's, I was able to serve as a kindergarten teacher's assistant at the Town Hill School and had the opportunity to devise an independent community project to mentor the black student in the kindergarten class. That experience certainly shaped my adult career."

Academics came easily to Smith, but once at Harvard, she discovered that Hotchkiss had readied her most in a different way. "Hotchkiss prepared me socially. I'm currently reading Anthony Abraham Jack's The Privileged Poor, which discusses how schools, like Hotchkiss, provide students from low socioeconomic backgrounds the vocabulary and social exposure that they need to be successful at elite colleges. Hotchkiss was my first introduction to terms like 'syllabi' and 'weekend/summer homes.' Hotchkiss was also the first place where I was encouraged to advocate for myself and build personal relationships with my instructors and staff members. It was also the first place where I lived with people from other races, backgrounds, and classes, which challenged my beliefs about the pathology of the community in which I was reared. At Hotchkiss, I learned that we are more alike than different. There, I felt confident about exploring new academic interests and received the support necessary to eventually master those interests. Those were extremely helpful lessons for me that gave me the confidence to navigate Harvard.

"However, Harvard (for me) did not allow for much academic exploration because grades were on a curve, which encouraged students to further specialize in courses they may have already mastered in high school. Harvard required me to be more strategic about my academic pursuits, but I was grateful that Harvard offered courses that allowed me to learn more about my own culture. Though I concentrated in Government, my most memorable classes were cross-registered courses in the African-American Studies and Sociology departments."

After her time in Cambridge, Smith joined Teach for America (TFA) and taught fifth grade in Donna, TX. "Influenced, in part, by my volunteer experience at the Town Hill School, I applied to TFA. I assumed that I would be placed in the Mississippi Delta (where my grandparents originated). However, TFA placed me in Donna, a city that is two minutes from the border of Mexico, where I didn't see other black people for months at a time. Nevertheless, the community where I taught held teachers in high esteem, so I never had a speeding ticket and often ate my meals for free! Being so removed from other black people left me feeling socially isolated, but I was able to harness that energy and put it into my classroom, which led to my students becoming the top-performing fifth-graders in their District."

The depth of the challenges at that school did not surprise Smith. "I was a product of an under-resourced public school prior to attending Hotchkiss, so I was familiar with many of the challenges that my students experienced, and I believe that familiarity helped my students perform so well. The one challenge that I was not as familiar with was the regional isolation. The school was five hours from any large city, and that distance, compounded with the students' poverty, exacerbated their isolation and limited their exposure to worlds outside of the one in which they lived. We fundraised for an entire school year, selling potato chips one bag at a time, just to afford to be able to take a field trip to San Antonio. Though I was poor, I was fortunate to grow up thirty minutes outside of the city of Chicago, so it was not as costly or time-consuming to enjoy and learn from the experiences that the city had to offer. My time in Teach for America reinforced my belief that easy access to resources is critical to educational attainment."

Law had always been on her mind; so once her obligation to TFA ended, Smith started at the University of Texas in 2007. "My first exposure to lawyers was while watching Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show. I loved the way Phylicia Rashad portrayed her. Lawyers were also the powerbrokers in my hometown, and I long felt that there was value in obtaining a law degree, so I pursued and received my J.D."

Smith served as Judicial Clerk for the Honorable David C. Godbey of Dallas, TX, in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas for a year, selected from hundreds of clerkship applicants. "I learned how to tailor my writing to a particular audience and developed an understanding of the preferences and proclivities of all the federal judges in Dallas that I eventually had matters in front of in private practice. That insider knowledge of how to appeal to the particular audience of federal judges helped me better advocate for clients. This clerkship also epitomized the power of networks. Judge Godbey is a Harvard graduate and was familiar with me and my co-clerk from college. While I clerked, I also became the unofficial social chair of the Northern District of Texas and organized activities and inter-chambers lunches with the other federal judges in our District. This role was not only fun, but also helped me expand my network and knowledge of the judges that I would be practicing in front of, and strengthened my bond with fellow clerks, with whom I would eventually enter private practice."

Next, Smith spent two years at Locke Lord LLP, in Dallas, TX, serving as a commercial and consumer finance litigation associate, successfully defending clients in state and federal litigation. She then worked as a litigation associate at Carter Arnett LLP for a year, defending clients in employment discrimination suits in state and federal courts. "I left Locke to take an opportunity at a smaller black-owned law firm, where I could bring in clients who could not afford Locke Lord rates. I was successful in securing a book of business, but had not fully realized how labor-intensive it was to practice law and manage the billing expectations."

Beginning in 2014, Smith served as judicial clerk for a second time, this time for the Honorable David L. Horan of Dallas, TX, again in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas, assisting him with adjudicating civil matters, including employment discrimination litigation and Social Security appeals. "Judge Horan had been recently selected to the bench and was interested in an experienced clerk. I was interested in taking a break from private practice, so this opening was perfect timing. This experience reminded me how much I enjoyed public service and motivated me to seek a career with the Federal government instead of returning to private practice."

In Smith's current role as a civil rights attorney for the U.S. Department of Education, she represents the United States of America. "This country has enacted a number of laws aimed to prevent discrimination based on race, national origin, disability, and sex within schools. I receive allegations that schools are not complying, and I first evaluate whether the allegation is true, and if it is, I formulate plans to help the schools come into compliance. For schools that refuse to comply, our agency has the power to take away federal funding. This is a step we do not take lightly and, fortunately, we have never had to pull funding, as schools are eager to comply."

One of the greatest challenges for Smith happens when she has to inform a student or parent that the harm they experienced is not a violation of the laws her office enforces. "People usually contact our office in extreme distress, but the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has a limited subject matter jurisdiction, so it is not always the appropriate place for redress. Alternatively, another difficult part of my job (likely because I am a former teacher) is when I see educators and school administrators attempting to do their best to resolve student and parent concerns, but the parties are not seeing eye-to-eye and that slows resolution. The issues are often emotionally laden, which tends to hinder mutually beneficial opportunities. The satisfying part of my job is when I am able to help parties realize mutually beneficial resolutions.

"A typical day for me involves investigating complaints to determine if there are any compliance issues. Many of my investigations begin with contacting the person who filed the complaint for further details, determining what evidence I need from a school or district that could either confirm or rebut the allegations in the complaint, interviewing relevant witnesses, and (in special cases) visiting the campuses and schools. Certainly, COVID-19 has caused a necessary change in how I have historically investigated complaints, and it has changed the nature of the sorts of complaints that we see."

Her family's long association with the United Steel Workers union has proved to be fundamental in an additional role, as Smith serves as the National President of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 252, which is the union that represents every employee in the U.S. Department of Education. "My great-grandparents were sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta, and their children all migrated to Gary, headquarters of the United States Steel Corporation, for better jobs in the steel mills. Once my grandfather and great-uncles were employed at U.S. Steel, they quickly joined the union to help them collectively battle against the exploitation of labor that they escaped from in the Delta. Much like USW, our union works to prevent the exploitation of the public servants who have dedicated their careers to the furtherance of learning and education. Though I do not perform the labor-intensive work of my ancestors, I feel a particular connection to my family USW members in this role."

Smith feels that, "This nation functions best when it has an independent and professional federal workforce, and the union helps to ensure that such a workforce exists to serve all citizens in this country, regardless of political ideology. I'm proud to be part of a union that is committed to helping the U.S. Department of Education fulfill its high mission by protecting the workers who make that mission possible, and I am particularly honored that my colleagues elected me to serve as their national president."

The recent national movement for equality brings even more importance to Smith's work. "This movement highlights how little progress has been made since 1954, when the SCOTUS ordered that schools integrate with all deliberate speed. Most schools have done quite the opposite, and schools are currently more racially and socioeconomically segregated than ever. The fact that these movements are still necessary almost 70 years after Brown v. Board has made me skeptical of the efficacy of protests and even legal jurisprudence. What this current movement has proven to me is the need for even more robust federal laws and guidance."

Smith has committed many hours of service to several worthwhile organizations, including Hotchkiss. Along with two terms on the School's Board of Governors, she has volunteered for the Dallas Zoo, the Junior League of Dallas, and the Big Brother Big Sister Foundation. "Service is a way for me to connect with my community and develop skills and relationships that serve me professionally and personally."

The recipient of three major awards at Hotchkiss, each is indicative of Smith's character: the Augustus S. Blagden III '59 Memorial Prize (awarded for participation, enthusiasm, vitality, and interest in others), the Charles Peyton Treadway '14 Prize (awarded for industry, courage, leadership, and honorable conduct), and the Frank A. Sprole '38 Social Service Prize (awarded for distinguished social service); all held great meaning for Smith. "When I first visited Hotchkiss, I felt that this was a school where I could really make my mark. I was honored to receive the Blagden and Sprole prizes, and the Treadway Prize allowed my name to be included in the long tradition of etching recipients' names in the School's Dining Hall, further confirming that I had indeed made my mark."

Smith remains grateful to Hotchkiss for the experience, exposure, and relationships it provided her, but also for its commitment to providing financial aid. "I cannot overstate the importance of financial aid when it came to my decision to attend Hotchkiss. I was not made to feel like a second-class school citizen because I received financial aid; but instead I felt a sense of belonging, and I felt like I was judged and applauded for things that I could control. My receipt of aid compels me to give to Hotchkiss with the hope that my gifts can help students that come after me."

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