Editor’s note: This is one of an occasional series of pieces about grassroots leaders in Milwaukee.
Teaching motivated Jamaal Smith to become an advocate for education equality.
“Education should look the same for every child regardless of color.”
Jamaal Smith was dressed in a black shirt with the word “justice” sprawled across the chest.
With a laugh, Smith said he’s a proud product of Milwaukee’s 53206 ZIP code — where there are more incarcerations than any other ZIP code in the United States. Smith said his childhood neighborhood was supportive, resilient and taught him about the fight for justice.
“Despite all the issues that may exist, I saw how people were able to still reach out to the younger generations. Someone reached out to me,” he said. “An entire community reached out to me and I felt an obligation to do the same.”
From Milwaukee Public Schools, Smith went on to attend college at Alabama State University and graduated with a degree in computer science in 2006. After college, Smith moved back to Milwaukee to work in information technology, but quickly realized it wasn’t the path for him. “There was no pleasure … doing that work,” he said.
Smith switched from IT to teaching. He taught at Destiny High School at 7210 N. 76th St. for four years. There, he began to notice the challenges that students of color faced in the education system, such as larger class sizes, budget cuts and the lack of teachers of color. From then on, Smith said he was motivated to become an advocate for education equality.
Smith, 36, said he advocated for students’ rights with the MPS school board and the teachers union. Smith also joined the Milwaukee branch of the NAACP as the education committee chair. “We lobbied for making sure all students of color have access to an education that allows for them to have opportunities similar to their white counterparts,” he said.
Smith said he focused on the disproportionate suspension and expulsion rates between white and nonwhite students and the difference in resources between predominantly white and predominantly nonwhite districts because these issues affect the future success of students.
“Education should look the same for every child regardless of color,” Smith said.
Now, Smith is the Racial Justice Community Engagement Manager for YWCA Southeast Wisconsin.
Smith said that he wants people to realize the power they have within themselves. He noted that systems such as health care and housing — in addition to education — are unfair to minorities. He attributes the disparities to lack of resources and lack of access for nonwhite, low-income communities. Smith said these disparities prevent communities from thriving and lead to other problems, such as crime.
Smith said that everyone deserves equal and equitable access to the same resources. “But we know we don’t live in an era where that exists,” he said. “If people had access to resources that they need, then we would see a different America.”