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Aaron Smith aims to empower young people of color at University of Lynchburg and in community

Aaron Smith aims to empower young people of color at University of Lynchburg and in community

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Aaron Smith has ascended quickly in the higher education scene in Lynchburg.

At 38, he’s already held multiple high-ranking positions at the University of Lynchburg and, for more than a year now, has served as the school’s vice president and dean for student development.

He’s recognized outside the institution, too, as a community leader and state board member.

Smith is a first-generation college grad who holds bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from the school he now helps lead. He came from modest means. He scraped together enough money for one year of college initially through multiple part-time jobs after high school, figuring out how to achieve the future he’d dreamed of as a young Black man.

His journey to the heights he’s achieved, though, started with a simple philosophy that came from his parents: You can.

Black people in America face “tremendous barriers,” a fact made more apparent in recent months following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis. Smith has experienced and seen those challenges himself, and he’s worked all his professional life to empower young people of color to overcome the odds.

“I feel like throughout my life I have heard the narrative a little too much that people of color are unable to succeed or they’re unable to ‘fill in the blank,’” Smith said. “I do not think that’s true in the slightest.

“My ‘why’ is to be able to help propel people of color so not just that we’re on equal footing, but so folks can see we’re more than entertainers and athletes and things of that nature. My ‘why’ is I don’t like that narrative that, ‘People of color can’t.’”

For Smith, negating the narrative started at home, with parents who didn’t necessarily tell him “how” to become what he wanted to be, but believed in him. A path toward success starts with encouragement, he said, a message that, “You can overcome.”

“First, it’s the belief that ‘I can,’” he added.

The “how” to get young Black people and people of color to where they want to be, now, is Smith’s focus.

His effort on that front intensified when he stepped into leadership roles in UL’s human resources department, followed by his position as the school’s first diversity and inclusion officer.

Smith, who also serves on the Lynchburg Regional Business Alliance board and Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities board, was part of UL’s concerted effort to amplify and celebrate the differences among students at the school — be it differences in race, political persuasions, religious beliefs or other differences.

The Office of Equity and Inclusion formed in 2017 with the help of Smith, who also pointed to the development of a Diversity Strategic Plan and huge leaps in the retention rate of students of color around that time as milestones he and UL can be proud of.

Those tangible moves are examples of significant steps forward when it comes to empowering young Black people and people of color, he said.

Smith also was the mastermind behind the school’s Man2Man mentorship program for men of color. Whether it takes the form of exchanging texts or more formal meetings, mentoring — an effort Smith also has undertaken individually in Lynchburg, outside the walls of UL — serves to help young men achieve success in academics and in life.

You won’t see Smith leading or attending rallies, he said, but at his school and in the community, he’s still advancing the cause.

“I do relationships well. I do my particular community well,” Smith said.

Smith explained his goal is to use his strengths to help Black individuals figure out how to become the best versions of themselves.

“You tell me you want to be an astronaut, fantastic. You tell me you want to be an athlete, fantastic. You tell me you want to end up overseas and do something over there, fantastic. You tell me you want to be a garbage man, fantastic,” Smith said. “Let’s figure out how to get you there.”

Such progress requires talking about the future and about the present, listening to individuals in the Black community and individuals of color about the difficulties they face and figuring out how to keep moving forward.

The events of the last few months have provided “momentum” in that regard, Smith said — momentum he hopes those inside the UL community and the Lynchburg area can take advantage of.

“If we don’t capitalize on that, … I would be very disappointed,” he said.

The community is better off when everybody feels like they have a voice, added Smith, who encourages his staff, UL students and others in the Lynchburg area to do what they can to make such change happen.

Each person has skills than can contribute to making an inclusive society. So the question to ask is, “What can you do from where you are?” he said. Amplifying Black voices where you are, in the best way you’re able can start a wave of positive change.

“If I can influence what we do in our community,” Smith said, “that can have ripple effects that influence further out.”

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