Editor’s Note: Philanthropy Roundtable’s True Diversity initiative offers an equality-based, holistic framework for embracing diversity. We support efforts that value every person as a unique individual and empower charitable organizations with the freedom and flexibility to advance their missions. Learn more at TrueDiversity.org.
Cleveland, Ohio native Ja’Ron Smith and Washington, D.C.-raised Chris Pilkerton are two men of different races and backgrounds united by their faith and purpose to help the underserved. They both rose to become policy advisors to President Trump, where they advanced solutions for economic mobility of Black, white and all Americans. In a new book titled “Underserved: Harnessing the Principles of Lincoln’s Vision for Reconstruction for Today’s Forgotten Communities,” they offer a prescription for rebuilding underserved communities by drawing upon President Abraham Lincoln’s vision for reconstructing the nation after the Civil War.
I spoke with Smith, a policy expert on regulatory affairs, economic mobility, social justice, finance, banking and housing and urban development about his personal experience, new book and how he views true diversity.
The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. Tell us about your background and how it shaped your approach to work and life.
Smith: I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, in a lower middle-class community. My early years were similar to that of many people: parents struggling with drug addiction and alcoholism. My parents were both blue-collar workers and their parents were poor. They did what they needed to do to survive.
My dad sent me to a Catholic high school. That education gave me my first experience with religion and created an environment to help me. I wasn’t a good student until age 14 or 15. Despite their addiction, I was anchored with two parents that loved me and a grandparent that loved me, which made me a resilient person and gave me the courage to be curious. As I set out to be my best self, I had to do service projects to graduate and that’s where the passion developed for helping people.
My generation was the first generation to start going to college.
My background planted the seed of wanting to help change our community and empower people. From that experience you learn that people go into drugs and self-destructive behavior based off trauma or traumatic experiences. It can be hard to try to figure out how to become your best self and put food on the table.
I attended Howard University and during college interned in Washington, D.C. on Capitol Hill, which got me interested in politics and policy as a way to positively impact people.
Q. Coming out of your background and work at the highest levels of government, why did you decide to write this book?
Smith: I wrote this book along with my colleague, Chris Pilkerton, because working together in the White House, we realized there were so many challenges in underserved communities. Because of the pandemic, we weren’t able to finish some of the work we had begun on issues ranging from criminal justice reforms to workforce development. It became apparent that the work we were trying to accomplish was more important than ever. Some communities will be set back even further because of COVID.
My north star and mission has been figuring out solutions for underserved communities. When I came back to D.C. in 2008, I gave my life to God and He has positioned me through relationships to accomplish this mission. We talk about our faith journeys in this book, but this book provides a blueprint to complete our unfinished work.
Q. “Underserved” focuses on the post-reconstruction era in the United States. There was so much opportunity for Black folks: in politics by becoming legislators, starting businesses and creating economic centers, creating a new middle class and creating greater Black wealth. What didn’t happen following Reconstruction that led to issues we’re still dealing with today?
Smith: Abraham Lincoln grew up on a prairie, he grew up poor, was self-educated and he learned the importance of earning a living for yourself and being able to leverage that to empower oneself through economic empowerment.
Lincoln’s vision for Reconstruction highlights that economic empowerment … is a core part of America. America is a capitalist country; the whole notion of capitalism is based on the concept of mutuality and mutual benefit. It has lifted so many underserved communities around the world in ways that other systems haven’t. The challenge is that slavery raised the question of whether capitalism was exploitative. Capitalism doesn’t have to be.
Unfortunately, Andrew Johnson worked with the privileged class of the South (former plantation owners) and the creation of Black Codes created a dual system that Black Americans lived in for about 60 years until the Civil Rights Movement. Despite all of that, Black Americans in segregated communities were still able to foster economic empowerment and build robust communities. But the government and racist factions tore that apart. That has happened several times. In our book, we mention the Freedman’s Bureau, race riots and Black Wall Street.
Ultimately, you still did not have a breakthrough with those communities. Laws from the ‘30s created redlining and concentrated poverty and race. Then the presence of Great Society programs at the same time as the post-Integration movement led to Black flight. Upper class and middle-class Blacks left those communities. When affluent people–doctors and lawyers–left the community, those left behind were left with no real role models or high earners which led to concentrated impoverished communities. It’s similar in some white communities too. The reason we called the book “Underserved” is because we talk about poverty in white communities as well.
Lincoln saw the importance of investing in poor white communities as well as Black communities. His assassination cut short this work which could have helped in the Jim Crow South where poor whites were pitted against poor Blacks. A century later, the race and class warfare was something Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about during the Civil Rights era.
Q: Can you talk about the role of the church, particularly of the Black church, then and also today in driving outcomes that go toward economic opportunities?
Smith: First of all, the movement to free the slaves was undergirded by the Great Awakening, which created the abolitionist movement. The emergence of the Republican Party was anchored in religion. When we went into Reconstruction, many of the HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) that were launched were financed by religious organizations and invested in training preachers. The early leaders who went to Congress, like Hiram Revels, were ministers and the church became a safe place for individuals in the Black community to mobilize, organize and educate themselves.
New Black churches emerged out of that. Different denominations undergirded the Civil Rights Movement. The church has historically for the Black community been an anchor for change in our communities. However, over the last 40 years—and not just in the Black community—institutions overall including the church have lost the trust of the community.
Throughout America, people are less religious. Some people on the right blame taking prayer out of public schools, but it goes back to the methodology of trust. Some churches–not all of them–haven’t been the anchor that they used to be because trust is not there in the community. You might have a number of different churches in any underserved community. They are not all places that people go to or frequent. After being in seminary, I learned that in many cases churches have become more of a social club rather than an anchoring or change agent for society.
We need that anchoring because the church and faith community’s help in figuring out who you are as a person is extremely important in behavioral health. So many communities have dealt with the trauma of the pandemic and historic trauma. Being able to navigate the nuances of life is hard when you come from broken families. That’s a mission I have been on. We need the church and civil society more than ever.
Aside from the Black households, in which you see 70% are single-parent households, 50% of white households are single parent or divorced households.
Q: How can True Diversity or other equality-based, holistic frameworks for embracing diversity contribute to economic mobility?
Smith: Different perspectives help you to be competitive. Many other countries don’t necessarily have the model of diversity that America has and if we’re in a global competition of ideas, we are far ahead of people by celebrating our shared diversity. Celebrating that we are a melting pot is in the American DNA. We became a place where people came from all different walks of life to be able to participate in the American experience, which is based on individuality, ideas, freedom and liberty. That undergirds everything.
Companies and organizations that decide not to be intentional about thought diversity are losing the opportunity to benefit from that market share. But it has to be genuine, it has to be intentional. It cannot be virtue signaling. What the workplace is trying to do is to harness our best asset which is the diversity of opinions and backgrounds. No one has the same experience. We celebrate that uniqueness that you can bring to the table and that uniqueness drives different ideas that an organization would never have thought about.
I’m not sure that designating a role for Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) is right. If you have a C-suite, a better approach is having more COOs from different perspectives, more CFOs and CEOs. If you lean into being intentional about bringing in the best talent from diverse perspectives, you will get individuals in leadership roles who will commit to bringing other individuals with diverse perspectives along. For me working at the White House (and every organization I’ve been in), I’ve been able to identify individuals with different backgrounds that other leaders may have overlooked and they’ve ended up adding value.
It hasn’t been based on race but comparative advantage. Everyone brings different skills to a situation and it’s figuring out what comparative advantages individuals have that can make us more competitive. You want businesses or organizations to be intentional about what their talent needs are and to lean into those, not just check demographic boxes.
In the current landscape, DEI has become a talking point instead of looking at the most unique capabilities people bring to the table and what we can learn from them. We put blanket approaches in place that are not effective, when the unique qualities that people have because of their backgrounds is what we should focus on.
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