By Kenny Berkowitz
By the time Joseph Smith ’00 came to Ithaca College, he’d already spent four years as a Marine, three years as a youth counselor, and two years as a student at Tompkins Cortland Community College. When he transferred to IC, he wanted more than just a degree in sociology --- he wanted a better life.
"I grew up so poor. We didn’t even get welfare," he says. "I used to say, ‘I was so poor, the only thing I had was a dream.’ So when I couldn’t eat at night, I could still go to sleep and dream of something better. That’s one of the reasons why I came here, because I’d seen how intricate the network of programs is to help people. That’s what I wanted --- to transcend my environment."
Growing up in Indianapolis, Smith learned the importance of community. Through two tours of duty in the U.S. Marine Corps, he learned the importance of hard work. And in the Dominican Republic in 1999 with sociology professor Héctor Vélez-Guadalupe’s Culture and Society class (ICQ, 2000/no. 2), he learned about poverty in the developing world by talking to cutters in the sugarcane fields, community workers in the ghetto, and high-ranking officials in the government. He saw a world he’d never imagined, where people were so poor "they couldn’t even dream."
That changed his life. Coming back to Ithaca, Smith was even more determined to graduate and even more determined to lend a hand to people who had grown up like him. If it weren’t for the efforts of people in the College’s admission office, who gave him credit for his life and work experiences, Smith says, he would never have come here in the first place. When he did, he made sure to earn his way, balancing a scholarship from the Higher Education Opportunity Program with a series of full-time jobs; even during his semester in London, he paid his tuition by working as a bartender and paid his rent by working at a hostel.
As a nontraditional student, Smith felt isolated from his younger, less experienced classmates. "I wanted to be more involved with students of color," he says. "But instead I became more involved in the community." A job with at-risk youth at George Junior Republic led Smith to a job with mentally disabled adults at Goodhope’s Evergreen Campus, which led to a job with autistic and deaf children at the Special Children’s Center, which led to a job with Tompkins County collecting data for child protection hearings, which led directly to his most recent job as a caseworker for the Tompkins County Department of Social Services. As a young man of color, Smith talks about the difficulties of finding people of his own culture here and of the pressures on people of color to assimilate into the mainstream of life in Ithaca. He can’t find the music he likes to hear or the food he likes to eat or the sense of community that he had in Indianapolis. Instead, he talks about African Americans leaving town on the weekends, traveling to larger cities to find the sense of belonging they can’t find here.
As the organizer of First Fridays of Central New York, Smith is working to change all that. Based on a model currently being used in 35 major cities across the country, FFCNY is an ongoing series of monthly events designed to bring minority professionals together for an opportunity to network with each other. FFCNY’s first event, held in October, drew over 100 people from across central New York; the second event, held in November, drew more than twice that number; and the numbers have been growing each month since.
For Smith, those numbers prove he’s creating a worthwhile alternative, helping to fill the social void among minority professionals. At the same time, he wants First Fridays to do much more: help businesses attract and retain more professionals of color, keep more minority dollars within the region, and foster the creation of new minority-owned businesses across central New York. Smith is working with offices at Cornell University and Ithaca College, as well as area businesses like Corning with commitments to diversity issues, to garner further support for the endeavor and help it grow. As the organizer of First Fridays, Smith has been busy working to enlist a board and secure funding, as well as to continue organizing monthly events. He hopes that FFCNY can work with the DeWitt Historical Society to compile a history of Ithaca’s African American community, with local supermarkets to create soul food sections, and with educational members to establish a scholarship fund for children of color. It’s all part of his new life goal: to go back to school for a graduate degree in community and urban development, which he’ll use to create more job opportunities for urban youth and more business opportunities for urban entrepreneurs. And though his new dreams may take him away from Ithaca, he promises to return.
"I want to come back to this area in 20 years and see First Fridays still vibrant, still strong," Smith says. "I want to see it become a viable institution that adds growth, spirituality, and connectedness to this community --- the sky is the limit. Believe me, I know there are a lot of young people out there just like I used to be, who don’t know there’s a better way. If I hadn’t been able to transcend my environment, I would never have graduated from college. I would never even have known it was possible to go in the first place. This is my way of giving something back."
Photo by Charles Harrington