A Conversation with Stephen

A Conversation with Stephen

Want to know more about Stephen Smith? Below are some of the common questions we get during town halls, from donors, and during visits with small business owners and union shops.

Stephen Smith

I was born in Charleston, WV on December 18, 1979 at CAMC. My sister Allison was born in the same hospital three years later. The two of us grew up in my parent’s 2-bedroom house at 1562 Hampton Road. My parents left the front door unlocked and let me walk almost half a mile to Holz Elementary every morning. My dad, and his dad, all grew up in Charleston.

My dad’s family was from West Virginia and my mom’s family was from outside Chicago.

Mom’s dad Noble was an accountant, and her mom Harriet worked in a school cafeteria (though she was a famously bad cook). My grandpa Bernard, my dad’s dad, was a World War II veteran and worked in retail most of his life in both Charleston and Huntington, selling clothes and jewelry. My grandma Josie, his wife, was a force to be reckoned with in Huntington. She helped start the local women’s shelter and worked on countless other service projects.

Growing up, we would often visit my grandparents and my dad’s three brothers Gabe, Jeff, and Steve in Huntington, especially for the holidays. I’ve eaten at Jim’s Spaghetti more times than I can count and played in Ritter Park in every type of weather. We called my grandpa Pops, and it was thrilling to compete against him in ping pong, cards, you name it, because somehow the game was always close, but you would always win in the end.

West Virginians did.

Thousands of teachers and school service personnel shook our state capitol the last two years, demanding the pay and benefits they deserve. In those same months, CWA workers, Teamsters in Clarksburg, and SEIU in Huntington showed that this labor movement isn’t a fluke. Danielle Walker, a first-time working class candidate in Morgantown, defied what the political establishment said was possible when she won a WV House race in Morgantown…it was thrilling to see a whole class of new legislators pushing the envelope. And Kayla McCoy and hundreds of Greenbrier County residents are still re-building homes after the flood when the government failed them. There’s more: there’s the Jefferson County citizens who are uniting across party lines to take on the Rockwool facility and defend their land and the health of their children. And in every county we visit, thousands of grandparents and aunts and uncles are taking children into their homes, showing our state’s endless depth of care and resilience.

Everywhere in West Virginia our people are showing that the impossible is possible by taking power back into their hands. What if we had a State government that honored this power and these people, instead of undercutting them?

I’m running because we can build that government together.

People say “if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.”  Directing the Coalition was an honor and a joy. For more than 6 years, I got to wake up every morning and stand beside brilliant, bold, hardworking people who wanted nothing more than to do some good for their kids and communities.  The Coalition’s mission is “to make West Virginia the best place to live, work, and raise a family – no matter who you are.”

Over those 6 years, together we were able to help win 28 legislative campaigns that make a tangible difference for kids and families in every corner of the state. We helped raise the minimum wage for nearly 200,000 workers, we expanded school breakfast programs (by more than 5.2 million meals per year), and we saved child care benefits for over 12,000 families.

Our organization didn’t just focus on the Capitol.  Through programs like Try This West Virginia and Families Leading Change, we also recruited, trained, and helped fund over 300 new community gardens, after school programs, small businesses, and other anti-poverty projects.  WVU researchers found that for every $1 we invested into these mini-grants, local residents turned that $1 into $11 — in leveraged grants, in-kind donations, and volunteer hours. West Virginians know how to stretch a dollar.

To be certain, we did not win any of these victories because of me, or because of our organization alone.  We did not win because we had a lot of money. We won because we knew that no one was more capable or more creative than the folks who are closest to a problem.

My favorite moments from my job were when people got a real sense of how much change they could affect — for the first time.

I remember the moment when Sabrina Shrader from McDowell County (and about 125 of her friends) transformed an Interim Committee meeting at the legislature into an anti-poverty town hall – and legislators sat and listened and learned from the people in West Virginia who are hurting the most. Sabrina ended up on the front page of the Gazette the next day. Then the next year, she helped win juvenile justice reform. And since then, she’s just kept on going.

I’m also thinking of the moment when Marla Short and April Miller and hundreds of families packed the House chamber during the 2014 special session to make a last-ditch effort at restoring $980,000 in cuts to vital children’s and domestic violence programs.  Legislators had told us there was no way for them to even call for a vote. But they saw our power, and they found a way to call that vote. In the end, the vote was 98-0 in the House – because no one in either party wanted to disappoint those families.

That’s what this campaign is about.  It’s about showing one another what we’re capable of, so we can fight for what we deserve–and win.

After school, my wife Sara and I were living in Chicago. We loved it there but we wanted to live near family and we wanted to live in a place that felt like home.

My wife is my hero. By day, Sara is a relentless public defender – standing on the side of people who everyone else has given up on. By night, she’s a Cub Scout den leader, chasing 7 year-olds around a church gym – including our son, Jackson.

Sara says that if all you want from life is to buy fancy things and be left alone, West Virginia isn’t for you. But if you want to be part of something that is bigger than yourself – a neighborhood, an extended family, a movement, you can’t beat West Virginia.

It’s the absolute best way to get to know West Virginia.

We’ve already traveled to every county, at least twice. We go out of our way to meet people from all walks of life: small business owners, people in recovery, senior citizens, students, union workers, you name it.

And we never stay in hotels. We stay in supporters’ homes to save money. There is nothing like the feeling of being welcomed into someone’s house at the end of a long day.

Come find out for yourself. We are always looking for “road crew” volunteers to drive our campaign Jeep and help with logistics.

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