Ted Smith, 38, is often the youngest person in the room when attending various community meetings in West Philadelphia. Smith, born and raised in Mill Creek, said that while growing up, he often woke up and went to bed angry because of the lack of care for his community. One thing that particularly bothered him was the constant garbage littered on his street. One day he woke up, tired of being angry. He decided to be the change and started organizing pop-up clean-ups in his neighborhood.
He’s now raising two sons, ages 3 and 4, and wants to set an example for them. He became a committee person in 2012 and has been involved with the West Mill Creek Organization, Mill Creek on the Move, the Belmont Alliance Civic Association and the Philadelphia Citizens Planning Institute. He advocates for voting, families and young people in his area by teaching civics classes as well as organizing and volunteering at various voting registration drives.
Can you talk about the work you have done in West Philadelphia?
I started in the West Mill Creek area where we’ve been doing pop-up cleanups. It started with just more outreach. Also, I saw the blight in our community and one of the things I wanted to do was become a community developer, so that’s why I went to the Planning Institute and wanted to be part of the movement for us. And what I was seeing was the developers who were coming to our communities don’t look like us and they aren’t even from Philadelphia. So, we’re trying to find some way to enter that. And then after that, the ball just started rolling. Then I became a committee person. Then I started doing much more stuff, started a community organization in West Mill Creek and went from there.
Can you talk a little bit about Mill Creek On The Move and how that got started?
It got started because I wanted to start a CDC (Community Development Corporation). So we can, in our community, we can sustain ourselves and not have to depend too much on government assistance and things of that nature and be self-sustaining. So part of being a CDC, you can be able to acquire properties where you can be able to get money and don’t have to be as restricted, I would say, as a nonprofit. So when I started thinking about that, I started saying let’s do it. Let’s get it moving.
And through all of this, you’ve managed to keep young people at the forefront. You were a chair for youth engagement for the Belmont Alliance Civic Association. What do you do to encourage young people to be involved?
Yeah, it’s trying to get the word out because that’s where we’re lacking. What I’m finding is that we don’t have a civics class in school. So you know the quote, “Out of sight, out of mind?” Since it’s so hard to reach our young people, because by 16, 17, when it’s time for them to vote, they don’t have any clue about voting. Voting isn’t talked about at home. Voting isn’t talked about in schools, so it’s hard to grasp them. So, what we’re trying to do is now is try to start a little earlier with doing little Christmas things, book bag drives, and just not necessarily to talk to them about voting but talk to them about the importance of community.
What age do you think voting needs to be talked about?
I would say from first grade. At least some type of introduction to civics. People know about city council but they don’t know exactly what a city councilperson is supposed to do. They know Congress but they don’t know what their congressperson is supposed to do and how to hold their feet to the fire and say, “Listen, you’ve been sitting here for the last 10 years and I don’t see any improvement in my community, so what are you going to do for us?” But they also need to understand that congressmen cover a lot of different demographics. City council covers some demographics. You have to understand there are different roles.
What are the different ways you advocate for young people?
I try to do a lot of civics classes. I have another one coming up soon before the election. We’re also doing mentorship programs, peer counseling and teaching about conflict resolution. So we have a lot of things in the works that we plan on doing. It hasn’t rolled out yet because our center, at 51st and Parrish, is getting renovated. So, we probably won’t start until the new year.
Do you feel that young people are getting the information you’re sending out to them?
I do. I think they are but it’s not only coming from me. It’s also coming from the news, the media, etc. For better or for worse, [President Donald Trump] being in office right now sparked a lot of conversation. Now, people are starting to be inquisitive, they’re starting to ask questions and trying to figure things out. He woke a lot of people up.
What else is next for you as a community leader?
With me, right now, it’s about putting it all together and make it work like a well-oiled machine. God forbid I’m not here, somebody else can continue on and see everything through.
Are there any young people in West Philly that you see are advocating for the community?
Not really young, no. Everybody I see is like 30-plus. I rarely see high school students. I know a girl, she’s a little younger, about 25, maybe 27, but no. Unfortunately.
Do you know why they are not advocating? Do you think it’s because they’re not getting the full education or are they scared?
Complacent, possibly. I think it also goes back to what we were talking about before with the early education. I think there’s no early push from parents from the home and the school to be more active in the community. I know in high school you have to do an “X” amount of hours in community service, but what about elementary and middle school? I just feel that the push isn’t there to really get involved.
-Text and images by Kaicey Baylor and Taylor Allen.