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Kyle Smith

Serving by doing by LARA JO HIGHTOWER NWA Democrat-Gazette | January 27, 2019 at 1:00 a.m.
NWA Democrat-Gazette/DAVID GOTTSCHALK "Kyle always makes an impression. He is passionate, well researched, well reasoned, and well intentioned -- so when he speaks, he speaks with credibility. I love that Kyle listens to all sides of an issue and truly gives all opinions weight, even if it isn't his opinion." -- Don Marr

For Kyle Smith, Fayetteville's City Council Ward 4 representative, becoming politically active and engaged in his city's day-to-day functions was a revelation. It happened during the Council's controversial attempt to pass a civil rights ordinance in 2014. Smith, who was not then on the Council, supported efforts to add protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity, veteran status, socioeconomic background and marital status through an ordinance named Chapter 119.

"I had never talked to anybody at the city or on City Council," says Smith, who teaches math at Har-Ber High School in Springdale. "It quickly became apparent that it was about to blow up into a big thing. So I showed up, and I joined that big, long line around the block at City Hall. I had my big binder of numbers -- I'm a math guy, so I put together a speech that talked about the quantitative aspects of this ordinance and who it would impact. We were there for 10½ hours, and they approved it."

It was a heady moment, even if it was short lived -- he would soon find himself a big part of the effort to save Chapter 119 when it was up for repeal via special election -- and Smith says it taught him a powerful lesson that would change the trajectory of his life.

"Not everybody gets what they want [in political negotiations]," he notes. "But nobody gets what they want if they don't get involved and let people know what they want."

Learning young

It's possible that the seeds of civic engagement were planted early for Smith. He spent the majority of his youth in Fairfield Bay, where his mother worked as an accountant and his father was a civil engineer for the city.

"I spent my early childhood climbing around sewer plants and driving around on Sundays after church, scouting for potholes that needed to be fixed on Monday," he says.

Smith went to school in nearby Shirley, a small, close-knit community with just 217 kids in his school between the grades of seven and 12.

"A lot of the families were very closely related to each other," says Smith. "And we moved in when I was 4, so we were not connected to the town. Being the nerdy, tech-y kid in a rural country kind of place was hard. And I had no fashion sense. I was prone to running around in one-color sweatsuits every day. 'Today is a red day; tomorrow will be a green day.'"

But Smith found solace in the same place he found the bullies: school.

"I was a band kid -- that's kind of where I found my people," says Smith. "And the science teacher was my safe escape from the school bullies. I ended up getting into computer stuff with him, because he was in charge of building the school's network. By ninth or 10th grade, I was getting called out of class by the office to go take the phone call from the Dell customer service representative who was calling about the computers in the library."

It was also around that time that the school allowed him to teach a computer class to his peers to earn an independent study credit. In addition to computers and science, math rounded out the three subjects that captured his attention and imagination.

"In the third grade, I knew what I was going to be when I grew up," he says. "The day they taught us long division, I went home and told Mom I was going to be a math teacher. I loved it. I got it. It made sense to me, and I could help others. I spent the rest of third grade helping people with their math homework."

When he was a senior in high school, Smith, his mother and his younger sister moved to Fayetteville, where his mother was from and where many members of her family still lived. The purpose of the move was to be closer to a family support system: Smith's parent's divorced when he was in sixth grade, though, he says, his mother did a remarkable job of shielding him and his younger sister from any ugliness associated with the breakup.

"Looking back, whatever she was going through, we were oblivious to it, because she was there for everything we needed and made sure that we knew it. I can't imagine what kind of a drain that was on her, to continue being anything and everything for us. And I would say that that buffer right there is probably what shielded me from massive trauma during that whole thing. I know that a lot of kids go through a really hard time [during divorce]. For me, it was hard, it wasn't fun, but it was OK. What I realized is that if a parent has done such a good job of protecting you from any sort of misery, you don't realize how good she is at that."

Finding Fayetteville

High school in Fayetteville was an eye-opening experience. Smith challenged himself by taking college classes in English and social studies while completing his senior year and went out of state for an engineering camp. When one of his friends from engineering camp announced he was attending Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, Smith applied on a whim -- and was accepted. Having him go to school so far away from Arkansas was difficult for his tight-knit family.

"My grandpa pulled me aside one day and said, 'If you go, if you leave this town, you're never coming back. You'll never live here again,'" remembers Smith, who still gets choked up by the memory. "But there's that joke, you know, that everyone goes away from Fayetteville, but they always come back. He didn't realize that. Looking back, so much later, I realize how important this town became to me. I look back on that moment, and I'm so glad that he was wrong, because he wasn't wrong about much."

Three years as a residence assistant at RIT -- which helped him pay for room and board at the expensive college -- had him considering a career in college administration. After graduation, he took a position at Buena Vista College in Storm Lake, Iowa, as a housing administrator.

It was not a good fit.

"Holy culture shock," says Smith, laughing. "They funded a bus three nights a week to shuttle kids to the bar, and it let out right in front of one of my buildings. I had half the student body -- most of the freshmen and the football team. I was on 2 a.m. duty in the lobby, just to keep people from setting the lobby on fire or throwing flaming couches out of the third floor window. And I had never had a drink in my life."

Add the fact that Iowa winters are brutal and long, and Smith found himself miserable. He finished out the school year, but he turned in his resignation midway. By summer, he was back in Fayetteville, directionless and living with his mother.

"My sister was a sophomore at Fayetteville High School that year, and I went and signed up to be a substitute teacher," he says. "And on the third day I was substitute teaching, I stopped looking for other jobs, and I told them in the office that they could sign me up any and every day. And they did. I probably worked an average of four and a half days a week, mostly at the high school, but also a few other places."

He may have forgotten his third grade conviction that teaching math was the right career path, but after just a week or two of substitute teaching, it came roaring back to him. He finished the Master of Arts in Teaching program at the University of Arkansas in a year and landed a teaching position at Bentonville High School, where he taught for 11 years before moving to Har-Ber.

Just the facts

"Kyle is a very passionate teacher who always wants what is best for his students," says Bentonville colleague Kimmery Kobe. "His creativity is definitely a strength of his when it comes to designing lessons that will engage students and help them understand new topics. Kyle takes the time to think critically about the different ways to approach a problem and allows his students to do the same. He encourages his students to never give up and to use their mistakes to modify their approach and keep learning."

"I really enjoy the content and the opportunities and getting kids to see new things," Smith says. "I kind of look at teaching like I look at computer programming -- it's all in organizing the process right. You're programming brains instead of programming computers. It's not that drastically different if you look at it step by step, analyze the problem and how you're going to approach it."

It's this analytical approach to problem solving that, friends and colleagues say, is key to Smith's success in his professional, advocacy and political careers so far.

"He's good at what he does because he researches and has the data and probably two dozen spreadsheets for any given topic," says Laura Phillips, who co-founded the advocacy group For Fayetteville and worked with Smith on both the Chapter 119 and Ordinance 5781 campaigns. Smith eschewed an emotional appeal during his first address to the City Council in 2014, instead using hard data to emphasize the economic benefits of expanding civil rights protections. "He cares -- a lot. He's also a very logical thinking person and can see a few steps ahead."

Smith had realized how valuable his big picture, logical, data-driven thinking skills could be when coupled with civic engagement when he took part in a letter writing campaign to keep Fayetteville High School in its current location -- rather than dividing it into two different campuses -- and when he followed the footsteps of his good friend Joseph Porter to leadership positions within the Northwest Arkansas Center for Equality. But when he committed to seeing an expanded civil rights ordinance pass in Fayetteville, he threw everything he had into the effort. When an anti-Chapter 119 petition gained enough signatures to put the fate of the ordinance in the hands of a special election, Smith volunteered his time, energy and money to the effort that was run by the Human Rights Campaign. He never missed a city council meeting from that date forward.

"Laura Phillips and I kind of became the on-the-spot City Hall crew," he says. "We went to everything, just to make sure there was always someone there in the audience representing our point of view to speak up. I knocked on about 4,200 doors; I said [to the HRC organizers], 'Give me a list and send me to a neighborhood.'"

Leading by doing

Despite the effort, Chapter 119 was defeated in the special election in late 2014. However, a new ordinance with significant changes -- Ordinance 5781 -- was introduced on June 5, 2015, and passed via special election on Sept. 8 that year. Smith took a stronger leadership role in the second round, taking on the title of ballot question committee chairman.

Smith credits the win the second time around to keeping the campaign efforts local.

"We used a lot of what we'd learned from the HRC experience," he says. "We went into it with the local message, spent about half as much the second time around, and every bit of it came from local donors and local labor. And it was really a labor of love the second time around. And that's what I think made the difference, because people knew it."

Smith says the roller coaster experience of being a part of both efforts taught him some valuable lessons and lit a fire inside him to help be part of the solution.

"No decision we make as a government has any legitimacy if we don't have people involved in the discussion," he says. "That's not to say that everybody who speaks up gets what they asked for, because there are 80,000 people in this town with different opinions. After the [Ordinance 5781] campaign, I continued attending council meetings. It started just out of curiosity and interest. Then seeing how many impactful items come up, it became more like civic duty. I never felt a need to get up and talk about every item, but I did see it as a time to learn about the city operations and to test myself in developing a consistent, reasoned and community-focused policy perspective."

When Ward 4 City Council member Alan Long announced his resignation in November 2017, Smith threw his hat in the ring for consideration as his replacement.

"Alan Long's resignation came as a surprise and kind of messed with my plans to run in the fall," says Smith. "But even on short notice, I knew I was going to throw my name in. I'd worked on Alan's campaign and shared most of his sensibilities, so it seemed like a natural fit."

"When all of the civil rights ordinance discussions were going on, I thought, "Here's a smart, bright, well-spoken young professional, and we need to get him involved in city government in other areas -- hopefully he isn't a one issue person,'" says City of Fayetteville Chief of Staff Don Marr. "'We need to find out what he would like the city to be like, and we need to engage him.' Lucky for us, we did, and he grabbed that opportunity and ran with it. I think he is working hard for the citizens of Fayetteville every day."

Smith and Phillips created a Facebook group -- For Fayetteville -- to support the efforts to pass a civil rights ordinance. That effort was so successful that the group would grow nearly 7,000 followers strong. Smith says he still utilizes social media in order to communicate with his constituents.

"I do that so people know that I'm out working for them, but I also do it because it's fun to get the feedback," he says. "Honestly, I'm not here to cast Kyle's votes and make Kyle's decisions. Really, I'm here to make sure that everybody's involved. That's why we brought the second ordinance and why we didn't ask the Council to just pass it like they did the first time. We asked them to refer it to voters so that voters could have a say. That's why I have worked every election since then through For Fayetteville to turn out voters to vote for candidates. You lose track of your government when you're not participating in it, and the best way to make sure that we have good representatives is for everybody to be involved in the discussion."

Smith answers quickly when asked about the city's biggest challenges in the coming years.

"Managing population growth is going to be our biggest challenge," he says. "More people are coming here, whether we want them or not. Fayetteville will not stay the same. It never has. I think part of what makes people nervous about growth and change is the fact that we've got something good that they don't want to lose. But if they've ever left and come back and found [Fayetteville] different but just as good, they recognize that what has drawn us here is not any one thing. It's the people here, and the idea of it, that we all work so damn hard at keeping it amazing."

Smith is mum about whether he'll run in 2020 but he has an answer for when the campaigning might start, if he does run.

"To be perfectly honest, I look at the mayor's model of campaigning," says Smith. "He never starts because he never stopped. He's just out there doing right by the people of Fayetteville every chance he gets. I hope that I can do the same thing. That goes all the way back to the college days, where the most fun work I've ever done has been to be a part of the place that I live and part of making it a more pleasant place to be -- making sure it takes care of everybody, and nobody gets overlooked."

Through Others’ Eyes

“Kyle is present. He participates, he listens and he engages citizens in not only what they think, but why they think what they think. He also does an excellent job helping educate others on issues facing the city. Whether that is digital inclusion and affordable internet access for everyone, or how our community is growing, and what are ways that we can stay a great place to live, he cares and he works hard trying to move us in a positive direction.” — Don Marr

”I can totally see him in a role in public service even [higher] than he is now. He’s good at it. He cares. He’s one of the only people that I’ve looked at and thought, ‘Yeah, you’d do great beyond city council.’ I don’t know what his future brings but I hope it’s a bigger job, either with the city or on the county or state level.” — Laura Phillips

“Since Kyle is such a creative thinker, I think he has a lot to offer in terms of policy and city planning. He is detail oriented and researches different options before deciding what is best for our city.” — Kimmery Kobe

Next Week

Sam Sanders

Little Rock

NAN Profiles on 01/27/2019

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