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Casselle Smith: Working for Change from a Young Age

Casselle Smith’s passion for public service began in her hometown of Greensboro, North Carolina. She remembers accompanying her mother and brother to Yum Yum, a family-owned hot dog store on the UNC-Greensboro campus. Her mother, who worked at Cone Mills and was a union shop steward, would pass out union leaflets as they enjoyed the summer evenings.

Learning at the knee of a union organizer

Casselle draws a great deal of inspiration from her mother. “She was college-educated but forwent becoming a professor to be a labor movement activist,” says Casselle. Though union organizing kept the family in what some would call “disadvantaged” circumstances, Casselle and her brother—School of Government Assistant Professor Karl Smith—always believed that they could do anything and be anything they wanted. It is that feeling of empowerment and promise that Casselle wants for “every poor kid growing up in a low-income neighborhood.”

While standing by her mother’s side on union blitzes in Salisbury, North Carolina, Casselle learned firsthand that “the most powerful way to organize workers was from within.” That insight would prove to be useful in her future.

Working for change in the public defender service

At Howard University, she double-majored in sociology and administration of justice and was an intern with the Public Defender Service (PDS) for the District of Columbia. As a Fellow for PDS after graduation, she found that she could make real change in the lives of individuals who had been pushed to the margins of society. “We were not just fighting for their freedom from incarceration; we were trying to help them see beyond their distrust in a system that had failed them, and to break them out of their own entrenched disillusionment,” says Casselle.

Looking at the bigger picture: acquiring skills to make systemic change

She went on to Harvard Law School because she believed that a legal education would “help me effect systemic change in the structural inequality that has plagued so many communities for generations.” At the end of her first year of law school, Casselle was granted membership in the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau, the nation’s oldest student-run legal services center and one of three historic honor societies at Harvard Law School. After serving as a student attorney who practiced housing law and represented indigent tenants in the Boston Housing Court, she became the organization’s president.

So what drew Casselle to the MPA program? Though law school provided her with opportunities to broaden her worldview and with many useful skills, she says the MPA marries critical thinking and analysis with the skills of public management. Additionally, she says, “It is wonderful to be involved in a school that plays such an integral part in supporting my home state. I am able to learn the hard skills of public management through the North Carolina lens.”

In her spare time, Casselle likes to lift weights, an activity she describes as pushing through the weakness to find strength. “If poverty were eradicated tomorrow,” she says, “I might might leave public service and become a personal trainer.”

Casselle Smith received the 2010–2011 Diversity in Public Service Scholarship.