Eshauna Smith: How Can We Level The Playing Field Of Luck?

Mar 1, 2019

Part 5 of the TED Radio Hour episode Luck, Fortune, And Chance.

About Eshauna Smith's TED Talk

Eshauna Smith says we cannot let luck decide the fate of underprivileged youth—we need to make purposeful interventions to create opportunities for all kids to reach their full potential.

About Eshauna Smith

Eshauna Smith is the CEO of Urban Alliance, a national youth development nonprofit that provides low-income youth with access to the opportunity, support, and training needed to encourage lasting economic self-sufficiency.

Prior to joining Urban Alliance, Smith worked as a Senior Policy Advisor in the Washington, D.C. Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education where she led the development of Raise D.C., the District's first cradle-to-career partnership focused on improving educational and workforce development outcomes for Washington, D.C. youth from 0-24.

Smith received her undergraduate degree from the University of California, Berkeley and a Masters of Public Affairs from the University of Texas, Austin.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

On the show today, ideas about luck and whether success is determined by chance or hard work or something more complicated than that.

ESHAUNA SMITH: I think that you have to work really hard and get a lot of help.

RAZ: This is Eshauna Smith.

SMITH: And that's like sort of what people want to talk about is that, like, you need a lot of doors to be opened for you.

RAZ: Eshauna's the CEO of Urban Alliance.

SMITH: And our focus is to support low-income students to be able to access early and meaningful workforce experience.

RAZ: Eshauna grew up in a pretty rough neighborhood in LA. And for most of her life, she thought the reason she got out of there was because of luck. Here's more from Eshauna Smith on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SMITH: Growing up, it seemed to come down to the luck of the draw as to who made it out and who didn't. And I used to think that I was one of the ones who just happened to get lucky. My mom was 19 and single when she had me in 1975. And three years later, I was the lone flower girl at my parents' wedding. And two years after that, my little sister was born. And I still felt lucky because even though I was the one who had to grab my little sister and carry her out of the room when my dad began to hit my mom, I felt lucky that I saw firsthand the life that I didn't want. My mom eventually left my dad. And we moved to California for a new start. And she did the very best that she could to raise myself, my sister and, eventually, a third daughter largely on her own.

We arrived in Los Angeles in 1984 at a peak time in gang activity. And we settled into a pretty violent neighborhood. There were regular shootings and violence all around. And it all came to a head during the Los Angeles riots in 1993, when I was just a junior in high school. Over the years, my sister and I have experienced two very different life paths. Mine has led me to this stage, and hers is an everyday struggle to raise three kids largely on her own and to do daily battle with generational poverty that chases each day.

I used to think that the difference between our life paths had to be due to chance or luck or fate for she is no less smart, talented or capable because what you have to understand is that while we grew up poor, we were surrounded by countless amazing and brilliant folks who had many talents but no opportunities for those talents to flourish. And it seemed that only a very lucky few made it out.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: So when you saw who made it out of your neighborhood and who didn't, you just assumed it had to do with luck.

SMITH: That's how I began to think about it, that my sister was doing something completely different. And I was trying to figure that out. But also, I was thinking about all of the girls that I grew up with. And all of us were, you know, young, talented, happy, young girls. And then when we graduated, I realized that I may have been the only one of us out of sort of 8 or 9 girls that I grew up with on my block who - either they had had a baby senior year or they had one right after high school. So I was like, OK. Maybe I'm just one of the lucky people. So yeah, for a long time, I was like, that has to be the answer.

RAZ: And, I mean, you could, understandably, look at that and say, I got lucky.

SMITH: You could. What happened to me, potentially, is a form of luck. But what I realized is that if there were more of what I had received, then it wouldn't be left to chance.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

SMITH: As I've gotten older and reflected on my childhood, I now know that it wasn't luck at all. I got out of my neighborhood because of purposeful and meaningful intervention by adults in my community who made it possible for me to have a better life. I got my very first job the summer after my ninth grade year at Earle R. Hupp CPA. And I can say again that what saved my life wasn't luck but those adults in my community who made it their duty to make sure that I was exposed to realities outside of my own, including their help and support with me in getting me my first job.

At Earle R. Hupp CPA, I had built up a pretty strong reputation. And I was considered to be a real part of the team. And what this experience taught me, more than anything else, is that no matter where I was from, no matter what I didn't have, that I could fit in with people from very different worlds and experiences than my own. It taught me that I was good enough. It gave me hope. I recently came across a quote that said, talent is universal but opportunity is not. The question, I think, for us as a community and as a society is, how can we create more access to opportunity?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: So aside from starting to create opportunities, how do you think we could change it on a massive scale? Like, how would we create a future where everybody had exposure to, quote, unquote, "luck"?

SMITH: That is a big question (laughter) that we've been, you know, trying to figure out, I think, as a country for a while. But on a big, big scale, I think - the first thing that comes to mind for me is our educational system. I mean, I know that's huge to attack. But still today, you know, Brown vs. Board of Education being in 1954, we are - they are still, every day, litigating to try and make sure that public schools are evenly equipped with the right resources and that the schools in, you know, black neighborhoods versus white neighborhoods or other neighborhoods are not, you know, having these unequal resources. And we're still fighting that fight.

So I think, you know, high school is that last free public space before you're out into the world. And, you know, if we can reform those systems and make our schools a little bit more equal in terms of resources, that will go a long way to making sure that people don't have to rely on luck.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: That's Eshauna Smith. She's the CEO of Urban Alliance. You can see her full talk at ted.npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LADY LUCK")

RICHARD SWIFT: (Singing) Lady luck, she is lovely. Lady luck, she is free. But I wish sometimes that lady luck, she would find some time to spend with me.

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to our show on luck this week. If you want to find out more about who was on it, go to ted.npr.org. And to see hundreds more TED Talks, check out ted.com or the TED app.

Our production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Jinae West, Neva Grant, Casey Herman, Rachel Faulkner, Diba Mohtasham, James Delahoussaye, Melissa Gray and J.C. Howard with help from Daniel Shukin, Mia Venkat and Daryth Gayles. Our intern is Katie Monteleone. Our partners at TED Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Janet Lee. I'm Guy Raz. And you've been listening to ideas worth spreading right here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.