Drake Smith beat back his nerves by tapping into the courage of civil rights leaders, including his own family members, who had come face to face with ignorance.
The 17-year-old junior at Meade High School and president of the Anne Arundel County NAACP Youth and College Division sat and faced the stoic board members ready to make a courageous ask: an apology.
“Anne Arundel County has a problem with race, a problem that we have allowed to fester like an untreated wound. Since my grandfather was a little boy, this problem of racism has woven itself into the fabric of this county,” Smith said at the November meeting.
Since Smith heard about a video from Northeast High students using a racist slur he felt a sense of disappointment that he turned into action. In addition to helping shape the school system’s new policy for bias-motivated behaviors, which have roiled the county in recent months, he has worked to mobilize students to confront a growing problem.
In the 2018 to 2019 school year, the school district saw the highest amount of “biased motivated behavior” incidents with 244 reports.
For Smith, the moment standing before powerful leaders was years in the making. His family has had a front row seat to the racial strife that’s has publicly boiled over in the county, and he grew up with grandparents, now in their 70s, who reminded their grandchildren that civil rights activism was part of their family’s legacy.
His grandmother, Georgette Queen, recalled how she used to attend Bates High before going to Arundel Senior High as part of school integration.
“I would get off the school bus every day, it is sad to think of, every afternoon the white kids would actually throw stones at me,” she said.
She and her husband would tell Smith about their struggles to instill a sense of pride and urgency in the next generation.
The stories resonated with Smith, who taps them as talking points: That segregation is only 60 years ago, that his grandparents are in their 70s and for them the memories are vivid. That the scars of segregation’s legacy are still raw in the black community.
“I like to know my personal history so that I can have talking points, like when people say racism is dead and black people made problems for themselves,” he said.
When Smith saw the video from Northeast High students on a social media app in November, he thought — not again. It was not the first one this school year.
Along with his cabinet at NAACP, Drake worked on a letter campaign to advocate for change. Last November, over 30 people from the community attended the school board meeting in support.
Before he stood at the podium to testify, he prayed and thought about everyone who attended, his family and community activists.
“My existence is still being denied as it was denied for my grandfather — 60 years ago. I am asking that tonight serves as a pivotal moment in this county’s actions on racism, tonight we move forward on starting a new dialogue on race.”
He offered a solution. Looking at the camera, he asked for the three girls in the video to apologize.
“We are not just trying to make a scene but a genuine apology,” he said.
Initially, the school board watched and listened. School board member Eric Grannon asked that the apology letters be adopted as part of the class students are required to take if involved in a bias motivated incident.
If a student has violated the code of conduct and shown biased behavior, the school system will require the student take a seven part class as part of the Bias Motivated Behavior Program.
Smith said the moment was surreal for him “because it was democracy in action.”
The school board obliged, agreeing to include an apology letter as part of a program for students who acted in a biased or racist manner. For others who have worked with Smith, they say he has the makings of a leader.
“He is very focused, I think he has great potential as a future leader, even in our country, he has that dynamic about him,” Rev. Marguerite Morris, a supervisor for the county’s NAACP Youth and College Division, said.
Morris said though he still needs to be nurtured and developed into one, she can see the leadership as he “takes his position seriously, he does his homework,” she said.
Smith is full of quotes from historical leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, and looks up to trailblazers such as Thurgood Marshall or presidents such as Jimmy Carter. Since third grade, he said social studies has been his favorite school subject. One of his earliest moments connecting with history was when his parents allowed him to stay home from kindergarten as he watched President Barack Obama’s inauguration.
“Obama was getting sworn in with Dr. King’s bible and Abraham Lincoln’s bible. They did a little story on Abraham Lincoln and I was like, Abraham Lincoln — we just learned about him! He was the 16th president,” he said.
As president of the youth and college division, Smith and his cabinet have worked to address other issues like low testing scores by African American students and access to food for students in need, efforts that have been acknowledged by others in NAACP.
“Drake has been involved in the educational issues and coming from the perspective of a student because that is what he is,” Jackie Allsup, the president of the county chapter, said.
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“He has come with creative and great ideas on how to accomplish some of the tasks that the youth and college division would like to accomplish,” she said.
Smith is also in the International Baccalaureate program at Meade High, on the baseball and indoor track team, part of the school’s honor society and participates in clubs Model UN, Rho Kappa Club and It’s Academic. He also attends the Wilson Memorial United Methodist Church and is the treasurer for the youth group, “301 C.R.E.W.”
Along with others in the youth and college division, Smith is working on the upcoming Black History Month program. The event will be held Sunday at Kingdom Celebration Center in Odenton at 5 p.m.
In the future, he said he hopes to attend college and major in political science — possibly at Howard University or the Naval Academy. But for now, he and his team continue to encourage other students to do more.
“We are trying to end this slacktivism. If you see something bad — you just repost it. And that’s the end of it. You are doing a good thing because you are letting a problem be known but if everyone knows about the problem and nothing is being done about it? It’s like nobody knows about the problem,” Smith said.