On Monday night, Jamal Smith ‘03 gave a talk to students about what it is like to work in politics. Smith is a positive force of energy and his excitement is contagious. However, if there is one trait that defines Smith, it is persistence. He graduated from Bates in only three years and continued to work on Obama’s and Clinton’s presidential campaigns. Today, he is the Deputy Director of Operations at Planned Parenthood in New York.
Even though Smith has had a lot of success in his career after college, he started off his talk stating that, “I really feel like I’ve made my career out of losing in politics.” He worked for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign, which lost the general election. He then worked on Obama’s two winning campaigns. Afterwards, in 2010 he moved to Miami, Florida to work for a non-profit. People often ask him about what it’s like to win campaigns, to this Smith says, “I’m actually more interested in the story of what it’s like to lose. Because although I’ve had successes, the thing that has brought me forward professionally and personally was knowing how to lose and to get back up and keep on going”
“One month in I was laid off, and found myself homeless and living in my car in Miami. This is after I did everything I was supposed to do. I graduated Bates in three years. I went to law school, you know, I worked hard, kept my nose clean, did all these presidential campaigns, and here I am living in my car. And that’s when I really had to question why it is that we do what we do.”
Smith says that it is of utmost importance to be gracious and not to take anything for granted. After being laid off, he learned that in order to make it in the modern-day professional world he would have to make himself indispensable. Smith discovered his ‘why’, shortly after his first experience of failure: “For me it was because I just believe I had something to contribute. I felt like I believed I could be of help and of service. I felt like being a person of color, I felt like being out, was critical for that. And I made the choice that I was going to stay in politics. And I hustled and I scraped.”
Eventually, the Clinton Foundation asked him to do an interview in New York. Although he was only starting to get back on his feet, he took up the offer and with a little help got a ticket to New York City. This time, he was motivated more than ever to exercise his ‘why’: “There I am working during the day, going to volunteer at night. I was doing a 100 hours a week, a lot of it unpaid because I was volunteering, but I really believed in it. And if I just put my foot in the door, I knew it would work out.”
His hard work paid off, and as Smith said, “Through making myself indispensable, willing to do anything that was asked: from getting coffee to writing memos to making telephone calls, I got connected in the African American outreach department. And that’s when I said this is who I’m going to be and this is what I’m going to do.” And for a while it did work out, until Clinton lost the 2016 general election to Donald Trump.
“And then I was in the position where I was back at square one. Because when you lose in a campaign, it’s all gone. That’s it…Everything I worked for for ten years, everything that I had struggled for, everything I thought I believed in myself was clean board. And I had to start over.”
A lot of millennials are entering a workforce that cannot guarantee a 10 year job. Our generation must be agile, and take job opportunities on a whim. After his Miami experience, Smith knew how to pick up himself and start over. He reflected, “I went back to doing things that I really loved to do. I went back to teaching for a little bit and I just got back to social media and my Linked in…And through that Planned Parenthood reached out to me…And this was shortly after the campaign and honestly I really didn’t want to go to work. Didn’t want to work hard again. [I] wasn’t even sure if I wanted to do anything difficult or be in politics. But you know when there’s a good opportunity you just have to jump on the ticket.”
One of the biggest lessons Smith has learned in his life is that opportunities come at inopportune moments: “A lot of times in life, particularly in politics. You don’t have the luxury to choose when your opportunities are going to come. You have to have the courage to say yes when they come, and jump on them.” Instead of declining the offer at Planned Parenthood, he showed up to the interview and took it one step at a time.
After being asked what a graduate should look for in a job, Smith said, “One rule that I’ve always found super helpful, especially in the first jobs I got out of college, was look for the jobs with two things: where you can learn the most, like get the most skills, and meet the most people.”
Another take away from Smith’s conversation was the need to hustle in daily life: “Bates I think helped me out because, when I was here I learned how to do two things that are really important. I think one, I really learned how to hustle. There are so many opportunities at Bates, whether it’s study abroad or short term. Or even just creating your own opportunities… The other thing is especially being a person of color, being in a marginalized group, learning how to work in an environment where I maybe wasn’t comfortable and wasn’t natural for me, or wasn’t what I was used to, and still being successful.”
Smith ended the talk with a message of hope: “When you understand your ‘why’, everything will fall into place.”