Driving through the Como neighborhood of Fort Worth, Myeshia Smith is reminded of the neighborhood where she grew up in Houston. She sees similarities in the many churches, strong family ties and the sense of pride.

It’s those reminders of home that encouraged her to run a nonprofit supporting young people and community-police relationships.

“I tell (students) all the time, if I can do it, then you can do it,” Smith said. “Because I’m no smarter, no different than you. I was just fortunate enough to have people to love and support me, to hold me accountable, while also supporting me.”

Smith is the first executive director of Operation Progress, a nonprofit that aims to serve students in underserved communities and provide them mentorship from Fort Worth Police Department officers in an effort to improve community relations. The nonprofit is modeled after an organization of the same name in Los Angeles. The Fort Worth version of the organization was created by the associate dean of graduate studies and professor at Texas Christian University, Johnny Nahn, and the Fort Worth Police Department chief, Neil Noakes. Smith started as executive director in 2020. 

In her role, Smith is in charge of managing relationships and regular check-ins with families, students and the police officers who serve as mentors in the program. She is a team of one running the organization, along with interns who tutor students. She also works with the Fort Worth Police Department to form mentorships with students. Officers meet with students at least once a week, doing activities like eating lunch together or going on field trips, Smith said.

Smith grew up in Houston’s Third Ward neighborhood and there attended the High School for Law and Justice, which she said was a great experience. She was on the legal studies track, where students were able to work at law firms and access law libraries. Smith’s friends who went to other schools in the low-income district didn’t have the same resources.

“They didn’t have enough books,” Smith said. “And so, for me, it was my first time experiencing or recognizing educational inequality.”

When Smith’s father died of lung cancer when she was 15 years old, her high school provided grief counseling, which was her first experience with any counseling. That was the moment she realized mental health services were an underutilized resource in the Black community. 

“Without that happening to me, I don’t know if I would have even explored psychology or counseling,” Smith said. 

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All these experiences culminated in her current role. 

Smith now has a Ph.D. in guidance and psychological services, with a specialty in school psychology and public administration. Mental health is something she emphasizes in her program. Parents who have kids in the Operation Progress program can take a parenting journey class online that is taught by a licensed clinical social worker.

“For many of our families, it’s their first time working with a mental health professional, and it helps to break down that stigma of mental health,” Smith said. 

Providing mentorship for students goes beyond tutoring and academic case management, she said. It’s also about social emotional learning and community service. 

Those types of programs helped Priscila Medina, a junior at Texas Christian University, who interned with Operation Progress in Fort Worth and also was a mentee in the Los Angeles version.

Growing up in south Los Angeles, Medina said, she was surrounded by negative factors like drugs. The mentorship that helped her through school, with everyday activities such as homework or sports, guided her toward becoming a police officer herself, so that she could give back. Now, she also wants to be a mentor with Operation Progress Fort Worth after college. Medina said Smith has a positive energy that makes her a good leader who is easy to work with. 

“She has her own problems to deal with, like every other individual in life, but she never shows that,” Medina said. “She’s always coming in and just giving good positive energy, she’s always excited to do what she does. And she’s always just motivated.”

‘An aunt for all of Como’

Smith’s involvement in the program is often hands-on. She participates in programs that teach students new skills such as painting planter boxes, building wall shelves and cutting grass. Smith leans into new and sometimes difficult experiences because she wants to be a role model.

“It may be uncomfortable, but growth comes from discomfort,” Smith said. “And although I’m not the best at it, I’m going to give it my best and see it through.”

Durrel Douglas has known Smith for more than 20 years. They took the same school bus and attended the same high school.

Douglas believes that Smith’s variety of school and work experiences — from higher education to nonprofits — will make her an asset in Fort Worth. Plus, she really cares, he said. In a phone interview, Douglas said Smith is often busy doing something for the students or mentors who are a part of Operation Progress.

“She’s becoming like an aunt for all of Como, if you really think about it,” Douglas said. “What does your aunt do? They show up to your piano recital. They take you grocery shopping. They listen to you. They help you with your homework. They encourage you. That’s Myeshia.”

Smith said her job doesn’t feel like work because she really enjoys the students as they grow and mature. The oldest scholars in the program are now in the eighth grade. 

“I wish that I had an opportunity for a program like Operation Progress when I was growing up,” Smith said. “And so, I find it rewarding to be able to be a part of this, especially from the very beginning.”

Smith said she hopes the city becomes less about who someone knows in circles of influence  and more about widening those circles. She has bright hopes for Como.

“Como is growing and increasing diversity,” Smith said. “And that is my hope that leadership can represent that change. I want to also see businesses being started here … to increase professional opportunities for people and more grocery stores.” 

Myeshia Smith bio: 

Birthplace: Houston 

Moved to Fort Worth: May 2020

Family: “I was born to Lawrence and Debretha Smith. Two years later, I became the proud big sister of Maretta Smith. She was my first and best friend. My parents divorced, and my family expanded. My mom married an amazing man and father, Jackie Hayes, and they have been happily married for 27 years.” When Smith was 15, her father passed away. “My most rewarding role is serving as an aunt to my two nieces, Leah (13) and London (5). I have a close-knit family and their support has empowered me to achieve my dreams.”

Education: Indiana State University (2019): doctorate of philosophy in guidance and psychological services, APA accredited specialization: school psychology; subspecialty: public administration. Dissertation Topic: “Examining the Teacher: Factors Influencing Teacher’s Usage of Culturally Responsive Practices and Classroom Management.”

Indiana State University (2014): Master of Education 

Sam Houston State University (2011): Master of Arts in counseling, CACREP

Accredited specialization: marriage and family therapy

Sam Houston State University (2008): Bachelor of Arts in criminal justice; minors in psychology, English

Work experience: Executive director, Operation Process Fort Worth, 2020-present; assistant director for student accessibility services, Trinity University, 2018-2020; director of pupil appraisal, Einstein Charter Schools, 2016-2018; ABA therapist II, Unlocking The Spectrum, 2014-2016.

Volunteer experience: “I currently serve on the Mayor’s Committee for Persons with Disabilities and The Ladder Alliance. In addition, I have participated in the Cowtown Clean-Up and volunteered for Cloud Covered Streets.” 

First job: “AIG American General. I attended the High School for Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice in Houston. At the end of my junior year of high school, I interviewed with multiple companies (corporate and legal) and matched with AIG. This served as my co-op placement. I worked full time during the summer and part time during my senior year of high school.”

Advice for someone learning to be a leader: “The best advice I can give to someone learning to be a leader is to periodically ask yourself: ‘How do I want to best serve the world?’ The answer to this question will change throughout one’s life; however, it serves as an authentic guiding light. The advice I typically give to others is that leadership requires you to make difficult decisions. And with every decision, you must be able to defend it and be proud of the person you see when you look in the mirror.”

Best advice ever received: “The best advice I received was from Dr. Davadrita Talapatra at Indiana State University. Moving from Houston to Terre Haute, Indiana, was a significant culture shock. I spoke differently from my peers, and I was trying to conform to their norm. Dr. Talapatra told me to focus on what I said vs. how I said it because the content was most important. That freed me and my brain. With this freedom, I speak more confidently and from my heart.”

Seth Bodine is a business and economic development reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at seth.bodine@fortworthreport.org and follow on Twitter at @sbodine120.

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Seth Bodine is the business reporter for the Fort Worth Report. He previously covered agriculture and rural issues in Oklahoma for the public radio station, KOSU, as a Report for America corps member....