On Oct. 26, CNN named Sheldon Smith of Chicago-based Dovetail Project as one of its top 10 CNN Heroes of 2016. One of the 10 people will be honored as the “CNN Hero of the Year.” All of the heroes will be recognized during a Dec. 11 broadcast on CNN.
Smith helps young Black men with parenting and life-building skills. In 2012, he received a Sargent Shriver Youth Warriors Against Poverty Leadership Award from Marguerite Casey Foundation, which publishes Equal Voice News. The following is a March 2014 story about his community work and Shriver Award. He also was named as one of “America’s Next Leaders” by Marguerite Casey Foundation.
By the time he was 17, Sheldon Smith had already served time in jail and was about to become a father. He appeared to be on his way toward becoming another dismal statistic despite having been an eloquent youth organizer as a young teen.
But, instead of letting those significant challenges daunt him, Sheldon used them to drive his resolve for change – both within the criminal justice system and within his community.
“Those seven months in Cook County Jail really woke me up,” he says. “Without them, I wouldn’t be who I am right now.”
After his release from jail, Sheldon participated in a leadership program held by the United Congress of Community and Religious Organizations. Soon, he was walking the streets of Chicago’s Latino, Asian and Muslim communities and witnessing the profound effect of immigration laws on undocumented families.
“They were just torn apart,” he says. “I saw that the people are different from those I’d grown up with in the African-American community, but the issues – unemployment, crime, poverty – they were all the same,” he says. “It gave me a much broader outlook.”
In 2009, as a result of all he’d learned, Sheldon founded the nonprofit Dovetail Project to provide educational support and job training to other young fathers like himself.
“My father had been in and out of my life, but I had mentors around, and I saw that other men in my community didn’t. I wanted to help these young men become better dads,” he says.
“I would never have been able to do it if I hadn’t learned community organizing back when I was younger. I took everything I knew about youth and violence and unemployment and decided how I wanted my program to look, and then I just launched it.”
In addition to running Dovetail, Sheldon is in the social work program at Northeastern Illinois University and expects to graduate in 2015.
Sheldon put all of his Shriver Award money toward Dovetail. To date, the free 12-week program – run out of local parks, police precincts and the YMCA – has helped 116 young fathers ages 17 to 24 obtain their GEDs, job training and parenting skills.
A key component is Sheldon’s “Felony Street Law” course, which educates young men of color about their rights and responsibilities regarding laws and law enforcement.
“The goal is keeping them out of the legal system and in their children’s lives,” he says.
But Sheldon, who knows well the barriers created through an early criminal history, is also focused on front-end solutions: after-school programs, summer jobs for youth and alternatives to incarceration.
“It’s one thing to be a father and to get a job, but if you don’t know how to avoid the criminal justice system, those things are really over,” he says. “You can’t raise your children from jail.”
Claudia Rowe, a Seattle journalist, wrote this story. Each year, Marguerite Casey Foundation honors young people with the Sargent Shriver Youth Warriors Against Poverty Leadership Award. United Congress of Community and Religious Organizations, which is based in Chicago, nominated him for the award. CNN will honor Smith and other recipients on Dec. 11. This story was updated since it was posted.