WOMEN WE LOVE: Essence Smith, Director of Operations & Communications at SocialWorks
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It’s always amazing to see people come together to support their hometown. Whether it’s a local business, someone in politics, or even a celebrity, there is always someone offering support for those around them. In Chicago, we have to look no further than SocialWorks to see this inspirational proof in action.
SocialWorks is the non-profit organization founded by Grammy-award-winning musician and humanitarian Chance the Rapper that aims to empower the youth through the arts, education, and civic engagement. And while Chance is known globally for his good work, he couldn’t do it all alone! He needs people like Essence Smith in his corner to help Chicago youth continue to grow and thrive. Essence is Director Of Operations and Communications at SocialWorks Chicago, and she’s making a real difference in her community and her city every day! You can too (it’s super easy we promise!)
If you’re looking for a way to help SocialWorks, they have event coming up on September 13 with SaveMoneySaveLife to collect items for those in need, including school supplies, cleaning products, and non-perishable foods. Then on September 19, there will be another “The Year Of The Youth” event at Overton Elementary School where Chance the Rapper, Vic Mensa, Joey Purp, and G Herbo will lead a Peace Walk that focuses on education and solidarity. The walk will end with a Community Give-Back celebration where all of the donated school supplies, PPE, groceries, feminine care products, and hot meals will be distributed. Additionally, participants have access to a shoe sign-up that Chance the Rapper and other will deliver at a later date. HIV & COVID testing and voter registration booths will also be on-site. There are so many ways to give back and support Essence and the SocialWorks Chicago team! You can also learn more about Essence and all the amazing work she’s doing in our community to give back. All you have to do is read on…
What did you want to be when you “grew up”?
When I was a young kid, I wanted to be a lawyer. My grandfather (Papa) was a well-known probate attorney here in Chicago. We were very close and I would always see his legal pads scattered around his home. He was a boss and a leader of the people; I wanted to be just like him when I got older. My minor in college was “Law in Society” and all!
What advice would you give to your high school self?
I’d tell myself to remain focused and to listen to your elders! Growing up, I was blessed to have many older family members, mentors, etc. in my life. They consistently provided me with advice that I look back now on and wish I would have listened to more closely. It would have saved me a lot of heartache and pain if I had just listened! However, growing pains are real and sometimes we must experience life ourselves to truly mature, learn and blossom.
What do you want high schoolers today to know?
Considering the times we’re living in currently with the pandemic and social injustice, high school today looks way different then it looked back when I was in it over a decade ago. High school students are dealing with a great deal of issues, anxiety and stress that I honestly couldn’t imagine going through at such a young age. So with keeping that in mind, some things that I want high school students today to know is that they are the future and they have the power to make this world a better place. I want them to also know the importance of mental health and protecting their joy and peace. Times are hard right now and it’s important that high school students do not let the negativity of the world dim their light. They must keep shining bright and when they don’t feel like their light is shining, that’s okay too. Not all days will be perfect but acknowledgement of their mental health and loving themselves is key.
Speaking of high schoolers, tell us about the SocialWorks’ mission!
SocialWorks’ mission is to empower the youth through the arts, education and civic engagement.
The reason why this mission is so important to me especially now (and always!) is because the youth are the future. As I mentioned, growing up I had mentors and resources that shaped me into the woman that I am today. I was blessed to have parents that fought hard for me to receive these resources because as a girl raised on the south side of Chicago, unfortunately, these resources weren’t always in close proximity to me due to the segregated makeup of this city. Many of the youth and the communities that we serve within SocialWorks suffer from these same disparities. At SocialWorks, it is important for us to advocate and bring needed resources and aid to the youth within these communities because without it, they are suffering an unjust disadvantage in relation to their counterparts that receive more access due to the color of their skin and/or socioeconomic status.
How has the SocialWorks Chicago team been responding to the COVID-19 epidemic and the growing Black Lives Matter movements?
Back in March when the pandemic hit Chicago and the stay-at-home orders began, SocialWorks launched a campaign called “SocialWorks for Social Distancing”. Within this campaign, we provided an evolving list of resources for the community and the youth to tap into while staying safe and at home. We also began shifting our programming to a virtual space and hosted daily workshops titled “Sworkshops” which allowed the youth and viewers all over to learn different skills while staying safe at home.
As it relates to the growing Black Lives Matter movements that happened (and are still happening) in the city of Chicago, SocialWorks stepped up to serve our communities that were impacted by the aftermath of the looting and the rioting that occurred. We worked with some of our great partners such as Connie’s Pizza, Chipotle, Chicago’s Chicken and Waffles, Imperfect Produce and many more to provide hot meals and essential items to communities on the south and west side of our city. The way people from all over the city supported us during these times was one of the most beautiful things I’ve witnessed since my time at SocialWorks Chicago. The sense of community and doing your part was unmatched.
How do you see the city growing and changing after the past few months?
I see it growing and changing for the better. This time has caused many to learn and do more research about the history of injustice and how it’s still so prevalent in today’s society. Many people, companies and institutions that were corrupt have been held accountable and their dirty laundry has been aired out continuously for all to see…no bad or prejudice person is safe right now! It is the time of consciousness for many and I believe there is so much beauty in that. Though it took way too long for us to get here and we have a great while to go, I am happy to see the progressive change that has been made. I’m grateful to be from this city, the most beautiful city in the world.
What do you love most about Chicago?
I love so much about Chicago. I was born and raised here; Chicago has my heart. Some of my favorite spots are La Josie for tacos and margs…so good! I love going to museum campus by the Shedd Aquarium and Soldier Field at night to look at our gorgeous skyline along the water. I also love the rich history of Chicago’s South Side and all the Black-owned businesses that it has to offer within communities such as Hyde Park, Bronzeville, Englewood and Washington Park (…just to name a few)!
What do you love most about your job?
The fact that I get to work with my friends and I feel very fulfilled knowing that the work we do everyday is to simply help people. Helping people and witnessing your impact along the way feels good.
What is it like to work with Chance?
Working with Chance is a blessing! He’s one of my best friends, a great boss, hard working and a phenomenal father and husband to his beautiful wife, Kirsten. Chance is a leader and deeply cares about the city of Chicago and “our” people. Many people think that he may be too busy with his other efforts to be involved in his charity but that’s not that case at all. Everything we do at SocialWorks, Chance knows about or provides some sort of input into it. We don’t call him the Founder for no reason! He truly cares and is very passionate about the work we do at SocialWorks…it’s very commendable.
What is a typical day like for you now?
Whew! None of my days look the same honestly so it’s hard for me to say what a typical day looks like…it’s usually very busy for me though. I will say, however, that the pandemic has forced me to slow down…I didn’t realize how much I needed that. On top of SocialWorks, I have my own business titled, ELMS Event Planning and Production, which focuses on curating memorable events to support and uplift Black women. So, typically after my SocialWorks duties for the day are complete, during my evenings and weekends I work on different projects within my personal business. I do make an effort to start each day with meditation and/or quiet time with God. My faith is what gets me through each day!
What are some of your five-year plans?
To be completely transparent, I always get stuck when I’m asked this question. It’s not that I don’t know what I want my future to look like and I definitely have goals but I am a true believer in God and I trust his plan for me. A lot of goals that were in my 5-year plan from 5 years ago have come to fruition but my life also looks nothing like I ever imagined or planned for. If I had stuck to my own vision or plans, I would be nowhere near where I am today. I just plan for more growth, prosperity, and peace for the next 5 years.
To learn more about the SocialWorks Chicago team, and all their amazing work, check out their website to support!