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Ryan Smith MPP'14, MTS'04 is a graduate of Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy (MPP '14) and Duke Divinity School (MTS '04). Smith currently serves as director of the City of Durham’s Community Safety Department, which operates Durham's newest first responder branch called HEART (holistic empathetic assistance response teams). During the COVID-19 pandemic, Smith served as the lead staff for Durham Mayor Steve Schewel's Recovery and Renewal Taskforce created to help guide the city’s recovery efforts. In 2022, Engaging Local Government Leaders named Smith one of the top 100 influencers in local government in the United States.

Q & A with Ryan Smith

What has been your most enjoyable job? 

I have genuinely enjoyed each job I have held since graduating from Sanford. The highlight of my career so far is my current position as director of community safety for the City of Durham. For the past three years, I have had the amazing opportunity to build a new public safety department from the ground up and to envision new ways of responding to 9-1-1 calls involving behavioral health crises and a range of other calls that fundamentally stem from unmet basic human needs. How often in our careers do we get the opportunity to build something from the ground up, or better yet, to be part of shaping and influencing a national movement?

The creation of the HEART -- a set of new crisis response programs that utilize mental health professionals as first responders -- is building evidence that we can and should be investing in a new branch of public safety that diverts calls away from police that do not require a law enforcement response while adding mental professionals on-scene to calls that do. Now nearing the end of its second year of operations, it is rewarding to see how these efforts are creating lasting structural change in public safety in Durham and how this is having ripple effects across the country.   

What are you most proud of in your career to date?

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Durham NC skyline - mill buildings, some tall buildings
Ryan Smith currently serves as director of the City of Durham’s Community Safety Department, which operates Durham's newest first responder branch called HEART (holistic empathetic assistance response teams).

The creation of the HEART program in my current role has forced me to grow tremendously as a leader. A close second place was leading the creation of the Durham Expunction and Restoration (DEAR) Program, in my former role as the City of Durham’s Innovation Team Manager. This work required building a broad coalition including our district attorney, judges, legal aid organizations, law schools and justice reform advocates around the challenge of addressing the legal needs of Durham residents who needed relief from the collateral consequences of justice involvement that make it harder to gain employment and thrive.

Tens of thousands of residents had lost their driver’s licenses due to unpaid tickets or failing to show to court for minor moving violations. Tens of thousands more residents had charges on their criminal record that were eligible for expungement but no affordable access to attorneys to assist with this process. DEAR dismissed over 50,000 old charges, waived over $2.8 million in unpaid traffic debt and greatly increased the number of expungement petitions filed each year. The program garnered national attention and has since been replicated in other parts of the state and country.   

Why did you journey to Sanford for your MPP? 

I first went to Duke Divinity School (MTS ’04). At the time, I thought I might follow in my grandfather’s steps and become a minister, or go on and get a PhD and teach religion; however, that wasn’t my calling. It took me a long time to find a career path where I regularly found joy and purpose. I would spend the next eight years working in non-profits, primarily doing fundraising and development-related work.

I became increasingly interested in politics and in local policy. Early on, I focused on the areas of public education and affordable housing. I felt that if I was going to change my career path, I needed to go back to school to create new opportunities.

Before coming to Sanford, I worked for Congressman David Price as his campaign finance director, and had the privilege to talk to him about my interests and get his advice. He encouraged me to pursue my education at Sanford, as did my neighbor at the time, faculty member Anna Gassman-Pines. And the rest is history. It was a very good decision, because it put me on the path I am now on – one where I can finally say I am where I belong.

What is one memory you take with you from Sanford? 

Wow, one? That is tough. I think often of something Don Taylor shared in a course on health policy during my first semester at Sanford. He said, “If you only remember one thing from this course, remember that the most important question to ask in public policy is ‘What is the counterfactual?’” In other words, what would have happened in the absence of a program or intervention or policy? It has been 12 years and I have not forgotten that comment. It shows up in my commitment to rigorous evaluation and to external evaluations, often with faculty at Duke, to help answer that question. 

What would you say to a current student at Sanford?

If you don’t know exactly what you want to do, don’t fret too much. Start somewhere, anywhere that interests you, and do that really well. I have never been able to see three years down the road, and I never would have guessed what was next. I have found that dedicating myself to the challenge and opportunity at hand has a way of creating additional opportunities, and ones that you often never would have imagined when you started. And that, for me, has been a good thing.

Our founder Terry Sanford implored students to ‘stand for something.’ What do you stand for?

I stand for my neighbors, especially those who have been marginalized. I use the word neighbor very intentionally. In the crisis response program I run, everyone we meet during 9-1-1 is a neighbor. To me, neighbor means the people to whom we draw near.  My program draws near to people in crisis, and very often to people whose crises stem from systems that failed them. We draw near to neighbors who may be unsheltered, living with severe persistent mental illness, without insurance, medication, food, or a support network. I stand for drawing near to these neighbors without judgement or fear when others might cross the street or call the police.

I stand for treating each person with dignity, for acknowledging and working to repair the deep deficits of trust that exist due to systemic and structural racism and to the profound ways in which governments have harmed others, for supporting each neighbor on their own journey of recovery and healing, and for advocating for systems that must do a better job of providing for basic and fundamental human needs. 

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Ryan Smith's Address