In rural Erath County, white townsmen in hoods once threatened Parc Smith’s grandfather.
“They demanded: ‘Why are you employing a black man when there’s white men out of work,’” Smith, 41, recounts. “He called them out by name: ‘Billy, Johnny, Bob, I’m going to count to three and start shooting.’ At two, he started shooting. They left and never messed with him again.”
Smith, CEO of a rejuvenated American YouthWorks, which blends education, service and jobs training, learned about social decency from an early age. His father, who joined civil rights protests at the University of Texas during the 1960s, taught at historically black colleges. His mother came from a long line of Texas workers who helped their neighbors in any way that they could.
“I was always taught to be good to all people,” he says. “Race and color, economic status don’t matter.”
Once a prospective forest ranger who served on conservation crews, Smith’s personal search for a way to help others took him outdoors. It’s easy to imagine the relaxed and wholesome-looking Smith, 41, as a happy-go-lucky kid. He camped with the YMCA, which employed his mother in Waco, before heading to the Dublin and Stephenville area.
“My parents were very supportive,” he says. “And pretty hands-off. I was free to do what I wanted.”
Playing football in a small Texas town also gave him something of a free pass from serious trouble. Popular, he was asked by his classmates to speak out against the school district’s dress code. Generally a respectful student, he wore a T-shirt to school that read: “Only a fascist would tell a kid how to wear his hair.”
Smith didn’t take school too seriously before college.
“I was there for the social interaction,” he says. “I had a diverse set of friends — from thugs, band, intellectuals, sports. I had a real social consciousness that stuck with me.”
He was also the poorest teen in the popular crowd.
“If I went on a ski trip, it was because one of the other students’ family paid for it,” he says. “I had a sense that there were good people in all walks of life. I always wanted to live an extraordinary life and that meant looking beyond the first ring of friends.”
While he studied nursing then general biology at North Texas State University and Texas Woman’s University, he worked for the Army Corps of Engineers at Lake Grapevine. Eventually, he traveled cheaply to places such as Jamaica, Indonesia and Brazil.
He and his wife, Shauna Smith, shared interests in folkloric drumming, dancing and martial arts.
“I saw her walking across campus in flowing skirts and just fell in love,” he says, almost blushing. “I pursued her for a while. The Kerrville Folk Festival played a role in us getting together.”
The couple now raises two children in South Austin.
For a while, Smith lived in a community created by former NASA engineers who wanted to prove people could live a better way, off the grid. He learned about green construction, skylights, wind generators made from airplane propellers, solar panels, gas lanterns and wood-burning stoves. Separately, from a forest ranger, he learned t’ai chi and alternative medicine.
An employment ad lured Smith to the rapidly expanding YouthWorks in 1995.
“It read: ‘Work with urban youth in parks teaching environmental science and doing conservation projects,’” he recalls. “It took everything that I had done up to that point and concentrated it into one job. I had a vision that, if I could get the youth to take their headphones off and get them into nature, good things would happen for them.”
Smith rose to head the group’s environmental corps in 1999. When YouthWorks founder and CEO Richard Halpin retired in 2010, Smith was named to replace him. Smith currently works in an advisory capacity to the U.S. Department of the Interior on the concept of reviving the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps.
At its peak, YouthWorks operated two campuses. Leaders tried to sell the downtown property during the Great Recession and they tangled with the Texas Education Agency over the rating of one school, since closed.
“That was a painful period,” he says. “We are much stronger for it.”
Its well-rated school on Ben White Boulevard now enrolls 130 students. Its job training programs take in another 200. Throw in language, civics and child-care training and more than 400 Austinites are served on an annual budget of $5.6 million.
The group’s renamed Conservation Corps not only improves parks, they provide disaster relief, most recently moving in after the Labor Day wildfires in Bastrop and Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey.
“I have seen thousands of young people turn their lives around and get back on track,” Smith says. “I got hooked into this place because what we are doing works so well for this population.”
“Treating these young people as if they have value, even if they don’t yet believe they have value,” he says. “They are important. Sometimes, it takes a while for them to realize that.”
YouthWorks takes the students for who they are.
“Your decisions got you to this point, we tell them, but let’s focus on where you are heading,” Smith says. “We give them something to shoot for beyond just the diploma. They gain a sense of various career pathways and sense of belonging in their community.”
Young people often come to YouthWorks hungry for opportunities.
“They ask: What do I have to offer?’” Smith says. “Then you build a house for a low-income family and that kid becomes an asset to their community. We call that the ‘chin up’ moment.”
Much of the money for training in core skills, green building, ecological projects and tech ed comes from government. Almost all its donations, however, are associated with the Help Clifford Help Kids gala, a special project for late blues club owner Clifford Antone and his surviving sister Susan Antone.
One last nagging question: How does Smith look so youthful despite the stresses of his demanding field?
“I eat really well,” he laughs, definitely blushing this time. “I exercise outside, play music. I’ve been around young people and been very happy for a long time. I get to spend quality time with my kids. All kinds of things keep your spirit young.”
Michael Barnes writes about Austin’s people, places, culture and history.