Biden signals equity focus with new AmeriCorps leader choice

President Biden plans to nominate Michael Smith to lead AmeriCorps, sending a strong signal of an intent to focus on racial equity at the organization.

Smith currently is executive director of the My Brother’s Keeper Alliance. He also is director of youth opportunity programs at the Obama Foundation. His appointment as CEO of AmeriCorps will require Senate confirmation.

Previously, Smith was director of the Social Innovation Fund under President Obama before Obama tapped him to lead My Brother’s Keeper. He also was a senior vice president of social innovation at the Case Foundation.

Smith will take over AmeriCorps at a time when the agency is on the rise. The stimulus bill enacted in the spring included a funding boost of nearly $1 billion over three years to expand national service programs. That was a big boost: AmeriCorps budgets in recent years have hovered around $1 billion a year.

Smith indicated that his work with My Brother’s Keeper would deeply inform his leadership at AmeriCorps.

“For the past eight years, I’ve had the privilege to work alongside President Obama and our My Brother’s Keeper family to reduce barriers and expand opportunity for boys and young men of color and their families,” Smith said in a statement released by the White House Tuesday. “No matter where I go, the proudest title I will ever hold is My Brother’s Keeper. I have never been more optimistic about how this mantra that became a movement will continue to grow.”

Shirley Sagawa, a visiting senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and former CEO of Service Year Alliance, said Smith’s appointment would help expand the participation of men of color in national service. “Michael’s appointment signals not just a commitment to equity and innovation, both very welcome, but also that this administration takes national service seriously as a strategy, given his accomplishments,” she said in an emailed statement.

Sagawa helped draft the legislation that created the Corporation for National Service and was its first managing director and was also a key player in the creation of AmeriCorps.

Voices for National Service quickly endorsed the choice.

“As communities and nonprofits struggle to recover from the pandemic and meet local needs, AmeriCorps is in high demand,” said Voices for National Service President AnnMaura Connolly in a statement. “With decades of executive experience working to improve communities and to create opportunities for young people, Michael Smith is the perfect person to work with the 70,000 nonprofit organizations across the country that leverage national service as a results-driven strategy to meet community challenges — and a way to invest in Americans of diverse backgrounds.”

City Year CEO Jim Balfanz also praised the selection of Smith, calling him “an extraordinary leader and longtime champion of young people and the role national service can play in building a better future for all of us across the country.”

Dan Cardinali, CEO of Independent Sector, a national coalition of charities and foundations, called the selection of Smith “a welcome and important sign,” especially as the nation focuses on racial equity and other pressing issues.

“Michael has deep experience working in the nonprofit sector, and he understands how vital the sector is to a healthy and vibrant democracy,” Cardinali said in an emailed statement. “His experience in working for equity and justice for Black boys, men, and their families, as well as his government service, is exactly what we need at AmeriCorps at this moment.”

Nathan Dietz, who studies volunteerism at the University of Maryland’s Do Good Institute, said he knew of nothing that should stand in the way of Senate confirmation.

“National service has such broad support within Congress,” Dietz noted.

Dietz said that Smith knows how AmeriCorps works, and he has a history of championing innovative, effective ideas for promoting volunteerism and national service.

Michael Brown, co-founder City Year, a national service organization, said Smith will bring “a tremendous focus on equity” to AmeriCorps and will make sure that young people of all backgrounds and income levels can serve.

“It’s an inspired nomination, and it shows how seriously the Biden administration takes national service,” Brown said. “Michael Smith has a remarkable life story and impressive professional experience.”

In an interview with the Chronicle shortly after his appointment to lead My Brother’s Keeper, Smith said he favored data-driven approaches to solving problems. “I have been preaching for the past year that we need to be investing in evidence and not in isolated stories,” he said.

At the Social Innovation Fund, Smith was a leader in the administration’s effort to draw private support for programs that help young minority males. That approach drew criticism from some conservatives who said it was an executive branch overreach and that was unlikely to create widespread change.

Smith is a Senior Atlantic Fellow for Racial Equity and a member of Boys & Girls Clubs of America’s Alumni Hall of Fame, according to the Biden administration. He also serves on the board of directors of Results for America and Venture Philanthropy Partners.

This article was provided to The Associated Press by the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Dan Parks is a senior editor at the Chronicle. Email: [email protected]. The AP and the Chronicle receive support from the Lilly Endowment for coverage of philanthropy and nonprofits. The AP and the Chronicle are solely responsible for all content. For all of AP’s philanthropy coverage, visit