Michael D. Smith, the eighth CEO of AmeriCorps, gave remarks at a Celebration of Black Men, a White House Office of Public Engagement event that celebrated Black history and highlighted the achievements of Black male leaders and entrepreneurs across the fields of professional sports, arts and design, media, academia, and finance.

Thank you, Congresswoman Wilson – my friend and fierce advocate of her boys. She has sent thousands to college and changed their lives.

I am proud to join you today as someone who serves a president and vice president that don’t just talk about Black history but have enacted the most far-reaching policy agenda to dismantle broken systems and throw open the doors of opportunity for Black children and families… canceling student debt, reducing childhood poverty, closing the racial wealth gap, advancing climate equity and so much more!

And, I am proud that AmeriCorps, the federal agency for volunteering and national service, is doing our part. 

Each year, 200,000 AmeriCorps members and AmeriCorps Seniors volunteers serve in nearly 40,000 locations across the country.  

For 30 years, every time America has called, AmeriCorps has answered. 

40,000 members and volunteers currently serve as tutors, mentors, and success coaches in 10,000 schools – like our City Year AmeriCorps members who are here today! 

We’re the proud home of Public Health AmeriCorps, our partnership with CDC, which is addressing the shortage of public health workers with diverse individuals who will serve and work in their own communities. 

We’re thrilled to be the hub of President Biden’s American Climate Corps, which will provide thousands of young Americans the opportunity to address the climate crisis today while preparing them for good-paying careers in the clean energy and climate resilience economy.

And our 1.3 million alums turn their years of service into a lifetime of social action as teachers, administrators, nonprofit and corporate executives, and even members of the U.S. Congress. 

Michael D. Smith, Nathaniel Benjamin, and AmeriCorps members at the White House
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AmeriCorps CEO Michael D. Smith and Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer Nathaniel Benjamin with City Year DC leadership and AmeriCorps members.

I am clearly proud of my agency. But this isn’t just about work, it’s personal.

Before AmeriCorps I had the honor to lead President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, which we launched to address the persistent opportunity gaps faced by boys and young men of color and to ensure all youth can reach their full potential. 

10 years ago (actually from next Tuesday), I was standing in the East Room of the White House for the launch – just a few yards from here.

In a house built by slaves, in a government that too often reinforced the legacy of slavery, America’s first Black president gathered the nation to boldly declare that the lives of our Black and Brown boys mattered, and the entire nation needed to stand behind making those words a reality. 

We planned and prepared with President Obama's words, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” 

But, for me personally, I prepared for this event as the son of two teenage parents who grew up in a poor Black neighborhood, depending at times on government assistance.  

I prepared for the event as someone who saw racism up close in the white schools I was bussed to where I was called the N-word.  

I prepared for the event as someone who saw way too many of my friends’—and family members'—lives cut short by the school to prison pipeline or by an early grave. 

As the event went on, I noticed tears rolling down my cheeks. I was no longer a staffer working on this initiative. I was the reason we so desperately needed this reckoning in the first place.  

When President Obama became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison, a reporter asked him why it was important for him to make the trip. 

He said: “There’s a fine line between president and prisoner. There but for the grace of God go I.” 

I am standing here thanks to a whole lot of unmerited grace. But also because of the power of service.  

My mom sent me to my local Boys and Girls Club for what she called cheap daycare. But what she got was a village of volunteers, staff and mentors who loved her son, lifted me up and kept me in line.  

She got people who taught me to serve and to give back at a young age so I would know no matter how little I had, I always had something to give.

She got people not looking to get rich or famous, but who believed deeply that our neighbors' children are all of our children – and that they would devote their lives to making sure kids like me – and you – could dream dreams bigger than they can ever imagine. 

When we launched the MBK Alliance, the nonprofit that would carry the work on after the administration, President Obama paused to speak directly to the young men gathered, saying: 

“There’s nothing, not a single thing, more important to the future of America than whether or not you or all the young people in America can achieve their dreams.” 

Young men, I want you to know you matter, we believe in you. We believe in your God-given talent and potential. 

This administration, this president, this vice president, and everyone in this room will not stop working until you can go as fast and as far as your dreams and hard work will take you.  

Thank you.