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My Contribution

A Defining Moment, a Lifetime of Work

As a child, Mae Smith hoped to play the cello. She just needed a school permission slip signed by a parent. But when the slips were distributed, Smith, one of the school’s few African American students, didn’t get one. 

“The teacher would not give me a form to take home,” says the now-retired elementary school teacher who lives in Aurora, Ill. 

Smith asked her mother to write a note to the teacher requesting a form. Her mother declined. “You go back and get the form yourself,” she said.

When Smith returned to school the next day, she didn’t follow her mom’s request. Worse, she says today, “I lied to my mother and said, ‘I forgot.’” The next day, Smith gathered her courage, got the form, and brought it home.

She also returned home with a valuable lesson—one she carried throughout her 37 years as an educator: “Instead of ‘knowing my place,’” Smith says, “I had the audacity to know that my place was anywhere I chose it to be.” 

She has been standing up for social justice ever since. 

Defend on Day One

On her first day walking into a school building as a teacher, Smith witnessed what would have been the firing of a teacher. “I noticed the principal was with a teacher who was without representation.” Without knowing the situation, Smith continues, “I walked in with a steno pad and told the principal I was there to represent [her].”

The teacher was from India, and was about to be fired for wearing a Sari. Smith’s intervention helped the teacher keep her job. 

In succeeding years, Smith represented other educators facing unjust accusations—from “boring classroom decor to an unwillingless to engage in “chit-chat” in the teachers’ lounge.

“When I see an injustice, I’m not afraid to address it,” Smith says. 

Her track record is proof. Smith has served as chief negotiator and president of the Aurora Education Association-West. She has sat on the Board of Directors for the Illinois Education Association, and is a past vice president and past president of the West Suburban Retired Teachers in Aurora, Ill. 

Post retirement, Smith served as an executive committee member and board of director for NEA-Retired. In 2009, she was appointed by former City of Aurora Mayor, Tom Weisner, to chair the Human Relations Commission, which addresses discrimination charges. In this role, Smith works with other commissions, city leaders, and community groups, such as the YWCA, to address racism and other systemic inequities. To boost her ability to contribute to these community conversations, Smith spent months taking courses on racism and implicit bias, which has allowed her to educate and work with Aurora’s leadership to find solutions to this issue.

“This is about making Aurora a more harmonious city for its residents,” says Smith, “and I’m honored to be a part of this work.” 

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