Man of the people
Smith celebrates his election-night win with his daughter Jahtaya. Photo: Submitted
About a week before he was sworn in as a Halifax Regional Councillor, Lindell Smith had already made a transition from celebrating his electoral win to thinking about the work ahead.
Smith, who replaces Jennifer Watts in District 8—Halifax Peninsula North, made history in two ways. The most celebrated was being the first black councillor in Halifax since Graham Downey in 2000. He also cruised to victory, winning 52 per cent of the vote in a field with six other candidates.
Impressive for a first-time councillor who is just 26 years old. But he’s not content to simply make history at the ballot box. “We need to get past the history and let’s keep the progress going,” Smith says. “We have to work in a way that we’re not trying to make history. We have to work in a way that we’re trying to make a standard, so that it’s not a victory or a surprise when somebody of colour of a diverse background gets into office.”
Smith hopes his win inspires more young people and people from diverse backgrounds to get involved in politics. El Jones, who worked with Smith at Centreline Studio, the recording studio that he co-founded, says Smith’s win is “really significant,” especially considering that cutting Council’s size from 23 to 16 in 2012 made such a win more difficult. “Redistricting has always disadvantaged marginalized groups,” she says.
The numbers show that Smith attracted a coalition of supporters. “It just shows what happens when solidarity kicks into place,” Smith says. “If you look at who was involved, you name it and that person has been involved: seniors, kids, people with disabilities, people of transgenders. It just shows that you need to reach outside of your standard comfort zone… It was never really about me. It was more about us.”
Jones says Smith’s campaign deserves a lot of credit for being so well organized. Sure, it had a good, catchy slogan and a candidate with a solid credentials in the community, but winning an election campaign takes a lot of hard work and planning.
It’s about more than being an “inspiration,” Jones says, you must knock on doors. “Black people, in particular, don’t get credit for this kind of intellectual work and organizing,” says Jones, a sociology professor at Mount Saint Vincent University and Saint Mary’s University. “This has implications beyond Lindell. It shows that we can strategize and this can be taken into other areas.”
When Smith went door-to-door during the campaign, he asked residents what concerned them. He wanted to know how municipal government could make life better for people. He says that resonated with people and he’ll continue that approach as a councillor.
Smith, who grew up in Uniacke Square, has provided a beacon of hope to many young people in Halifax, says DeRico Symonds. Right after the election, Symonds tweeted “@LindellSmith made politics ‘cool’ for youth and those living in social housing communities.”
Symonds, who grew up in Bayers Westwood and has strong family ties to Mulgrave Park, says Smith’s election not only puts an end to an embarrassing stretch of 16 years without a black person on Council it “broke down a lot of doors.”
Symonds co-founded Future Roots, an organization that helps youth prepare for the job market. He says “there are a lot of young people who are eager and want to work. This opens the door earlier and reduces or mitigates any barriers.”
For the people Symonds works with, Smith’s win is huge. “Seeing is believing,” Symonds says.
Symonds muses about the possibility of Smith not running, and wonders how long it would have taken for a black person to get elected had he not.
It almost didn’t happen. The District 8 seat became vacant when two-term councillor Jennifer Watts stepped aside, citing the need for new and “diverse” voices on Council. “If she would have re-offered, I probably would have worked her campaign,” Smith says.
Smith also says he doesn’t plan on serving more than two terms. He’s already thinking about another barrier that’s never been broken. “There’s never been anyone of Aboriginal heritage on council,” he says. “That’s the next thing I want to see happen.”
Smith is sad to give up his job at the North Branch Library, but eager to get into his new one. “I plan on doing it as a full-time job,” Smith says. “I want to make an impact.”
Jones cautions against unrealistic expectations, though. “Lindell is one man,” she says. “One person at city council does not make or break the position of black people in the city. We should celebrate that this happened, but I never believe that getting people elected to office is where things begin or end. I hope one resonance is for communities to gain confidence organizing for themselves.”
If that confidence spreads and encourages people to organize, advocate and exercise their democratic rights daily against things like unfair practices by landlords, unfair policing, mass incarceration, and education bias, then that could have a greater impact, Jones says.
Smith has family ties to East Preston, North Preston, and Cherry Brook. “They were excited for me,” he says. “They say ‘you’re the golden child, you need to make sure that we’re good.’ But at the same time, it’s about everybody. Of course, I will do what I can for the African Nova Scotian community, but I got elected by a majority… We can’t get past the fact that there are councillors that just care about their areas, which is sad, but we have to grow as a city.”
This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.