When Maya Smart arrives in a new community she jumps right in. “I’ve moved a lot over the last 15 years, and volunteering is the way that I meet people and figure out what’s really going on in the communities.” Maya moved to Austin, Texas, a little more than a year ago with her husband Shaka Smart, head coach of the University of Texas at Austin’s men’s basketball team, and their young daughter, Zora. The Smart family aims for community life, and Maya led the way by immediately joining organizations that spoke to her passions.
“I’m passionate about increasing educational and economic opportunity for Black people. How that manifests itself is a lot of work around libraries, and literacy and education because even when systems are broken and schools are bad, kids have a chance if they can read. Then they’ve got a shot to educate themselves.”
Kids have a chance if they can read. Then they’ve got a shot to educate themselves.
Her volunteer work in Austin includes Austin Public Library Friends Foundation, the University of Texas at Austin Libraries Advisory Council, the Texas Book Festival, and the Literary Coalition of Central Texas.
“[The issues are] complicated,” Maya says. “As an individual person you can’t solve all of the pieces of it. But I think if you can hammer away at one specific part of it; you can help bring about collectively bigger changes. The things I keep hammering away at are access to books and access to community-based literacy programs.”
The Smarts were deeply involved and much beloved in Richmond, Virginia, where they lived for six years. But the family’s life is now here in Austin. “I’ve been back to visit just once, but I think it’s important to be involved in the community you live in,” Maya says.
In addition her work for access to literacy and books, Maya served on the grant review committee for Impact Austin, a group that empowers women philanthropists to invest in the community. Through this position, she was able to review proposals from local non-profits, go on site visits, learn about the communities being served, and see how different organizations address some of the same issues. “That’s a fantastic way to get to know about a community’s needs.”
Maya also sits on the advisory council of the Fearless Leadership Institute (FLI), a program of the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. The program focuses on supporting the personal and professional growth of women of color on UT’s campus.
While mentoring two students in FLI, Maya organized and moderated an entrepreneurship panel for the group. She brought in Black women entrepreneurs to share their stories, some of the challenges they face and how they navigate those. “That was fun [and it’s] been a good opportunity for me to connect to the campus outside sports.”
Community Life in Austin
One upcoming event in Austin that Maya is excited about is the Austin African American Book Festival, celebrating its 10th anniversary on Saturday, Jun. 25, at the Carver Museum & Library. “The festival is just right up my alley in terms of giving a platform for new and emerging black authors.”
While daughter Zora (named for the writer, folklorist, and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston) loves The Thinkery and dancing at Ballet Afrique, Maya is still getting settled in Austin, noting that the first year of a big move can be stressful. “Your focus is getting your household set up and making sure your family is comfortable and happy and sometimes in that transition you can lose sight of things.”
While she adjusts to her new community, she still has a firm grasp of her idea of bliss: “Warm weather, good food, a great book, and friends and family around.”