Rickell Howard Smith, JD, a Cincinnati native and graduate of Walnut Hills High School, lives in Roselawn with her husband, 15-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter. She received her bachelor’s degree in business administration/international business from Howard University and her law degree from Temple University.
Share details about your personal and professional background that helped to guide your path to Greater Cincinnati Foundation (GCF).
I was born and raised in Cincinnati. Growing up here, I always had this feeling that the city was separated into the haves and have-nots. I recognized, especially as I grew older, that everybody didn’t live the same way that I did, for better or worse. After high school, I left the city to attend school on the East Coast, but I always knew that I would return home — the inequity (I didn’t call it that back then) that I witnessed and experienced as a child left me unsettled. It fueled my future and current work. It really fueled my purpose.
I practiced law — mostly civil rights law — for about 13 years before coming to GCF. I have always been focused on social justice issues, even as a young person. I decided in my senior year of college that I was not going into business — which was the training that I had received — but instead I went to law school. It was probably the best decision that I’ve made in my lifetime.
I spent my career not just practicing law but working in and with nonprofits. I’ve advocated on behalf of those living in poverty, prisoners, children and young adults — working to remove barriers to their success. I found myself, instead of being in a courtroom, working at community meetings and helping communities, as opposed to individuals, solve problems at the grassroots level. That put me in touch with a lot of the nonprofit organizations that GCF partners with and we were all asking the same questions: “How we can solve these community-wide issues collaboratively? Empower and create space for those directly impacted? Unite them with those who have the power to change systems?” I am passionate about improving systems that do not benefit us all. That was the part of the work that I enjoyed the most, and what ultimately brought me to GCF.
What are your professional and community affiliations, and how do they inform your role at GCF?
I’m a parent and very passionate about equity in education and currently serve on the Lighthouse Community School Board — a charter school that primarily serves students with disabilities and with experience in the child welfare system. I am also an advocate for women’s rights and reproductive health and have been a part of several organizations supporting that issue. I am also a proud member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated, a public service sorority.
Who or what is your inspiration, and in what ways has that driven your passion for GCF’s mission?
Definitely my mother, Karen Howard. You don’t think about how much your parents’ everyday behavior has influence over your choices until you’re older. My mother was not an activist by training, but actively lived a life of service to others. Both of my parents were in labor unions and my mom specifically worked tirelessly to secure labor rights — not just for herself, but for the benefit of all and the future of the workforce. I had no clue that I was witnessing systems-change work in real time. It’s no surprise that I spent my career working towards creating an equitable Cincinnati region.
What are three things about you that most people don’t know?
I DJed at my own wedding reception. It was a short set, but I pulled it off. It was a lot harder than it looks.
I am a former musician, and I’ve played at least six instruments in my lifetime — pretty well, I would say. I turned down a college scholarship to play tenor sax in Howard University’s marching band.
I lived in Rome for three months as part of a summer program in law school.
What do you like most about working at GCF?
The staff and positive culture. I have some amazing colleagues, all talented leaders in their respective areas of focus. We are working on very challenging issues and I am consistently impressed with the level of collaboration and support here.