Cherie Craft Artwork for Seen Out Loud Podcast

Season 2 / Episode 7

In the Community, Of the Community with Cherie Craft

Learn about one organization’s holistic, relational model to child and family well-being.

Cherie Craft, the founding CEO and Executive Director of Smart from the Start, talks about her organization’s unique approach to engaging communities and addressing conditions to enhance child and family well-being. Cherie references a previous episode of Seen Out Loud with Matthew Jackson to explain how Smart from the Start builds trust with families. Cherie also offers advice for other organizational leaders on relationship building, reducing recidivism rates, and incorporating social justice into community work.


Matt recaps the last episode S2, E5: The Impact of Community Conditions with Matthew Jackson, where Matthew Jackson mentions the influential role Cherie and her organization Smart from the Start both played in his story. 

Matthew grew up surrounded with drug dealing and violence. He aspired for a different kind of life, but ended up getting involved in similar activities. When Matthew decided to give up drug dealing to get custody of his daughter, Maddie, Smart from the Start offered him resources and advocated on his behalf to help him achieve his goal.  


What is Smart from the Start and what are they all about? Cherie explains how telling her story was a start to building trust with Matthew.  

Cherie goes on to explain the importance of having service employees that have “some experiences that mirror the experiences of the kids and families that you’re serving” to build credibility and demonstrate understanding. 

“I think that because there’s this perception of folks in social services that we don’t get it. The first thing I did when I met Matthew was just share my story with him… He kind of opened up the door a little bit to give me an opportunity to explain to him how I could help him,” said Cherie. 


What is Cherie’s “secret sauce” to building trust with families?  

Cherie: “We build relationships with each and every family, individual, child that comes into our organization…We work with folks that other organizations [and] social service providers deem non-compliant or resistant or conditioned or whatever the adjectives are that they use to describe our brilliant and beautiful families. And, we know that folks don’t trust the social worker. That’s number one. Number two, a lot of folks come into communities with grants and grant plans, and make promises and don’t keep them and disappear. And three, folks, judge our families. There are all of these stereotypes and preconceived notions. So we absolutely expect everyone that we meet to have a wall built up.” 


Why don’t families trust social workers and service providing organizations that come into communities? 

Cherie: “Historically, social services come into homes and communities and take kids away. So, the school calls social services, the hospital calls social services, and a social worker comes out. And I don’t know about you, Matt, but I was trained in social services and we are trained to assess and address people from a deficit-based approach.” 


Cherie shares how Smart from the Start operates to help families thrive: 

“If we were going to help families thrive, then we needed to adopt a whole different modus operandi. And that’s what [Smart from the Start] did. And I think because we feel so deeply that our communities and our families have incredible strengths and resilience that folks don’t see, we want to tap into that. And the way to tap into that is to (A) share your story, and to (B) make sure folks know that you see them for who they really are.” 


Cherie talks about how she saw Matthew when he first approached her at Smart from the Start. Cherie talks about the strengths that led to Matthew’s survival. She also explains the shared responsibility of past generations for the circumstances that Matthew and other families have experienced. 


Matt reflects on Cherie’s points and paraphrases points he’s learned from Bryan Stevenson: If you’ve broken the law, if you’ve committed a crime, you’re not just a criminal. There’s so much more than that. And it’s okay to hold both things or all the things about who somebody really is. People are not problems. People have so much inside of them, so much potential,” says Matt. 


Cherie talks about baking a strengths-based approach to seeing families into Smart from the Start’s culture.  


Matt and Cherie recall a story Matthew shared in S2, E5: The Impact of Community Conditions with Matthew Jackson: 

Smart from the Start representative, Garrick, whose track sheet was longer than Matthew’s, advocates for Matthew with the District Attorney on Matthew’s open drug case. Matthew got probation instead of jail time, which gave him the opportunity to take care of his daughter.  


Cherie explains how being credible, accountable, and thoughtful over time helped Smart from the Start build trust with judicial offices, as well as with families. 

“It is doing what you say you are going to do over and over and over again. And never screwing that up,” says Cherie. 


Matt asks Cherie about what happens when something her team vouches for doesn’t come to fruition. Cherie shares a story about a time her team wasn’t able to help a man secure a job and how the trust in their relationship helped this man believe in Cherie’s team. 

Cherie: “Usually it’s [the] person who needs help that has to prove themselves to the organization before the organization will invest…We flip that so that it’s me and my team earning their trust.” 


Matt asks Cherie how Smart from the Start responds to skeptics of her organizational approach who highly value rule-following and accountability. 

Cherie: “We look at this cradle-to-prison pipeline…And so, we know that from the day children are born, they are beholden to a society, a system, a network of services of people over which they have no control. Many of those systems and services are set up in a way that determine whether or not that child is going to thrive.” 


Cherie shares more about her origin story and how watching her parents act as pillars in her community helped her build the foundation of Smart from the Start’s organizational philosophy.


Cherie shares how her organization’s foundation impacts the recidivism rate for fully engaged families in organizational programs: 

“So, when folks are plugged in and they graduate from that first set of programs and move on, once they do that, the recidivism rate after that is six to eight percent; on the flip side is upwards of 80%.” 


Cherie explains Smart from the Start’s intentional approach to addressing systemic issues impacting families and the new program, Justice 4 All, that helps children and families engage in the civil rights movement 


One key takeaway from Cherie for leaders and organizations looking to replicate the model Smart from the Start has built in Boston and Washington, D.C.: 

“For it to work, you have to have leadership that actually understands the plight of your people. The other thing I would say is don’t go anywhere where you’re not wanted…We did not go into a community and put down our flag and say, Smart from the Start is here. You have to be respectful of the communities that that exist. You have to understand that everyone has their own demographics, geography, history, strengths, challenges, opportunities, and when you introduce yourself to a new community, you very humbly go to the folks and you say, tell us about your community.” 


Matt, an organizational leader at Children’s Home Society of N.C. and the Institute for Family asks advice from Cherie for leaders like him that feel like they don’t have relatable stories to use as building blocks when connecting with families. 


Final thoughts from host Matt Anderson. 

SOL S2 Ep 7 Cherie

Matt: Hey everyone. It’s Matt Anderson and welcome to Seen Out Loud. Where we bring you the stories and conversations that recognize child welfare transformation starts with seeing families for who they truly are. So in today’s episode, I’m excited to bring you my conversation with Cherie Craft. Cherie is the CEO and founder of an organization called Smart From the Start.

Now, if you listen to the last episode with Matthew Jackson, then Smart From the Start probably sounds familiar. And that’s because Cherie and Smart From the Start play a really prominent role in his story. Now, if you haven’t listened to the episode, it’s okay. I’m gonna bring you up to speed here in a second. But I do think you should go back and listen, because it’s a good episode.

All right. Now, let me recap the last episode a little bit. So Matthew he’s from the Lennox street housing projects in Boston, where he grew up with drug dealing and violence, literally outside of his bedroom window. And he had these aspirations for a really different kind of life, but he ended up doing much of the same. But when his daughter’s mom was killed, he decided it was time to leave the drug dealing behind and focus on raising his then three year old daughter, Maddie. 

But the problem was he was really struggling just to make it work. He wasn’t making enough money and he was challenged to meet just the most basic needs of his family. And so it’s around that time that he gets approached by Smart From the Start. And so I wanted to start my conversation with Cherie by playing her a clip from Matt’s interview, where he described what was really going through his mind when he was first approached by Smart.

Matthew J: I don’t want to go back to selling drugs. My job sucks. Everywhere I turn trying to get a health insurance and everybody’s judging me. So just me having a shitty job, I’m like, what do they want if they’re not trying to get me no job. Like, I don’t want talk to them. I’m like, yo, I got real shit going on.

Matt: Two things that I think I hear in, in that from Matthew one is that he’s describing that he has very real, basic concrete needs, job, health insurance. And then the other thing I think is there’s some skepticism too, right. Of who is Smart From the Start and what are they all about? And if they don’t have a job for me, I don’t really have time for them. In that I wonder if you could just say, like, how did you help him see what you had to offer? What Smart had to offer?

Cherie: So when I first met Matt, his whole attitude was, he was just so totally defensive. And I think because of his relationship with the street workers, he came to Smart almost as a courtesy to tell me to my face that he wasn’t interested in whatever it was we had to offer.

So when he came in, it was an evening, I was the only one left in the. He came in and the street worker kind of introduced us, told me a little bit more about Matt’s story that, you know, he had a little girl, three years old that he desperately wanted to get custody of, be able to take care of and was just running into a bunch of roadblocks.

And I think that because there’s this perception of folks in social services that we don’t get it. So the first thing I did when I met Matthew was really just shared my story with him. You know, I talked about growing up up the street from Lennox and a different housing project. You know, I talked about all the people that I knew in Lennox that were a little older than him, that he actually looked up to in the drug game.

I talked to him about all of my struggles. As a single parent about my brother who had himself spent most of his life in jail, he was a drug dealer. He was a shooter. And I talked about how difficult it was for me to find my place in a society that I felt was constantly batting against me. And I think that he felt a lot of synergy between what I had gone through as a younger person and what he was experiencing in the moment. And he started asking me questions back like, well, how you get here? And what is, what is this Smart From the Start? Like he, he kind of opened up the door a little bit to giving me an opportunity to explain to him how I could help him.

So we just kicked it for a while and I said, listen, you know, you need a job. I can help you with that. You need help getting Maddie health insurance. I, we can do that. Right. You need someone to go to court with you and help you? You get custody of Maddie. At first, he didn’t tell us he had open cases. We didn’t know that there were some pending charges, but he told me later on when he walked in, he’s like, I’m not telling this lady my business.

So he didn’t share any of that with us initially. So I’m like, I’m figuring, okay, we just gonna do what we do. We’re gonna take you into family court. We’ve got a lot of credibility there. We’re gonna talk to some folks. We’re gonna get Maddie home with you and then we’ll get your services in place. And then, I mean, clearly he was a brilliant gifted young man.Wouldn’t be a problem to get him a job somewhere. We know a lot of people. 

So that’s kind of like the first thing I did was just tell my story. And I think that is really why it’s so critical to have folks working for your organization that have a similar background or have had some experiences that mirror the experiences of the kids and families that you’re serving, because it gives you a level of street cred.

It gives you a level of credibility and it also proves that you really do, when you say I understand, and I get it, you really do because you lived it. So that’s how Matt and I first started kicking it. And then, like I said, I knew a lot of the people, the OGs from his neighborhood. So it, it was a process of relationship building, but it really did start there.

It started there with me, not expecting him to walk in and tell me all his business. I understood the code. I understood that he was coming to test the waters. Yeah. And it was up to me to come to him. And I think that’s where a lot of folks, it breaks down for a lot of folks because you get someone who comes in to help you to get your help.

And we have folks who are sitting on high, like, well, you came to me for help. Tell me all your business. And I will, from this professional standpoint, decide whether or not I can help you, but we flip that on its head. We’re like, listen, we are here because God decided that we should be here because by his grace, we could have went the other way, you know, in my house there were four of us two and two, two went one way, two and the other. And so it’s just kind of conveying that message that, yeah, we’re all in this together. We’re all in the same gang. I happen to have figured out a formula that has gotten me to this place. And now I’m here to share that formula with everybody else and to help you find your way.

Matt: I wonder if that approach that you took with Matthew one is, is common practice for Smart From the Start. And two, is it unique in the sense of like somebody like Matthew comes in with defenses up and is probably most often going to expect to be met with maybe somebody with a clipboard, with their kind of assessment tool, with their process and procedures that they’re gonna go through to say, tell me this, this, this, and this right.

And that I can just kind of feel it right now. Like that’s not a great first interaction with somebody, but what you’re saying is, let me just tell you who I am and where I come from. And I see you and I relate to you. And if that’s part of like the secret ingredient, so to speak of just helping people, let their guard down and see, okay, maybe I, maybe I can interact here.

Cherie: Matt. It absolutely is. It absolutely is. It is absolutely the way that we build relationships with each and every family, individual child that comes into our organization. Because we understand by the nature of where we are, we’re very deliberate about where we put down roots. We go where other folks do not want to go.

We work with folks that other organizations, social service providers, deem non-compliant or resistant or conditioned or whatever, the adjectives that they use to describe our brilliant and beautiful families. And we know that folks don’t trust the social worker. That’s number one, number two, a lot of folks come into communities with grants and grant plans and make promises and don’t keep them and disappear.

And three folks judge our families and there are, you know, all of these stereotypes and there are these preconceived notions. So we absolutely expect everyone that we meet to have a wall built up.

Matt: So I wanna come back to the judgment piece that you just mentioned, but the first thing you said. Is that there’s not trust with a social worker, an organization coming into a community. So why not?

Cherie: Well it’s history, right? And so historically social services come into homes and communities and take kids away. So if the school calls social services, that hospital called social services and a social worker comes out. I don’t know about you, Matt, but I was trained as social services and we are trained to assess and address people from a deficit-based approach.

That’s what we do. Social workers come in when there’s something quote, unquote, wrong with kids and families. And we use this medical model where we diagnose what’s wrong with the family, and then we prescribe. Here’s what you need to do. We don’t know if that plan works for that family. We don’t even consult the family.

Oftentimes when putting the plan together, then you have a service plan presented by a social worker who didn’t understand what your strengths are. You know, they just looked at you from this perspective, and then you’re expected to jump through these flaming hoops to get their help. And so, because that’s the way I was trained.

And I grew up a whole different way. I realized early on when we started Smart that if we were going to do something that folks never had gotten from our communities. We were gonna have to do something that folks had never done before, which is if we were going to get thriving kids and families, even in circumstances that they’re born into that are beyond their control.

Right. We’re talking about systemic racism and poverty. If we were going to help families thrive, then we needed to adopt a whole different, different modus operandi. Yes. And that’s what we did. And I think because we feel so deeply that our communities and our families have incredible strengths and resilience that folks don’t see, we wanna tap into that.

And the way to tap into that is A to share your story and to B, make sure folks know that you see them for who they really are. That’s right. And that’s, what’s key for us. And that’s how we operate all the time. I mean,

Matt: I mean what I’m hearing in that is Smart from the Start is sort of born out of a response. To your earlier experiences professionally, but kind of an unlearning of what you were exposed to and saying, okay, if this is how we’re doing it and yeah, I’m not sure it’s working.

I need to reassess, reimagine and come up with something that is responsive to what I’ve been trained that actually sees families for not just who they are, but the potential within the community within.

Cherie: Yes, we talk about windows and mirrors, but first come the mirrors. Right. And we need to make sure that the mirrors that we’re holding up for our families are clear.

They’re not distorted. Like the mirror is in the circus because those distortions are what we see of ourselves in society. We see these distortions in movies and in magazines and in Fox News, where they talk about folks from our community and these distortions. And oftentimes we internalize that and we believe it.

So at Smart, we hold up mirrors and I’m not responsible for creating this idea of windows and mirrors. I heard it somewhere before, but we really have breathed life into it where we help folks see the beauty in themselves. And a lot of times I say and said it to Matt at one. I want you to see yourself through my eyes.

And once you see yourself through my eyes, you will know that there is nothing that is not possible. That’s not unique to the story with Matt. That’s how we operate. So that families that have been buried. With so many challenges and with so many social service organizations or a teacher or a doctor or a police officer that have talked down to them, or that have seen them in that distorted mirror, we are giving them a clear image of who they really are.

Matt: Yeah. I want to come back to Matthew again, and you just said something that I wanted to get into a little bit. So one of the things that I’ve learned through Matt’s story that I think is, is really interesting, but probably not incredibly unique is that there’s these two competing kind of realities or identities with him.

There’s Matthew and there’s Jungle, right. And on the street he’s jungle trying to survive. And Matthew is this brilliant loving father. So I wonder when he walked through the, the door, how did you see him?

Cherie: When he walked through the door, I saw him as Matthew, but the differences between me and all those other people as I’m, I’m very comfortable with Jungle.

And what I wanted Matt to come to realize is Jungle is not all bad. There is a lot of brilliance and resilience and learning how to manipulate a system and navigate difficult circumstances. There are a lot of really fine characteristics that Jungle had. Now, the behavior that he engaged in was something that we want to leave in the rear view mirror.

But I also wanted him to understand that who he was, those two different personas. They’re not mutually exclusive, and he didn’t have to get rid of one to be the best Matt that he could be. He ended up in this whole web of crap right. That he couldn’t untangle himself from and felt like he didn’t have a choice, but to be Jungle.

And so what we were able to do was say A number one jungle is not the villain that you think he is. Yes. He’s done some really bad things, but he helped Matt survive when other folks would not have. So Matt is here today. Thanks to Jungle. Now This is true. Right? And so how do we help Matt step into his greatness by taking the things from Jungle that will benefit you in this next iteration?

Right? And leave those other things behind. How do we do that? Well, the first way we do that is as an older woman, the generation ahead of you saying to you, Matt, We’ve messed this up. We in many ways failed your generation. And I feel like I owe, I say this to young, young people all the time. And so a lot of the things that you got into and that Jungle did those things were because many of us dropped the ball. We sent you to schools that, that didn’t wanna educate you. We had you in housing that wasn’t safe. We had around you around people that didn’t have your best interest at heart. And so now we have an opportunity though, right? To write some of those wrongs. And the first way we do that is to tell you that the mistakes that you made, many of those mistakes.

Are not yours to own. And the other thing I always say, which is so true, Matt, I tell them all, like, if mistakes were bricks, I could build my own housing project. Like I could recreate my entire housing project with mistakes that I’ve made and you know what, I’m still here. Right? And so that’s just proof positive that you can do whatever it is you wanna do, despite whatever mistakes you made as Jungle. when he came in, I saw Matt.

Matt: I have no doubt. There’s so much in all of that, that you just said. I just wanna, I just want to pick up on two things. One, what you’re saying is making me think of Brian Stevenson and what he says.

Cherie: Love Brian Stevenson.

Matt: But what he often says as, as a example, is that if you’ve broken the law, if you’ve committed a crime, you’re not just a criminal.

Cherie: There’s so much more than that, right? 

There’s so much more to that. And it’s okay to hold both things or, or the, all the things about who somebody really is. And we have to be able to do that, that people are not broken. People are not problems. People have so much inside of them, so much potential, so much beauty, and we have to see through the surface sometimes. And that’s what you do and you’re comfortable. The Jungle persona.

Cherie: I think the jungle persona helps Matt to get other young men to trust him. Yes. To follow him to walk beside him. Yeah. In this journey that’s Smart. Yeah. So I’m glad the jungle is not completely dead. Right?

Matt: Exactly. No, I think that’s exactly right. And I don’t think that we always get that, that, that is true. That these different realities are true at the same time. And then the other thing that you got at that I really wanted to, to lift up because I think it’s so important is that one that you. as a member, of an older generation, as you say has accountability.

I do too. We all do, right. This is not about Matthew being an individual person who has made mistakes. And that’s the problem. Yes. Accountability for behaviors, of course. Right. But also what were the conditions in which. He was brought into this world. And what options did he have and what was the set of choices that were in front of him? And we have to own that as a society

Cherie: As a society, we have to own it. And it’s so easy for folks to just dismiss. any responsibility and say, well, they’re grown now. They’re not little boys anymore. They know right from wrong. No, no, that’s just not the way that nature or nurture works.

Matt: Do you train your, your staff around these two concepts that we’re just talking about right now? Like, is this baked into the culture of how Smart works?

Cherie: It is absolutely baked into the culture. Yeah. And I will tell you that I do not. Train my staff. Yeah, they have to come in with it. They have to come in with deep in the soul passion for this work for racial and social justice for recognizing the strengths of families.

You have to come in with that passion. And with that paradigm shift from that deficit-based to that strength-based approach, we believe that once you give folks mirrors, then you give them windows, which are their opportunities, right. But you don’t just open the window and drop ’em out. You make sure that every single step of the way that you are holding their hand, it’s like a cocoon.

Right. So, so you cocoon the families and love and respect and understanding and empathy. You know, you cheer them on and every little setback they have, you pick them back up, right. And you continuously through this process, remind them of who they really are and what they’re capable of. And then as they start to achieve goals, you know, move forward in their lives.

They really start to believe it and they take off. But the foundation of that, I mean, it, it’s not rocket science, but you, it has to be baked in your DNA. Yeah. It has to be that ability to open up and share. It has to be that ability to be able to see through all of the junk right. That society has caked on someone and to be able to see through to who they really are, and then pull that out and introduce them to their strengths for the first time.

That’s really what that is. And to keep reminding them, it really is a process. It is a process of building someone up. And a lot of times you think about 12 step, oh, you tear them down, then you build them up. No, no, you meet them where they are. And you build them up from there.

Matt: And I think so much of what we’re talking about sort of foundationally is built on trust, right?

And it’s a huge part of how you, how you personally operate and how the organization operates. And so I want to share a, a story that, that Matt shared with me on the, on the last episode of the podcast that I think gets at this, but it’s really interesting, right. The story involves Garrick, you know, used to work for us.

Yeah. He used to work for smart in the father’s program, I think. Yes. So it includes Garrick and it includes the D.A. . And so Garrick’s working for smart working with Matthew now, as he’s getting involved with smart, the D.A. in this very real sense, kind of holds Matt’s fate in his hands, right? Is he gonna go to jail for many, many years or not? And is he gonna have a chance to be in the community and be Maddie’s dad? And sort of the plan, I guess, is that Garrick is gonna go down with Matthew to meet with the D.A. and sort of vouch for him. Like he’s this is what he’s doing with his life right now. And we need to see him as dad and not as jungle. And, and Matthew tells me his reaction was like, you have to be kidding me. 

Cherie: Oh he totally didn’t believe we were gonna be able to do this. 

Matt: Yeah. Like, cause Garrett had a longer record than with you. He’s like, well, how’s this guy gonna vouch for me

Cherie: It was crazy. So when Matt finally did disclose, he’s like, well, y’all have a case hanging over my head.

Like I I’m getting ready to be sentenced. Like he was at that point, we know everybody. So we’re like, who’s a DA, what’s the case. Tell me don’t lie to me. Tell me everything. I need to know everything. And I’m like, mm, okay. Okay. And then. Me and Garrick have a conversation. I’m like, all right, so this is what we’re gonna do.

This is the angle. This is what we’re gonna promise because we put our, our credibility on the line with these folks. Yeah. When we vouch for someone, but I just believed so strongly that in Matthew and then the DA’s, the folks at court saw Garrick. Right? So they, they see that Smart works mm-hmm right. And if we’re all in this for the right reasons, this little girl just lost her mom.

They don’t wanna send this young man to jail. If they don’t have to, if he’s really gonna become a productive member’s site. So we huddle and then we’re like, okay, Garrick is gonna go with you to… I’ll go with you to family court. I can work with the judge here, but seeing Garrick and knowing Garrick and knowing his story and knowing what’s Smart, him standing there being the person who’s advocating for Matt, it was just proof positive that this thing could work.

So I’m like, no Garrick is gonna go. He knows what to do. He knows what to say. He had all the stuff I had given him letters, whatever. And Matt was like, oh hell no, this is not gonna work. Totally, totally did not believe it. And of course, you know how things turned out. Yeah. It

Matt: Yeah. It works. So seven years later, Matthew is on probation, right?

Cherie: Yeah. He got, he got probation and the DA was like, I swear to God. Yeah, Smart From the Start, this guy better not come back in this courthouse. And we’re like, he’s not coming back and he didn’t. 

Matt: And he, but it sounds like part of the strategy that I hadn’t thought of until your insights on it is.

Maybe the D.A. trusts Garrick in some sense, because Garrick knows 

Cherie: Yes. And is gonna know what Matthew’s really up to. And I’m gonna tell you something Garrick would not, if he did not believe in Matt, he would’ve said, listen, boss lady, not this one, right? No way. He’s gonna break our record.

Matt: So how did you get to that place with the DA’s office?

Cuz obviously that happened over time, you earned the. Over time to get to the place where Garrick can show up and vouch.

Cherie: So baby steps, we have all these programs, right? And so we would have young men would go to court and they would say, I’m in this program now Smart From the Start… blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

Their defense attorney would call my staff would speak. They would say, this is what we’re doing with them. We’ll be at the next court date and give you an update. Right. See, the thing is with Matt, it was a sentencing, but usually we would get in at the front end of a, of a case and just be very consistent, be very consistent in making sure that everything that that individual needed to do during that trial, everything, whether it was GED, whether it was anger management, whether it was substance abuse, treatment, whatever it was.

That we could be the organization that would change the narrative this time. Every time we came back with someone, they had done even more incredible things. And so the probation folks, the judges were like, this program is amazing. We want it for everyone.

Matt: I mean, part of what I’m hearing in there, it’s, it’s like any relationship, how do you build trust? Well you build it over time by being credible and accountable and thoughtful and all the kinds of things that we have to do? To build a relationship.

Cherie: Yeah. And it’s the same thing with the families. So with Matt and with all of the families, we work with all of them and, and the young men in particular, it really is that , it is doing what you say you are going to do over and over and over again, and never screwing that up. Never is a long time. Yeah. So it’s not an easy thing to do. But what I do tell my staff is because we have this burning desire to do everything for everybody and to take care of everybody, but we have to be very careful about the promises we make. Mm-hmm so I tell them all the time, even if in your head, you’re like, oh, I wanna get him this job at Amazon.

Don’t say, I’m gonna get you this job at Amazon, unless you’re 100% sure. Right. Everything that comes out of your mouth they are gonna expect and I’m gonna expect that you deliver on it because that is all we all, we have. We’re little organization. We don’t have a lot of money. We don’t know a lot of rich people. All we have is our word.

Matt: What happens then? So it doesn’t work out. So something fails or falls apart or what was said and vouched for isn’t what happened. 

Cherie: And you know, I’m trying not to be cocky, but that really, it doesn’t happen very often. When it does happen. it most likely is due to something that’s out of our control and we apologize.

Like we apologize and we pivot. So this has happened recently. So we had a young man that you met. Also the same time you met Matt. Yep. Who wanted to going in a different direction? And we found this great opportunity for him. They told us that your background doesn’t matter that if you do this training and they meet you and they like you, you have this opportunity.

So we go through this whole process. He does the training. They run his background and they’re like, no, his, we didn’t realize it was this bad. They just shut it all down. Wow. And so for us, we pretty much told him it was a done deal. Mm-hmm and that’s because we believed these other folks. Yeah. And so it was really devastating.

Matt: So what, yeah. So, so for him, then what happens to the relationship with Smart and the trust there? I mean, how, where did it go next?

Cherie: So I think that, because we had so much credibility in the bank. Yeah, because we had spent so much time building the relationship with him, building the trust, proving our integrity, showing our love and respect for him and, and showing him how, how much we believed in him when we apologized.

And we reset, we said, listen, what we’re gonna do is this we’re gonna bring you on. Mm, we’re going to make sure that you still get your paycheck. You get some additional training while we’re finding you another, another opportunity. And then the next time we launch. You’re gonna rocket to the sky. So can you trust us to do that? And he did. Okay. And now he’s, he’s launched, you know.

Matt: And so he’s still involved.

Cherie: still. He’s still involved, you know, he still knows. We love him. Yeah. He still loves us. Right. But it was a huge disappointment and a huge let down for someone who had been let down so many times before. Right. And so I think a lot of times we’re at a crossroads there, but the fact that we invest so much on the front end in terms.

Building trust. And usually that’s something that’s flipped. Right? So usually it’s the, the person who needs help that has to prove themselves to the organization right before the organization will invest. Right. You gotta show up to 10 classes, you gotta, and you guys kind of, we flip that. Right? We flip that.

Yeah. So it’s me and my team earning their trust. Right. And so that gives us a little money in the bank, right. In, in case something goes wrong. Yep. And then it’s not like, well, it’s your fault because you have a criminal record. It’s like, no, this is our fault. Because we told you that it wouldn’t matter.  But a lot of other organizations would say, well…

Matt: Non-compliance, isn’t working the plan. 

Cherie: Right. Or this is your criminal record. So you have to own it. Yeah, no, we told you. And a lot of times folks say Corey friendly. Criminal record friendly. Right. And then something comes up and they’re like, oh, sorry.

We didn’t know it was that bad. No, no, no, no. That’s not the way this goes.

Matt: Because people talkoutside of the doors too, right? Yeah. I mean, they’re talking about is that they told me it was gonna be this way. Yes. And then is it really that way? And if it’s not really that way  you lose your credibility and, and.

What I’ve always really kind of respected of Smart. Is that the term that I’ve used, I don’t know is in and of the community. Yeah. Like you work in the community, the people that work there of the community, the people that you’re working with or of the community. And if you don’t flip the role you need, Yeah. You’re not gonna be, you gotta go. Yeah, absolutely. But what about, I mean, so that’s criminal record friendly. So the skeptics who are saying, well, what about accountability? If you did X, Y, Z, then the rules are the rules. And how do you guys think about that.

Cherie: So we think about that two different ways. Number one, we look at this cradle-to-prison pipeline. Not school to prison, cradle to prison. And so we know that from the day children are born mm-hmm they are. Beholden to a society, a system, a network of services of people over which they have no control. Many of those systems and services are set up in a way that determines whether or not that child is going to thrive.

We look at the child welfare system. We look at the educational system. We look at housing, we look at all of the discriminatory practices that folks are still struggling with. We look at health disparities, we look at maternal-child health. We’re looking at all of these systems and services that.

Basically fail these kids from the time that they’re born and their pass from one system to the other system, to the other system, with parents who were never taught to advocate for them, or that they had actually had rights that should and could be defended. And so the kids are just kind waving in the wind, passing through these systems.

You sit a little boy like Matt in a kindergarten class and he’s antsy and he’s doesn’t wanna sit in the seat and they begin to label him. And then seven times outta 10 kids are suspended or expelled from preschool, they’re black or brown kids. You look at a little white kid and he’s antsy in his seat and he’s cute.

And then you look at Matt and you’re like, this little kid is a pain in the ass. And so it’s these biases and preconceived notions as we pass these kids up. And so they start getting in trouble in school. They’re sent to the resource officer or they’re sent to the school for bad kids. And, and then they start going to court because they didn’t show up for school because school sucks and they, they start getting in trouble as they get older.

They’re still that little kid that was born into this system, but now they look older and so they’re more intimidating to people. And so its that whole process that our kids are going through, which is why the cradle to prison pipeline is such a huge cornerstone of our justice for all movement. And then you look at the flip side where, okay, so you get in trouble, you’re found guilty, you get locked up, you pay your debt to society.

You come out from behind the wall, you can’t get a job. You can’t see your kids. You can’t get public housing, you can’t get free federal student aid, like all of these punitive kind of systems and, and situations are there to, to punish you even beyond the years that you spent behind the world, you’re still being punished.

Right. So to me, like, it’s like, okay, when does it end? First of all, a lot of these folks have been passed through these really messed up systems and ended up where they should not have mostly due to no fault of their own, but then they pay their debt to society and they come out and there’s. Still not free to live like any other American, which they should be able to.

And so we look at it that way. Yeah. And that’s the fight that we, that we fight with employers and other folks about giving our, our people a, another shot.

Matt: So the lead in to all of our episodes includes this line that says child welfare transformation starts by seeing families for who they truly are.

And that’s what you’re describing. Right. So it’s not just like, we should see the strengths of all people. Right. It’s what you’re describing is that you see families for who they truly are when you see the systems that are not serving the best interests of the people that they were designed to try to serve.

Cherie: Absolutely. Mm-hmm yeah.

Matt: So let’s go a little bit into the backstory, the origin story for you. You’ve lived many of these different experiences that families are experiencing today in the communities where you work. And so I know a little bit about that, but what I don’t know is this, this focus on relationship first trust, first kind of flipping those roles of, let me prove myself to you first. Let me build trust with you first. I’m just curious where that came from?

Cherie: So I grew up in the projects. My dad was born in the south and his grandfather was lynched. And so the extended family moved to DC, which is where my dad grew up. His dad died when he was 12. My father falsified his birth certificate and went into the Marines a month before his 15th birthday.

Wow. and stayed like he didn’t get kicked outta basic. He went to Korea, like he stayed in, I was the youngest and my, my dad met my mom. Who’s from native, from Boston and fell in love. They moved to Boston at the time. Boston was the most racially polarized city in the Northeast period. And my dad who grew up in DC was this big, strong Marine.

Like he was having none of it. My mom only had a high school diploma, but she helped to stand up a voluntary school integration program in Boston called the Metco program. And my dad, he had to start his own business because he couldn’t get a job in Boston. He had a really hard time getting a job. He kept quitting or getting fired because of the racism. And so he started very small floor sanding business and did home improvement stuff. But we lived in the projects because everything that they had, they gave to our extended family or to other folks in the community never kept a dime. And my father was one of the only dads in our neighborhood.

And so whenever somebody needed a meal, whenever somebody needed their bike fixed, whenever somebody was cutting up in school, whenever they needed a lecture, my dad was the person that they came to, but he wasn’t a lecturer. If you look at my dad, you would think he was gonna knock you out, but he, and he would if he had to, but he had a heart of gold.

And so my parents, my parents did a lot of community organizing. They did a lot of marches. My dad helped to get unionized black workers in Boston. And so there was always this activity in our little apartment, in the housing project where, you know, it’s cold in Boston. My door was always open where people could come in, get a hot meal, have a talk with my dad.

My dad would talk about the values that he grew up with Southern values and how you love people in spite of it all. And you know how he, he had such a, an understanding of how race in America worked. That he knew that these kids, even though they were getting in trouble, that if he could reach them, he could give them something that they had never had before.

And so I grew up watching my father do this. Over and over in my mom over just loving on people, loving them, lifting them up. You know, my dad taught everybody who wanted to learn a trade. My dad taught them the trade, everyone who wanted to go to a good school, my mom helped them get into the Metco program.

And so sometimes I would just sit under the kitchen table and just listen to them, talking to people, neighbors, family, other folks, cooking big meals and, and just nurturing everybody. And that’s really where it came from, for me, I saw it work over and over again with people and for my dad, I think they were raising a whole community.

I think a lot of who I am, came from my upbringing and we really never had money. Like we never had anything growing up, but we never knew we had such a rich life. And that’s why I think for our families, it’s important for me to recreate that family for them.

Matt: But it makes sense to me, right where you are now and how you’ve built this organization and the culture that you’ve built and how you approach it.

So as this little kid, you’re under the table, watching your parents operate as pillars of the community that say we’re gonna invest and pour in and help and whatever somebody needs, we’re gonna be there for them. 

Cherie: Not everybody has as smooth story as Matt. Matt made a decision, he was all in. We were all in and he’s soaring, but everyone comes in and says, I don’t wanna go back to jail.

I need to get a job. Or I got to buy diapers or whatever. A lot of times when the young men come in, it’s either because they’re in trouble or because they really need money. So we put them in, in our program. But in that program, you have to go through the address, the stress program, which is mental health.

You gotta do the groups you have to do parenting, you have to do the nurturing program. So when folks are plugged in and they graduate from that first set of programs and move on, once they do that, the recidivism rate after that is six to 8% on the flip side is a upwards of 80% 

Matt: Recidivism back to?  They don’t go back to jail. 

Cherie: It means they don’t go back to jail.

They don’t go back to jail period. Yeah. Yeah. And that it’s pretty astounding. But I say this just to say that there are folks who either don’t finish the program and go back to jail, but we never give up. So right now, five, six young men who text me personally from jail. I send them long texts back.

Tell ’em what’s going on. When you come outside on the other side of the wall. This is what we’re gonna do, because I don’t want them to lose hope. 20 years of your life. You lived one way, you were with us for six, eight months. I don’t expect you to change your entire way of thinking. You made a mistake. You got caught up in something and your back there, your body is there, but your mind doesn’t have to be. And so I’m constantly just reminding them that. Whole life out here for them. And sometimes folks disappear. They always come back. Yeah,

Matt: Because you invested in the relationship.

Cherie: Everything we do is about the relationship.

Matt: That’s the whole game right there. And I, I don’t know if most organizations that are serving families that are having the same kinds of experiences that you’re telling us about here. It’s seems simple, but it, I think it’s actually a pretty different orientation.

Cherie: So I know what it feels like to have a need and to have to go to someone and tell them that you have a need and to have to go through whatever it is that particular person or, or organization has decided you have to go through on any given day.

Someone could have an attitude. They lost your paperwork. So you can’t get your food stamps or your case worker is out today. So you’re not gonna be seen in all of those horrible experiences. Like I’ve had my staff have had them, everyone that works for me has walked a mile in these shoes. And because we know what that feels like. We know how we never want our families to feel.

Matt: I think what’s interesting about Smart is that yes, you all are providing programs and services to help in the sort of immediate needs that somebody has, but you’re not missing the point that there are these broader set of conditions and experiences that are not serving people in a, in a just equal way.

And to speak to that. I wonder if you could just say a little bit about what you’re doing this week, cuz I think it’s really interesting what you’re doing with your team.

Cherie: Yeah. So it’s interesting that you asked me this because there’s this disconnect between a lot of times between folks who do early childhood or fund early childhood and folks who do or fund racial and social justice, you can’t expect a kid, no matter how great an educational experience you give them as a child to thrive if you’re turning them over to systems and services that are still discriminatory and biased. Our family leadership team decided they wanted to create a program under Smart’s umbrella that would take actionable steps to help, to promote racial and social justice across the spectrum. Justice for All is our new iteration of the civil rights movement and Smart’s role in it stands on four pillars, empowerment, advocacy, policy change, and disrupting and dismantling the cradle to prison pipeline. Each one of those pillars has actionable steps that we are taking. Just yesterday we launched our second civil rights, summer pilgrimage and the civil rights summer pilgrimage is an opportunity for about 50 folks to get on a bus.

And to spend two weeks traveling south to visit multiple civil rights museums, monuments, landmarks, and historical sites that will teach our youth and family leaders about the real history of this country and about the contributions of African Americans. To the economy, to culture, to politics, to education, all of those things.

Now we went last year for the first time and I thought we’re gonna go on this pilgrimage and that we’re gonna enjoy it. I did not anticipate doing it again this year. It’s really, it’s really expensive and I’m old to be sitting on a bus for two weeks, but it was the most single most impactful experience of my life.

Two things happened in particular so you almost see these kids sitting up straighter and when they talk, come back and they talk about last year, they, they went back to school and they were talking. No, we weren’t slaves we were enslaved Africans, and actually we were architects and astronomers and doctors, and it just gives them a different way of looking at themselves because there’s all of this shame that a lot of African Americans feel about being descendants of enslaved people.

When that shame is it is not ours. So there’s an opportunity to learn about those things and to walk. In the same footsteps as folks like John Lewis and we march across the Edin Pettus bridge and we visit the Whitney Plantation and we go to where Emmett Till was lynched. Wow. And we have a prayer circle there and we have a healing circle.

So these kids who are living in these communities that are underserved in these circumstances that are so difficult, have this experience and they come back and they get to work teaching other folks about their history. And they begin to look at policies at their school or in their housing development that need to be changed and they get to work changing them.

So that’s the one thing that happens. And then the other thing that happens is we learn about the civil rights movement and multiple iterations of it. And I think that the lessons that we learn are instructive to us as we fight this iteration of the civil rights movement. And they begin to really take on the responsibility of carrying that work forward. 

Matt: That story that you just told there of what this pilgrimage is and what it fits into in terms of a, of a bigger picture. I mean, again, it speaks to, we see people for who they truly are by understanding the full context of that person’s life and their environment and their community and these conditions, but also history as well.

And I think that I would imagine that experiences like this, that your staff and people involved with Smart are having it’s unique. 

Cherie: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s unique because it’s such a comprehensive and holistic.

Matt: So maybe to start to close the conversation here, Smart from the Start is in Boston. It’s in Washington DC. Yes. And maybe it’ll move to other cities. I think that would be great, but the idea of just sort of like replicating it in other places, maybe not super easy, but there, there are ways in which that it can be done. Like this model that you’ve created can certainly be operating in other places.

And I wonder for people that are listening that are curious about this, if there’s maybe even just like one key lesson that you’ve learned, you know, I know it’s, it’s, that’s a tough one, but it just something that’s like really core to how this really works.

Cherie: I didn’t have any money or anything. Really when I started this, I had the support of some folks, but for it to work, you have to have leadership that actually understands the plight of your people. The other thing I would say is don’t go anywhere where you’re not wanted. So in Boston, we’re in eight neighborhoods, every neighborhood we replicated in, we had a process.

We did not go into a community and put down our flag and say, Smart From the Start is here. You have to be respectful of the communities that exist. You have to understand that everyone has their own demographics, geography, history, strength. challenges opportunities. And when you introduce yourself to a new community, you very humbly go to the folks and you say, tell us about your community and we’ll tell you about us. And if it makes sense for us to partner, we would like to explore that option.

Matt: Again, like you guys flip the script a little bit, like, yes, it’s a little bit more the norm to say, I have this program, this solution, this evidence-based this, and I’m gonna come to this community. What from your point of view happens when that’s the first step or the approach?

Cherie: Well, you have people who don’t know the community don’t understand how important it is to build relationships that are planting a flag. Nobody comes so people don’t come to your program or you have all kinds of issues. And then you say, oh, these people are non-compliant. These people are they’re aggressive, they’re not interested.

And then you pick your flag up and you leave after you’ve made promises to change the community. And that’s why you see communities that have generations of the same families caught up with the same problems, because there hasn’t been someone who actually engaged those communities in helping us to create programs and services that actually meet the needs that they have.

I had a focus group with young men, 16 to 26 years old. I’m being told, oh, it’s a difficult community. Be careful, be careful. I had this meeting, I facilitated this focus group with these young men. We had the best time we laughed. We talked, we joked, you know how I started? I told them my story. Yeah. I told them my story and they told me their, and I told them what I saw in them. 

Matt: Let me ask you, maybe if you can, a little advice for me. So I’m on a, the leadership team of our organization. And if we’re interested in doing something similar to what Smart is and working in with community in these kinds of ways, I don’t have a story like your story.

Cherie: Everybody has a, a story, Matt. 

Matt: So let me ask it this way though. I do have stories and I do have experiences. But they’re not the same experiences and stories as the communities in which you work in. So can I walk into that community and say, let me tell you my story or what, how would I go about, yeah.

Cherie: So you come into the, and you say, this is why I do this work.

My name is Matt. There’s a lot of things that I don’t know. And that you’re experts. And you can teach me. And I wanna learn from you because what I know is that there’s such great potential in this community. And I know you guys have gotten a really a bad deal. I’m telling you your own story.

Yeah. This is why you do this work. Is because you believe in the power of people and you believe that people when given the right set of circumstances and resources, they have the potential to do anything, children and families. I’m here to bridge resources to this community that you. Don’t have so that we can do things here that we haven’t done before, that will help you out.

But you gotta tell me what those things are. When I first went to Woodland in Southeast DC, it was myself and my intern Cat, beautiful blonde hair, blue-eyed intern from Virginia Beach and those guys absolutely loved Ms. Catt. Matt will tell you about they loved her, but she led with her heart. She knew she didn’t share the same experiences, but she shared the same goals for the kids and families, and really believed in them. And so, yeah, that’s the advice. Just, just be you. I can do that. You can do it.

Matt: I can do that. Yeah. And I think that’s, I think that’s right too, from this, this whole conversation has been sort of moving around this, this point of trust and trust-building. And I think that’s all it is right. If you’re transparent is if you’re open, you’re vulnerable, authentic, and trust is, is built from that place. So it absolutely is very good. Well, I always learned something from you and I certainly have today and.

Cherie: So much fun. I appreciate. Thanks Matt. Thank you. This was wonderful. Thank you so much.

Matt: So before we close out, I just wanna say thank you again to Cherie for a great conversation. If you really want to know what it looks like to build an organization on the foundation of seeing families for who they truly are, then I would encourage you to go to and just take a deeper dive into what they’re doing. And with that, I’m gonna send it over to Isaiah for our closing credits.

Isaiah: I absolutely fell in love with Cherie Craft, her organization and her story. And I hope you did too. You can dive deeper into the details of her organization, Smart From the Start, and her project Justice For All by visiting our website, after every episode, be sure to visit our site for exclusive content and insights on our guests and details in the show.

Since I had the mic right now, I wanted to give credit to our Olympic Gold Medal level podcast team. Our executive producer is Michael Osborne, mixing mastering and sound design by Morgan Honaker, our composer is Christian Haigas and our creative team members are April Dillon and Candace Kearse.  I’m Isaiah Strozier and I just wanna say, thank you guys for listening.


Cherie Craft, Founder/CEO and Executive Director, Smart from the Start

Smart from the Start, which is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization with a mission to promote the physical, mental, and developmental health of young children while empowering families living in the underserved communities of Boston and Washington, D.C. Cherie Craft studied Sociology and Counseling as an undergraduate degree and holds a master’s degree in Counseling Psychology. Having grown up in an inner-city housing development and raising five kids of her own, Cherie possesses a passionate commitment to working tirelessly to better the lives of underserved children and families.