Meet the Obama alum who is creating new opportunities for Native American girls while blazing pathways of her own.
This year, Obama Administration alum Mary Smith was named the president-elect of the American Bar Association (ABA) Opens in a new tab . She is the first Native American woman to hold the role.
We recently connected with Mary to discuss her new position; her decision to start the Chicago-based Caroline and Ora Smith Foundation Opens in a new tab for Native American girls in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM); and how her experience in the Obama administration influences her work today.
Q: First off, congratulations on your new role! What are you hoping to accomplish at the American Bar Association?
A: I joined the American Bar Association as a way to be a part of something bigger than myself. The American Bar Association touches so many people around the globe. I draw inspiration from all those in the legal profession who serve the profession and those around them. One of the areas on which I plan to focus is helping the next generation, similar to the goals of the Obama Foundation. I plan to include young lawyers in everything I do and to work with our Young Lawyers Division on programs to help young lawyers navigate the practice of law and become better lawyers, but also to help them with wellness and self-care.
Lawyers play an especially unique and critical role right now given the threats to our democracy. We, as lawyers, have an important and indeed central role in keeping democracy alive. We are the keepers of democracy. As the keepers of democracy, we have to lead. The ABA has to lead. The rule of law, the integrity of the fundamental right to vote, and protecting the independence of the judiciary will always be our special responsibility.
I hope that my position as the first Native American woman president of the ABA appeals to all parts of the legal profession—those people who are first generation lawyers, people who worked in the House, people who worked in government, and, of course, gives Native American lawyers inspiration and shows them that they can do anything.
Q: How did you join the Obama administration and what was your role?
A: During the Obama administration, I was on the transition team. At the beginning of the administration, I worked in a senior role at the Department of Justice before getting a call out of the blue toward the end of the administration from then-Secretary of Health and Human Services, Sylvia M. Burwell, regarding serving as CEO of the Indian Health Service, a $6 billion organization that provides health care to over two million Native Americans around the country.
For every job I take, I ask myself, “Am I the right person for this role? And will I be able to make a difference?” As CEO of the Indian Health Service, I wanted to help improve the lives of Native Americans around the country. My grandmother was my inspiration in accepting the position. My grandmother who was Native American was born in Westville, Oklahoma, which was one of the endpoints of the Trail of Tears. She grew up in a family of 16 kids, only 10 of whom lived above the age of three because of a lack of adequate health care. I wanted to honor my grandmother by improving health care for Native Americans and providing better access to healthcare for Native communities.
At the Indian Health Service, I started every day thinking about the patients and ended every day thinking about them. I did my best to improve health care for American Indians and Alaska Natives.
Q: How do you carry your heritage into each role you take?
A: I often think about my mom and my grandmother—how resilient they were, how strong they were, and I try to take some inspiration from that. They taught me to follow my heart and be proud of who I am. My goal is always to make a difference. I draw motivation from Wilma Mankiller, the first woman Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation once said, “The secret of our success is that we never, never give up.”
Q:To wrap up, I was hoping you could tell us about the Caroline and Ora Smith Foundation. What inspired your mission to empower Native American girls in STEM?
A: After I left the Obama administration, I wanted to continue empowering Native American communities and to honor both my mother and my grandmother. Caroline Smith was my mother and best friend, who sadly passed away a few months ago.
I created the Caroline and Ora Smith Foundation to honor them, but also to empower the next generation of Native American women and girls to study science, technology, engineering, and math.
We started a few years ago, and one of our first programs was a partnership with the American Indian Center in Chicago to sponsor a STEM summer camp. After the pandemic, we pivoted to virtual programming. This year we were able to join in-person and be a part of the STEM summer camp with Northwestern University, Chicago Public Schools’ American Indian Education Program, and the American Indian Center. It was a wonderful opportunity for the kids to learn about science while still honoring Indigenous traditions and knowledge.