Lisa Smith (B.S.W., ’13) was sick of seeing stupid policies. Smith knew her chosen profession would be taxing. As a social worker, you’re constantly seeing people on their worst days trying desperately to get back on their feet, but this was different. The system, she realized, was flawed and the policies weren’t just nonsensical, they were barriers for the people they were supposed to be helping. It was fatiguing.
“I went into my boss’ office and said, ‘this is bad policy.’ He said, ‘Lisa, if you don’t like these policies, go change them.’ So, I quit and ran for office,” Smith said matter-of-factly.
Smith comes from a long line of public servants. Her family is filled with social workers and educators. Growing up, dinner table conversations focused on mental health, addiction, volunteering, and how you could do good in the world. That mentality, along with the need for more structure, and the desire to shake-off a troublesome adolescence, led her to join the U.S. Air Force where she served in the security forces.
“I was stationed in Cheyenne and would often go down to Fort Collins,” she said. “When I got out [of the military], I wanted to go to CSU because it really aligned with my values around sustainability and I was excited to see there was a veteran’s office. Because I was an older student, I was grateful for the connection to other veterans.”
Between working for CSU’s Adult Learner and Veteran Services Office as a veteran’s coach and earning her degree in social work, Smith began volunteering with Team Rubicon, a nonprofit organization that deploys military veteran volunteers to emergency situations around the world.
“It fundamentally changed the course of my life after I left the military,” Smith said. “It brought me into a new type of community where I met my husband and most of my friends. It also helped in shaping how I view America and our policies. Without that experience, I might be a little more head-in-the-sand than I would like to be.”
Team Rubicon would put Smith face-to-face with some of the worst disasters, both man-made and natural, locally and around the globe. She’s been to Greece to run a medical refugee clinic, responded to floods and fires in Colorado, and, most recently, traveled to Poland and Ukraine to help evacuate Ukrainian refugees fleeing Russian aggression.
“It was a bit of whiplash going from comfortable Arvada into a warzone and having to piecemeal strategies to get medical supplies in and refugees out immediately,” she said. “One of the things I realized when I came back is that as an elected council person, I have a platform and can share these stories, make it personal, and humanize it, so people can see how they can help.”
As an Arvada City Councilmember, expressing the humanity in issues is one of the pillars of Smith’s policy approach. It may sound like an obvious technique considering politics is public service, but Smith found elected officials can be just as disconnected from their constituents struggles as policies are from the people they’re supposed to support.
“When you’re a politician, you’re at a conference table making policy decisions based on presentations you’re given. Most politicians don’t have the experience of working with low-income and homeless people or public assistance systems,” she explained. “I don’t know how many times I’ve had to explain how public assistance works. If you don’t have that perspective, how can you make good policy about it?”
As a State of Colorado employee focused on Medicaid policy, her second pillar toward helping others comes in in the form of “building the bench.”
Every semester, she supervises a CSU “macro social worker” student as an intern. It’s a new type of social work where social workers are more focused on bigger-picture social policy, such as Legislative work at the Capital, to help the legislature consider the programs and policies they’re creating from the perspective of those who will be using those programs.
“It can be very frustrating and challenging for the interns to navigate this system,” she said. “But it’s about building that bench of policy leaders and doing it for the social workers who need these policies to do their jobs and help people.”
Changing a policy is the best way to change a community, but that can be daunting for someone without Smith’s drive.
“Every week I get asked how to serve or volunteer, and what I always say is find something you care about. From community clubs to local nonprofits to googling, just dive in. Don’t reinvent the wheel, find the wheel,” she said.
Volunteering and serving the community fills your heart, Smith added. It releases more endorphins than going to the gym, and once you feel that, you want to keep doing it.
“I think in many ways you are the company the keep. That’s one of those generic phrases I’ve found to be true,” Smith said. “Humans aren’t meant to be individuals. We evolved, and thrived, as part of a community. Find your community.”