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A Tribute to our founder, Ben Smith

With tears in our eyes for our loss, and gratitude in our hearts for having shared in his immense and incomparable life, we must share that our co-founder and co-executive director, Ben Smith, has passed away.

For more than two decades Ben Smith, his van, and his grill trucks defined reentry in New Orleans. When we tell the story of “The First 72+” we explain that before there was a non-profit organization, with an office and a staff, there was Ben and his van. Ben’s spirit of service, tough love, justice, and mercy, created The First 72+.

He’d show up for you at the parole board, pick you up at the gate of the penitentiary, get you some food and a safe place to sleep that night, drive you to the doctor, get you your ID, and then instead of letting you suffer the indignity of being turned down for a job he’d put you to work at Da Grill. I feel quite certain that Ben employed more formerly incarcerated people than any business owner in this country. He was the original “second chance employer.”

Since I found out he passed away, nearly every person I have spoken to has told me about a time when Ben gave them a chance when no one else would. At his funeral service last week, I asked those present to stand if Ben ever spoke up for them at the parole board, or picked them up from jail, or helped them get an ID, or helped them get something to eat, or gave them a job, or blew them down when they were messing up. By the end, we were all standing. Ben served our community until the very end. That was Ben’s MO. He gave people, the people who need it the most, a chance.

Ben was a forefather of reentry, not just locally, but across the country. He was doing the work before it was fashionable, fundable – or bipartisan. Ben’s devotion to voting rights and a truly representative democracy helped pave the way for the historic elections, and much of the criminal justice reform we have witnessed over the past decade. In fact, it really feels fitting that Ben passed away in a year where we saw absolutely historic voter turnout, and on the day that Cedric Richmond (a Native Son of New Orleans, and longtime friend of Ben’s) was appointed to be a Senior Advisor in the White House. I can perfectly imagine Ben’s reaction to that news.

I was not ready to lose Ben. None of us were. I know that eventually the tears will stop, eventually a new normal will set in, and eventually there will be reasons to celebrate, but I can’t imagine victories ever feeling as good if they aren’t coupled with Ben shouting out “Shut yo mouth!” I also know there is so much more for me to learn. But I can’t imagine lessons packing as much of a punch without Ben behind them. Who is going to snap at me when I don’t sort the money right at the fish frys? Who is going to carry on the encyclopedic knowledge of the New Orleans political scene over the last 50 years? Who is going to know every route, from every street corner, in every neighborhood in New Orleans? I spoke to Ben nearly every day for the past 6 years. Ben put an immense amount of loving pressure on me when he was alive. He counted on me for a lot, and I counted on him for even more. He was, truly, my Co-Director.

Now I can’t pretend like it was always easy, or that Ben was always a perfect professional… Ben wasn’t perfect, and I think it would be a disservice to his memory and his legacy, if we go on to tell his story as some sort of straight path, or fairy tale. Ben’s story is complicated. And that is why he is so inspirational. Because most of us have complicated stories. But when we have the right people around us, the right people to push us, and encourage us, and show us the way, we are at our best. And that is what Ben did for the people around him, every day, he tried to give people a chance to become their absolute best selves. And if he gave you a chance, he was relentless.

I am so grateful for every minute, of every meeting, of every drive, of every flight, of every disagreement, of every time we agreed to disagree and move on, of every victory, of every defeat, and, especially, of every laugh. I am so grateful that Ben gave me a chance.

He gave all he could, and even in death, his life and his legacy continue to serve us. Ben, you were so loved, you are so loved, and you are so, so missed. Rest in power, dear friend.

-Kelly Orians, On behalf of The First 72+ team

News coverage on Ben's passing and legacy: Ben Smith Jr., who led New Orleans re-entry organization, dead at 69

WWLTV: Friends, family mourn death of Ben Smith, founder of 'The First 72 Plus'

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