Photo by Jay Paul
It’s a busy holiday season for Maya Payne Smart. When she’s not courtside cheering the Rams through a brutal non-conference schedule, the “first lady of VCU basketball” is fundraising for the Richmond Christmas Mother Fund (sponsored by the Richmond Times-Dispatch) and tackling childhood literacy in the process. Richmond magazine caught up with Smart to talk about philanthropy, social media and a Thanksgiving to remember.
RM: How did you react when you found out you were the youngest and first African-American Christmas Mother in the program’s 80-year-history?
Smart: They sent me a list of all the previous Christmas mothers for the last 10 or 15 years. Just based on the names, I had a sense that I was the youngest because most of them appeared to be grandmothers. I thought it was an exciting opportunity to introduce the program to a younger audience. Every nonprofit is always hustling to generate new donors and introduce new people to the cause, so I was excited to lead the outreach to younger supporters.
RM: The program is expanding outreach this year to more than 80 nonprofits, right?
Smart: In the past several years, I think for decades even, the majority of the Christmas Mother funds were given to the Salvation Army to assist with a number of their Christmas assistance programs. This year, they gave a portion of the money to the Salvation Army, but they also created a competitive grant process in partnership with the Community Foundation so all kinds of nonprofits could apply to receive funding as long as whatever they were doing was holiday-related … Through that particular program, we’ll be giving out about $100,000 of grants.
RM: Why have you decided child literacy is a cause you want to champion?
Smart: I have a 3-year-old, and she’s in that emerging reading stage. One of the biggest differences you can make in the life of a child is educating them well, teaching them to read and getting that process started early. I’m using this Christmas Mother opportunity to spread the word about reading, the importance of reading to your kids, how to do it effectively, what community resources are out there.
[She pulls a book out of her purse.]
This [was] the theme of my [Christmas parade] float: It’s called The Snowy Day. It’s a classic children’s book that was written in 1962. It was a big deal because the main character was a little black boy, and that was unheard of at that time. It became really commercially successful. The book itself is about the boy playing in the snow and the excitement and wonder of making a snowball and watching it melt. It’s important for kids to have characters who look like them in books, and for kids to read books with characters that don’t look like them. It’s just a great picture book. Zora loves it. I loved it as a kid. It was one of Shaka’s favorite books. I’ve been trying to find libraries and places around town to leave these.
RM: In your role this holiday season, what would constitute a success to you in terms of your individual goals for giving and expanding childhood literacy and awareness about it?
Smart: With respect to the Christmas Mother fund, one of the goals is to raise awareness that the Christmas Mother fund exists and it provides really important, critical assistance in the holiday season and that everyone is invited to participate … With respect to reading, I think the message I’m trying to send is that educating a child is really a community effort. When you see, at the advanced grades, the failure, basically, in our school system, the best way to address those really important issues is to invest very early in preventing issues with literacy and education and development.
RM: You’re very active on Twitter.
MS: [laughs] Am I? I go through waves.
RM: Are you tweeting for both you and Shaka, because I notice he doesn’t tweet often.
MS: He never tweets. I think at least maybe two or three years ago, he stopped tweeting. He just views it as a distraction. He doesn’t enjoy it. I read on Twitter a lot more than I post because it’s interesting to see what people are interested in at that moment. But he, at any given moment, is interested in VCU basketball. And the parts that he’s interested in are not on Twitter.
RM: You have a blog. What motivates you to write as often as you do?
MS: I went to journalism school. I used to work as a business reporter and stopped that a few years ago. I enjoy writing. I enjoy expressing myself. The blog was an experiment in writing about what I was interested in [at] a particular moment as opposed to writing for an assignment for a publication. I found that it’s a good way to build support for community initiatives. I do a lot of interviews, primarily with dynamic women — some in the arts, some in the nonprofit and business sectors — but all with the goal of encouraging people to make the difference they were made to make in the world, whatever that is.
RM: You’ve written a number of how-to articles on life skills. What's the most difficult lesson you've learned in your life to this point?
MS: A lot of the how-tos I write about are productivity-oriented. An ongoing challenge is using technology in a way that it supports your goals as opposed to distracting you from them. I haven’t mastered it, but I suspect if we all were able to focus ourselves more we would be able to bring about community-wide progress and transformation.
RM: We heard you had the team over for Thanksgiving. How many plates of food did Mo Alie-Cox eat?
Smart: [Laughs.] Probably just two. Two large plates.
RM: What was the clean-up game plan?
Smart: There was a ton of help. We have a very supportive basketball family. There were players there, graduate assistants, coaches, coaches’ families, kids. Everybody cleans up their own mess. [Laughs.] I did not cook. You don’t want me to cook. That’s not one of my obsessions. You don’t want me to cook Thanksgiving dinner. So that was catered and that helped as well.
RM: Do you ever give Shaka basketball advice, like, “Hey, maybe tweak the half-court offense a bit to deal with the zone better” or “Have you thought of giving Doug Brooks more minutes?”
Smart: Less so over the years. I give him advice more on intangible things. I tell him my observations about what I see. So, less about Xs and Os, and more about dynamics … I used to go with him to high school games and say what I thought about a player’s temperament or how good of a teammate they are. Shaka Smart can figure out the basketball part of it. [Laughs.]