Jaylen Smith ran for mayor to invest more in his small Arkansas "family town."
2023 brought in official new jobs for multitudes of public servants and politicians who took their oaths of office. In Earle, Arkansas, one of the recently sworn-in officials is 18-year-old Mayor Jaylen Smith.
Smith is, by all accounts, the nation’s youngest Black mayor and is getting attention nationwide. He’s been featured on The Jennifer Hudson Show and profiled in major news publications like The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, and more.
Now the mayor of his hometown of 1,800 people, Smith is an example of what it looks like to reinvest in the village that raised you.
In an interview with Slate, Smith talks about his family’s influence on his decision to run. “Early in my senior year, I told my godmom I wanted to run for mayor. She said go for it. And I went for it, even though some people thought I shouldn’t,” he told the publication in December.
In that same interview, Smith describes Earle as a “family town,” where the people look out for one another. Located about 30 miles outside of Memphis, Tennessee, the majority-Black city has faced some issues common to small, rural towns in recent years.
For example, Smith’s platform was largely based on infrastructure improvements. According to reports, he campaigned door to door, promising voters he would work to bring a supermarket back into the city limits, build the city’s police department so they could have a 24-hour police presence, tear down blighted buildings, and more.
In a city of fewer than 2,000 people, it’s easy for everyone to feel like they know everyone else and even to have played a role in someone’s life or their parents’ lives. That played a role in Smith’s election.
Billy Joe Murray, Earle High School’s retired basketball coach, told The New York Times that infrastructure, specifically the town’s ailing drainage system, is his biggest priority for the mayor. He also explained that Smith earned his vote because of his family’s connection to Earle.
“I taught his mama, I know his daddy,” Murray told The Times about Smith, who lives with his parents. “He may look young, but he’s got his head on right.”
Smith told “The Washington Post” in December that his parents are thrilled by his record-breaking new position in the city their family has lived in for generations.
“My mom can’t stop crying,” he said.
There’s a common refrain that the best thing for young people to do is to leave their hometowns, especially the smaller, rural ones, but that can often contribute to a form of localized brain drain and vicious cycle: The city loses people, thus its tax base and population dwindle, so it can’t make large investments in infrastructure, which would attract people to come into the city or stay in the city.
Because of the Smith family and the greater community’s investment in Jaylen, the city is poised and hopeful for a second act.
“Why should I have to go somewhere else to be great when I can be great right here in Earle, Arkansas?” Smith asked The Times.