A Delaware daughter has returned home.
At her last job as director of socioeconomic development at Enterprise Community Partners, Dr. Hara Wright-Smith commuted to DC, leading a technical team that traveled around the country and brought solutions to revitalize city neighborhoods and address local issues.
After COVID hit, as she was working remotely from New Castle County, she started looking into the possibility of doing the kind of work she was doing, but with a closer-to-home focus.
“I was born and raised in Delaware,” Wright-Smith told Technical.ly. “I have a connection to Wilmington in my personal life. It was just a matter of getting into a field that I enjoy that’s close to home.”
Her search for opportunities in Wilmington led her to the Wilmington Alliance, the city’s community and economic development nonprofit that seeks to reinvigorate the city by supporting the employment of residents on a neighborhood level.
Wilmington Alliance focus areas include entrepreneur and small business support as well as workforce development, with programs such as Wilmington MADE, the Wilmington Strong Fund, the Kitchen Collective, E3 and the Second Chance Employment Collaborative. When you see a mural in the city, green space that was once a vacant lot or a pop-up retail shop, there’s a good chance Wilmington Alliance is involved.
Today, Wright-Smith is the director of economic development and inclusion for Wilmington Alliance. It’s a position that is squarely in line with her career trajectory and its focus on economic development and community development.
“Professionally, I am hybrid — I’m an academic, and at the same time I’m a practitioner,” she said. “After I finished my doctoral work [at the University of Pennsylvania], I was in a university setting as a tenure-track professor. I taught business and entrepreneurship, and then moved on to work as a policy researcher and policy analysts for the Department of Housing and Community Development for the State of Maryland, before working for Enterprise Community Partners for five years.”
Her degrees in city and regional planning bring a lot to the table, but Wright-Smith has an uncommon connection to Wilmington and its communities: Though she grew up outside of the city, she is a historian and an archivist of the city’s grassroots, faith-based community development.
In January, Wright-Smith released the book “African Americans of Wilmington’s East Side,” a collection of vintage images from the later 19th century through the mid-’60s, when the East Side thrived on Black-owned neighborhood businesses, church events, Howard High School and Chrysler plant jobs. The photos are a display early- and mid-century style and fashion, but, more than that, they display a kind of community pride that Wright-Smith now works directly to help foster it in all of Wilmington’s marginalized neighborhoods.
She’ll bring all of that expertise to her new role, which she says is twofold. Workforce development initiatives are one focus.
“More broadly, it’s creating a pathway to economic mobility, and wealth building for nontraditional workers,” Wright-Smith said. That includes the organization’s Second Chance Employment Initiative aimed at getting justice-involved Delawareans into stable careers like IT and healthcare.
Small businesses and employment is another focus — “building on what the alliance is already doing,” she said. “For me coming in, I’m thinking around how we expand what we already done. What’s the next thing that we can do to further what we started?”
Wilmington Alliance is also building its footprint in healthcare and other high-demand industries.
“With healthcare being the second largest employer in Delaware, we’re entering that space focused on hiring and creating work force opportunity there,” she said. “Going forward we’ll look at how manufacturing and the five primary industry sectors that are really in demand and trying to find our space there. What we’re looking to do is to help support employment to those who, again, are oftentimes left behind.”
You can keep up with Wilmington Alliance’s projects, events and job openings at wilmingtonalliance.org or on social media.