AR Briefly

Arkansas child and family advocacy group names new executive director

By: - February 2, 2023 5:45 pm

Keesa Smith, a former deputy director for the state’s Department of Human Services, is the new executive director of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, the group announced Thursday.

Smith will start with the longtime advocacy and public policy organization on Feb. 20, replacing Rich Huddleston, who retired last year after almost two decades at the helm of AACF.

Smith “will help us create and execute a vision for our organization that embodies our legacy of groundbreaking change and improving the lives and well-being of Arkansas’ children and families, and reducing racial disparities across the state,” an announcement on the AACF website said.

Keesa Smith, Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families
Keesa Smith, Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families

“I am excited and look forward to continuing AACF’s long history of advocating on behalf of our state’s most vulnerable population, our children,” Smith said in the statement. “For more than 45 years, AACF has played a key role in keeping children’s issues at the forefront of people’s minds. I can’t wait to begin this new role and continue the work of improving the lives of Arkansas’s children and families.”

Ryan Davis, president of the AACF board, expressed gratitude that, “after a long and careful search, we have a new executive director.”

Smith will be only the fifth executive director in AACF’s 45-year history, according to the website announcement. The previous directors were Jo Luck, 1978-1979; Don Crary, 1979-1988; Amy Rossi, 1988-2003; and Rich Huddleston, 2004-2022.

Smith worked at DHS from 2013 until 2023 as the deputy director of youth and families, overseeing the sprawling department’s divisions responsible for the state’s child welfare, juvenile justice and early education programs.

She also served as the agency’s appointee on several boards and commissions, and as the Secretary of Human Services’ designee on the Supreme Court Commission on Children, Youth and Families. She also served in her own capacity on the Racial Justice Taskforce and the Arkansas Court Improvement Program Advisory Council.

She previously served as deputy legal counsel for former Gov. Mike Beebe, as a staff attorney at the Center for Arkansas Legal Services, and as a university instructor in business and constitutional law.

Before serving at DHS, Keesa Smith led the Department of Workforce Services’ Board of Review, overhauling processes that eliminated a backlog of more than 4,000 unemployment appeals and decreasing the wait time for clients for an agency response from 14 months to 23 days, according to the website.

Smith earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and mass communication from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and her law degree from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Bowen School of Law.

Jennifer Ferguson and Laura Kellams, who have been acting as interim co-executive directors for AACF, will return as deputy director and Northwest Arkansas director, respectively. Kellams also will continue to provide legislative advocacy leadership during the 2023 legislative session.

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