From Small Town to Center Stage: Mike Smith's message inspires students at Jostens Renaissance

From Small Town to Center Stage: Mike Smith's message inspires students at Jostens Renaissance

By Tyler Dahlgren

NCSA Communications Specialist

Nationally-renowned speaker Mike Smith, founder of popular non-profits The Bay and Skate for Change, roused a Norris gymnasium packed tight with 2,000 students from over 20 Nebraska schools last Monday.

His message was inspiring, simple and direct. All at once.

"None of you are average,” the Imperial, NE native said. “Every single kid in here has what it takes to make it. The world needs a generation of kids committed to action."

His audience was engaged and attentive.

Smith addressed the crowd for all of five minutes before he had a line of teachers and students alike standing in front of the podium, shamelessly giving their best rendition of “The Dab” and unabashedly following up their “whips” with “NaeNaes”. (Those are popular dance moves).

Then came the “Stanky Leg”, the ultimate icebreaker.

A group of Norris Middle School students, regulars at The Bay, a place of “empowerment” for youth equipped with a skate park, concert venue and coffee bar, introduced Smith, who then brought the first keynote speaker of the Jostens Renaissance to the stage.

Philip Campbell implemented an extremely successful Renaissance program while at Portland High School in Tennessee. Since 2010, the school’s graduation rates climbed to 92.1 percent, an increase of nearly 11 percent.

Campbell spoke to not only the students in attendance, but the teachers as well, about what it takes to maintain a positive culture within the walls of a school.

“Leaders find a way to shine light on those around them,” said Campbell, who would lead a breakout session with educators later in the morning. “As educators, a test score does not define you. Teach to the heart, and those test scores will take care of themselves.”

Smith returned to the stage and for the next 25 minutes captivated the audience with a passionate speech that had little to do with his own accomplishments, but rather centered on the potential of each student in attendance.

“I want them to understand that just because you come from a small town in Nebraska, or Nebraska in general, that doesn’t mean that you can’t do big things,” said Smith, who played basketball at Grace University while finding his passion for helping others. “There’s a lot of amazing people and amazing stories coming out of our state, and I want to show the kids that something as crazy as The Bay or Skate for Change, with all the momentum they’ve gotten, it all started in Nebraska and was thought of by a kid who grew up in a town without a stoplight.”

Smith, who now tours the country delivering his message, gave his first speech in Norris four years ago. Jason Cullison, a language arts teacher at the middle school, heard that speech, and connected with Smith.

It was Cullison who played a large part in Monday’s event. He credits Norris Project Director Jane Hansmeyer for organizing the event, which went smoothly thanks to the work of a group of student council members, who ushered different schools into the gymnasium and directed bleacher traffic.

“The administration here is really, really amazing,” Cullison said of the support he received after pitching the idea near the start of the school year. “I threw it by my superintendent (John Skretta), who said yes, and he then did what every good administrator does and put it into the hands of the middle school administration and they handled it from there.”

Cullison had tried to bring Smith and the Jostens Renaissance to Norris last year, but it didn’t work out. He reached out with another invitation in August.

“He said, ‘Yeah, I am working on this new thing, let’s do it for free’,” Cullison said. “I said ‘I like that’. He knows Norris and he likes Norris.”

You could also say Smith knows Nebraska and loves Nebraska.

“I think there is a work ethic and an ability to be adaptable that comes with some of the Nebraska folks,” Smith said. “I love working with Nebraska kids because I think they are down-to-earth and well-rounded.”

He has the same kind of affinity for Nebraska’s teachers, a career route he once envisioned for himself. Some of his best friends are educators within the state, and he notes the diverse, expanded role teachers often play in the lives of their students.

“The extension that Nebraska educators take on to be like family to a lot of these kids is a really crucial thing,” Smith said. “We are all one adult away from making it or not making it at one point in our lives.”

The Bay was founded on the same general foundation.

“Simply put, young people need three things,” Smith is quoted on The Bay’s website ( “Somewhere to be, something to do, and someone to look out for them.”

After the breakout session, during which Smith spoke directly to students, Cullison debriefed his students in the classroom. He wanted to know what they took from the Jostens Renaissance.

“I know Mike and if you go help Skate for Change, cool, but that’s not really what his message is,” Cullison told them. “He would be flabbergasted if one of you people that heard him today started your own non-profit to help others. Kids were raving about him, saying ‘That’s the best speaker I’ve ever heard’.”

Cullison heard positive feedback from the teachers in attendance, too, many of whom left with plans to implement some of the Renaissance techniques passed on by Campbell during the breakout session.

“The teachers had nothing bad to say and were amazed at the organization and method and want to go apply some of these things, as do I,” said Cullison. “It wakes you up a little.”

Smith says kids today are in the middle of a renaissance of their own, with ever-expanding technology and bountiful opportunities in front of them. The sky is the limit, and that’s what he relayed on Monday.

“I’m excited about the energy and the opportunity that comes with working with this generation,” Smith said.

Smith believes in young people.

Students left the Jostens Renaissance in Norris believing in themselves.