Timothy M. Smyth ’07 was well on his way to becoming an academic, but his study of the history of apartheid in South Africa and the trans-Atlantic slave trade ultimately pointed him down a different career path.
Smyth earned a BA and an MA in history at UConn, where he was a University Scholar and Honors Program student and was named the Outstanding Graduate Student in History in 2004.
“My interest in African history and apartheid evolved from an academic interest into a real concern about racial inequity in America and a desire to help,” Smyth said. “Instead of pursuing a doctorate, I decided to go to law school and pivot toward a more tangible way of engaging with these issues and questions.”
Smyth graduated from UConn School of Law in 2007 and after a brief interlude working at a large law firm, he went to work for the Connecticut Fair Housing Center. The center’s mission is to ensure that everyone has access to housing opportunities in Connecticut, and Smyth, working alongside Legal Director Greg Kirschner, actively litigated fair housing cases in pursuit of that mission.
In the course of that work, Smyth had the opportunity to work with John Relman, a renowned civil rights attorney based in Washington, D.C. Smyth eventually moved to the nation’s capital to work with Relman at the firm of Relman, Dane & Kolfax, litigating cases at the nexus of housing and civil rights. “I was a serious history student for many years, and one key takeaway from my studies is that societies will always find people to marginalize. When they do, civil rights statutes are there as a check,” he said.
A few years later, Smyth was selected to serve as the director of the office of systemic investigations in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Last year he was named deputy assistant secretary for enforcement and programs in HUD’s Division of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, where he oversees 400 employees and manages 10 regions across the country.
“The Department of Housing and Urban Development is one of the key points at which the federal government interacts with low- and moderate-income people in America,” Smyth said. “It deals with place-based questions that confront communities every day. Where are people going to live? What kind of parks will they have access to? Will there be a community center? What do they want their community to look like 10 years from now?”
Much of the work Smyth spearheads and oversees at HUD pertains to compliance with and enforcement of civil rights statutes. At the moment, a lot of that work is disability-related. “I believe that when you think about the civil rights issues that our country continues to struggle with, physical segregation is at the core of that. We’re working hard to address that every day.”
Smyth credits his mentors with motivating him to engage with these issues in a tangible way. “UConn was very good to me. I’ve been privileged to work with brilliant educators and mentors, including Amii Omara-Otunnu and Jeffrey Ogbar during my work in Storrs, and Todd Fernow at the law school. Their guidance and example continue to motivate me in the pursuit of justice.”