by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson
Following the lead of a young couple, the Dickinson community knocked it out of the park during last year’s Day of Giving DEI Challenge. Lauren Ashley Smith ’06 and wife Brooke Helburn offered to match up to $10,000 in gifts supporting diversity, equity & inclusion (DEI) initiatives. The final tally was $29,044—nearly double the goal.
Gifts toward DEI initiatives support Dickinson’s Office of Equity & Inclusion (OEI), which aims to build and strengthen awareness on how various forms of oppression impact communities and provides opportunities to gain the tools to combat multiple forms of injustice and inequity. Smith and Helburn were inspired to make their gift in part because of Smith’s personal connections to DEI work, and in part because of a milestone hire.
Smith grew up in St. Louis, the charismatic eldest of three daughters. Her parents instilled keen sense of humor and a drive to succeed, and they modeled the importance of social-justice work. Smith’s late father, Jonathan, made an indelible mark at St. Louis University (SLU) as its first chief diversity officer. Her mother, Rochelle, held similar roles at Washington University in St. Louis and Yale and now continues Jonathan’s legacy as SLU’s vice president for diversity and community engagement.
As a Dickinson American-studies major, Smith thought deeply about the ways media and entertainment influence how we engage with the world around us. A Mexican Mosaic brought her in touch with local migrant communities while also honing her video-production skills. She strengthened her performance and comedy chops through Mermaid Players and Run With It, the college’s improv group.
With guidance from Dickinson Trustee Amy Nauiokas ’94, Smith secured an internship at VH-1. She went on to write comedy for the VH-1 series Best Week Ever and later, for the Bravo-TV shows Fashion Queens and Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen.
Smith met Helburn, a media strategist and Sweet Briar College grad, in 2010, the year both were featured in a Time Out New York issue about notable singles in NYC. As later reported in their wedding announcement in The New York Times, Smith arrived for the Time Out shoot in sweats, while Helburn chose a leopard-print dress. Both deemed the other’s ensemble inappropriate. But one week later, when they met at a Time Out party, they discovered a shared sense of humor and clicked.
They married in 2015, during a ceremony officiated by Smith’s father, and recently celebrated their eighth anniversary. Smith and Helburn live in L.A. with two beloved and photogenic dogs.
In the years since, Smith’s star continued to rise. As head writer of the BET Network’s The Rundown with Robin Thede, she earned the distinction as only the second African American woman in history to serve as head writer of a late-night television show. (The first was Thede.) As head writer and co-executive producer of HBO’s Black Lady Sketch Show, Smith garnered three Emmy nominations and a TCA Award.
She’s now a comedy writer and producer with a development deal at CBS Studios. Along with her sisters, Smith co-hosts a Gracie Award-winning live radio show on Andy Cohen’s Sirius channel, and her
acting credits include a role in 2019’s Between Two Ferns: The Movie.
“My hope was that by showing how invested i am in this work, my fellow alumni would be inspired to be invested too. i am overwhelmed and thrilled that that turned out to be true!” --Lauren Ashley Smith '06
In 2020, as she accepted the college’s Outstanding Young Alumni Award, Smith noted that the business of comedy can have seriously important effects.
“TV shapes how we see the world around us, and it shapes how we see ourselves,” Smith explained “With that in mind, I try to write and create things that take viewers who have been historically overlooked and undervalued. I try to tell them, ‘I see you. I value you. And you matter in a world where that is increasingly up for debate.’”
Smith, and Helburn were inspired to lay the DEI Challenge gauntlet after Dickinson hired its inaugural chief diversity officer, Tony Boston. In addition to indicating positive momentum, the hire held special resonance for the couple, in light of the late Dr. Smith’s life and work. Like Dr. Smith, Boston provides expert leadership and strategic advice that helps expand access and representation at his institution. Along with his staff, he amplifies programs that work toward ensuring equitable experiences and outcomes for students and shape a community where people of all identities feel fully included.
“This work requires not just leadership and strategy but also resources,” Boston notes. “And so, your support matters. With deep appreciation, I’d like to thank [Smith and Helburn] for their support.”
Smith says she and Helburn were honored to take the lead. “I could think of no better way to welcome Tony to Dickinson than by contributing to those resources in some way. My hope was that by showing how invested i am in this work, my fellow alumni would be inspired to be invested too," she explains. "i am overwhelmed and thrilled that that turned out to be true!”
Learn more about Lauren Ashley Smith '06:
Published August 1, 2023