Out in the Open

His first protest ever cost him his career, reputation and sense of self

When Adam Smith drove up to a Chick-fil-A drive through window and began arguing with an employee about LGBT rights, he thought he was doing something positive. But video of his protest soon went viral. And he went from being a CFO to being on food stamps and contemplating suicide.

Adam Smith went from being a CFO to being on food stamps after protesting at a Chick-fil-A

Adam Smith went from being a CFO to being on food stamps after protesting in defense of LGBT rights at a Chick-fil-A. (Courtesy of Adam Smith)
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When Adam Smith got in his car, drove up to a Chick-fil-A drive through window and began confronting an employee about LGBT rights, he thought he was doing something positive.

For him, it was one step in undoing anti-gay messaging he says he was taught as a child.

But his first act of protest ever would soon cause his life to unravel.

Smith filmed the 2012 encounter in Tucson, Arizona as part of a larger demonstration against the fast food chain. Its chairman, president and CEO Dan T. Cathy — a noted Christian — had publicly said he was "guilty as charged" for backing the "biblical definition of family," and donated money to groups believed to be anti-gay.

This sparked a backlash, including a call for people to film themselves ordering a large water at Chick-fil-A and, if denied, cite the Bible passage, "If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink." If the employee then gave out the water for free, the challenge suggested, the participant would succeed in taking money away from the company.

"When I was met with some of the things [the Chick-fil-A employee] said ... she disagreed with me, she really liked her company, then it became a fight. And then it became back to what I was taught, which is 'Hey, I'm better than you, I'm smarter than you, I'm on the right side.' And then it became really me versus her," says Smith of his interaction at the restaurant. 

"I was spouting off, but I was watching myself spouting off, and I go, 'I guess this is what a protest feels like. I guess it feels this kind of rage, this uncomfortable, conflicting energy. I guess this is what it is and I guess I'm just going to go through with this, and here I go."

After driving home, Smith uploaded the video to YouTube. Soon after, he says he received an email from an unknown sender who said they'd used face recognition technology to identify who he was, and vowed to get him fired.

Smith believes the sender was reacting to the stance he took in the video. But he says he refused to be intimidated and thought everything was going to be OK.

'It got very personal, very real'

At the time, Smith — a husband and father of four — was an accomplished businessman, the chief financial officer at a medical supplies company.

The morning after he uploaded the video, he went to work as usual.

"The receptionist who greets me every morning, she looked at me and she had huge eyes and said 'Adam, what did you do?'" says Smith, "'There are hundreds of voicemails ... and they are full of death threats and bomb threats.'"

Smith regretted how he expressed his views to the Chick-fil-A employee and proposed making a public apology.

Instead, his company urged him to quit. When he disagreed, they fired him.

His family and friends were disappointed in Smith for what he had done. 

"I'm still emotional now," he says, "I don't like letting people down that I love. It's something I carry. That didn't feel good. I definitely didn't feel like I did the right thing for my family, losing a job."

A press release announcing his termination was picked up by major news media outlets, which were covering Chick-fil-A protests. Soon, the video he uploaded went viral.

"There were literally thousands of people commenting on me and me as a person and my reputation and who I am and what I deserve. They were talking about that I need my kids taken away from me. They said that I should definitely hang myself and I don't deserve to live ... so it got very personal, very real."

'I realized these consequences were going to be bigger'

Smith says his resume was impeccable, so landing interviews to find a new job wasn't a problem... but getting and keeping a job proved next to impossible.

"I ended up getting an interview and flying out to Portland, Oregon and getting the job. And I feel like I'm back. Two weeks into it ... I get called into the CFO's office and they said 'Adam, you lied to us. You didn't tell us about this video,' and I explained I didn't need to, legally, and they said 'That's too bad, you're fired.' That one was a huge wakeup call because then I realized these consequences were going to be bigger."

He applied for another job, and after an interview was given an offer. This time, Smith tried a different tactic. Before accepting, he told his would-be new boss about the video and the news it generated.

"He said, 'Well everybody makes mistakes. Are you going to make that mistake again?' and I said 'No, you have my word," says Smith. 

I'm sorry Adam, you're going to be too much of a distraction

He called his wife to share the good news, but while they were talking, the company that had just hired him left him a voicemail.

It said that they were sorry, but a board member thought he would be too much of a distraction and that they needed to take the offer back.

"I tried over and over. It happened a couple times after that and I just went into some deep, deep depression."

An incredible fall

Two and half years later, Smith and his family were surviving on food stamps and were months away from moving into his in-laws'.

"I remember asking them in tears because it was so humbling to ask if my family of six can stay in your garage," he says.

"My internal reputation took a big roller coaster ride ... I started to think 'What would life be like if I was not around? Would it be better? Would my family be better off?'"

Then, Smith says he realized he had a life insurance policy worth $1-million, looked at the details, and saw suicide wasn't an exclusion.

"I even had the turn of the mountain off the coast of Oregon that I was going to go by myself and just do it. That's where I was at."

'I needed to be humbled'

Smith realized he needed to tell his two therapists and his wife that he was having suicidal thoughts. Together, they decided he should do a journal workshop.

"I went all the way in. I just went all the way. I didn't hide anything. That workshop works when you have nothing to lose. So I just went into the deepest, deepest parts of everything, all the way inside, all those stories, all those thoughts, all that programming and it was so healing."

I've made it a mantra that it doesn't matter what other people think of me outside. It only matters internally, it only matters what's happening inside.- Adam Smith

Adam says that was the first big step to rebuilding his life, his reputation and himself.

He's since done more workshops and taught courses about mindfulness.

"I have come to a place where I don't need other people's approval anymore."

Now, Smith lives with his family in Costa Rica and runs a healing centre. He says he doesn't think he would be the person he is today if he had never posted that video of him protesting at Chick-fil-A.

"This was such a gift that happened to me; this thrashing, this public shaming, this reputation dissolution that happened was the best thing I needed because I needed that humbleness, I needed to be humbled and nothing was going to humble me like that." 


This story originally aired on April 8, 2018. It appears in the Out in the Open episode "Reputation".

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