AFFIRMING YOUTH – “What I found here that I found nowhere else was that I could see change on a daily basis. You can plant a seed. You can see a light go on in a child’s mind. That’s what I really find rewarding.” Regina Jackson will be honored with a Community Leader Award at Leadership California's Legacy of Leadership celebration on May 2, 2016 in San Francisco.
President & CEO, East Oakland Youth Development Center
Regina Jackson: Igniting Youth’s Own Knowhow Leads them to Success
by Carol Caley
Q: The mission of the East Oakland Youth Development Center (EOYDC) is to build the capabilities of youth and young adults by connecting them to caring adults. Together they engage in activities to enable the young to become social ambassadors of positive change in the community. Key components of the EOYDC’s programs focus on character-building, readiness, and access. Can you tell us more?
A: WE PRIMARILY SERVE THOSE who have been underserved, so there is often a limited perspective around possibility. People who come from impoverished communities don’t understand the plethora of opportunities that might be out there. Oftentimes, they don’t have a strong sense of self-worth or faith in their abilities.
WHAT WE TRY TO DO through our programming is shine a light, to give our young people a peek into a window to see as many opportunities as possible. First, through character development—respect for self and others. Also through programs, field trips, and field studies, where they will see people who look like them who have excelled in various arenas.
WE WANT TO TRY TO CREATE an additional viewpoint than the one from their parents or the people they live with. Through experiential learning, work-based learning, and what we call a cascading mentoring model, we guide young people into leadership with the idea that wherever they go, they can lead—whether that’s going away to college, relocating to another community, studying abroad, or entering a career. While I have been in leadership at EOYDC, 22 years now, we’ve had a large proportion of our young people choose to go into service-oriented careers. That is no accident.
Q: How so?
A: BECAUSE SEVERAL OF THE PROGRAMS we promote are youth-led programs. We give young people training, then put them in positions to lead, and support them in that leadership.
IN OUR 6-WEEK SUMMER YOUTH PROGRAM, we help our young people understand how to design curriculum, how to teach classes, how to engage and empower kids who are younger than they are. We recognize that young people learn best from someone about three or four years ahead of them. Kids tend to question adults, figures of authority, or people who are too much older than themselves. They’re busy looking up to kids who are in the next phase of growth, so those kids are in position to have the most impact.
OUR YOUNG PEOPLE FIND that while they’re teaching and nurturing, compassion is necessary to inspire and encourage the kids they’re leading. They share support among themselves. The work is challenging and hard. Every kid has a story, sometimes one that’s very sad, but there’s also an empowerment. They’re being put in a position that you won’t see in any other place. Youths are oftentimes invisible to adults, and here we are pushing them out in front. We’re giving them a toolkit that will help them not only change the way they feel about themselves, but create an identity that is very positive, that’s built around serving.
Q: The older youth lead the younger youth. Is this the cascading mentoring model that you’re describing?
A: YES, AT JUST THE AGE RANGE THAT WORKS. Youth leaders aged 14 to 18 lead kids aged 5 to 12. Our program directors are usually college freshmen or sophomores, between about 18 and 21 years of age. Directors are in leadership roles on the ground and in administration, writing grants and reports, issuing discipline. Since all of them are 21 and younger, they are not technically adults.
A LOT OF YOUNG PEOPLE WHO COME TO US are criminalized. They come from challenged urban communities. They oftentimes take risks that are not good risks. They find themselves on probation rather than seeing themselves as probation officers or judges. They can’t envision themselves in a career.
KIDS FROM OUR PROGRAMS are now principals and teachers, nurses and firefighters, lawyers and executive directors, after-school coordinators, probation officers. I hear from them that they chose their career based on their experiences and how they were made to feel when they were in programs like ours.
Q: Regina, you feel very strongly that though we might underestimate our young people or fail to hear them, they have the capacity to be leaders. How do you go about cultivating leadership?
A: THE WAY THE EOYDC APPROACHES THIS is to make kids subject matter experts of their own experience. What this means is, kids know what challenges are going on in their life. They oftentimes have answers as to how to change it or fix it.
SOMETIMES THE FIX IS OUTSIDE OF OUR TRADITIONAL SYSTEMS, like education. So when a teacher’s been telling you no, you can’t do this, and no, you’re not set up for that—I mean, when I was in high school, my career counselor told me, oh, you just need to go to junior college, don’t worry about a profession. And I thought to myself, my parents have advanced degrees—they’re both lawyers. You didn’t ask me what influences I’m surrounded by or what examples I have at home—but you just made a judgment about me. Unfortunately, this happens all the time. People take a look at kids and just kind of decide who they are based upon their own experiences and beliefs, and their influences—such as TV.
AT EOYDC, WE TELL KIDS THIS: We recognize that there are people out there who are not believers in you—but WE are not those people. One, we expect you to succeed. Two, we need you to succeed. And three, we’re going to help you succeed.
YOUNG PEOPLE WE’VE WORKED WITH who are now in professional careers come back to me and say, when I heard that somebody expected me to succeed—I never heard it before! It made me want to try. I’ve said for decades that when you communicate your expectations, kids usually try to achieve them, and oftentimes exceed them. Now you don’t just say, “I expect you to succeed.” You develop a relationship with them. When kids are just in a survival mode, they don’t have healthy relationships with adults—they’re kind of mistrusting. There’s so much negativity that surrounds these kids. Oftentimes they have a home life that is not affirming. If you’ve got desperation around you, alcoholism, depression, whatever it is, it discourages people.
Q: Among kids who may have little guidance and no mentors, how do you instill confidence, empower and inspire them to dream big?
A: WE BUILD TRUST FIRST. We see them. We acknowledge them, their value, their capacity. We talk to them and we listen to them. We put them in positions to succeed with their homework, with their art projects. We have martial arts belting ceremonies. We have kids writing essays to document their field trip experiences, and we celebrate those. We have character health certifications, which help lift up somebody who has exhibited exceptional character. We have young people leading cooking classes, making meals for kids and adults. It’s an affirmation, that—oh my goodness—this dish is so great! Young people have an opportunity to see themselves through the eyes of others. We are a “yes” factory. We are an affirmation factory.
Q: You’ve been at the EOYDC in leadership roles, as president, CEO, and executive director since 1994. It’s your life’s mission to support children’s futures. What influences in your life brought you to this career?
A: MY PARENTS BOTH HAD DEGREES IN LAW. My father developed the first race relations program for the U.S. armed forces. He had a career in equal opportunity. My mother, before she became an attorney, was a social worker. So while I’d like to think I found this work on my own, those two most important people in my life propelled me toward service and caring for others.
I FOUND MY WAY TO THIS WORK through my fellowship in the CORO graduate program for public affairs. I did my fellowship work in Oakland, and during my business internship at the Clorox company, I got to meet Robert Shetterly, the former Clorox CEO. He was the visionary for the EOYDC. It was a very exciting time for me to learn about this organization. So I requested an internship at the EOYDC.
PRIOR TO THE CORO FELLOWSHIP, I didn’t really understand that you could aspire to a career in the nonprofit world. After a visit, I understood there was extraordinary work going on, and I thought—this makes me feel good. At the end of my internship, the EOYDC board of directors invited me to serve on the board. Eventually, I resigned from the board and was selected for the executive director position. The organization was going through tumultuous times, and they knew I wasn’t afraid of making tough decisions.
Q: What did you do to get the organization back on track?
A: IT WAS A SIGNIFICANT CHALLENGE. My first day, I announced that we were going to be cutting 30 positions, and that the budget would be cut by $1.2 million. I didn’t want to be the pink slip queen—people in our community need their jobs. I wanted to give them as much notice as possible, and say, I will help you. We were a respected entity in the community, but we were trying to do too many things. We were in foster care diversion. We were in hospital counseling.
Q: You needed to narrow the scope of the organization to help it be successful?
A: RIGHT, WE WERE GOING BACK TO BASICS. The things we knew we could do well, we would do. Then we would slowly build out in response to the needs of the community, in ways that were aligned with our programming.
Q: What has been most personally rewarding about your role?
A: WHAT I FOUND HERE THAT I FOUND NOWHERE ELSE was that I could see change on a daily basis. I could see where my work had impact. It’s a real feel-good. You can plant a seed. You can see a light go on in a child’s mind. Those things mean the world to me. You can watch kids go off to college and careers. The concept of flight is so empowering. When it’s time for them to fly, they’ve got wings. They believe they can get where they’re going, and they know we will continue to support them without being enablers. That’s what I really find rewarding.
Q: Leadership California is watching the tech and corporate sectors, hoping to move the diversity needle toward hiring and promoting more women. How do you think the Oakland community, and particularly the youth of the community, has been influenced by national events such as the Black Lives Matter movement, and the controversy over diversity in the film industry? Can you comment on how your role in youth leadership connects to the empowerment of women and people of color?
A: IN OUR PROGRAMS, WHEN WE LOOK AT THE WORLD, we talk a lot—whether it’s through arts, a cooking class, or a pathway to college program—about national issues, world issues, and how kids are feeling about them.
THE BLACK LIVES MATTER MOVEMENT relates back to the Black Panthers, which started out with a positive focus on trying to help this community. The Panthers recognized challenges and built programs to address them—a free breakfast program and health clinics, for example. The Black Panthers were later demonized around guns and aggression, but they began as an organization committed to lifting up the community and creating better options for the future.
BLACK LIVES MATTER RECOGNIZES THAT THIS COMMUNITY is being mistreated by police, and that we’re not being given the same kinds of job opportunities. People don’t like to address these things that make them uncomfortable. But it’s important for us to create a realistic picture for our kids. Kids are oftentimes the ones that people are afraid of, yet they’ve done nothing to instill fear.
Q: How do kids talk about these issues, and how do you address them?
A: RECENTLY, WE PARTICIPATED IN A PUBLIC HEALTH RESEARCH STUDY on boys and men of color—again, using them as subject matter experts in their own experience—to determine how they form their identities, both negative and positive. When we presented the work, it was very illuminating.
KIDS ASK, WHEN IT’S COLD, AND I’M WEARING A HOODIE, why do I have to keep my hood down? Well, someone might say, it makes people feel a certain way, it makes them uncomfortable. The men and boys might say back, why do I have to change what I do to make other people comfortable, when all I did was be born black and male? The way reality shows and movies depict me—that’s not who I am. Why can’t people know me for who I am?
IT’S A CHALLENGE. We have to arm our youth with the fact that people can’t see a banner on your head that says, “I’m a good kid,” or “I’m a good student” or “I’ve never stolen anything in my life.” We have to have those conversations. They don’t get that people are walking around with prejudices and ignorant assumptions that will impact them. They need to learn how to cope, even though it might create trauma and pressure for them to always have to be the one who adjusts.
I’LL SAY TO THEM, when you’re walking down a street, people may or may not want to see you—one, because you’re black—two, because you’re young—and three, because you’re male. But, you make eye contact, you greet people, even if they don’t greet you back. We find that people oftentimes have very low expectations of our kids. And our kids blow them out of the water every time. They are well-versed, they are polite, their public speaking abilities are excellent. They have opinions and thoughts and observations. We give them opportunities to share those, and that’s an affirmation that what they say counts. When you give their voice power, you’re affirming not only the now, but their future.
Q: Can you share a memory with us, a moment or a milestone that really brought home to you the significance of your work on behalf of young people?
A: A YOUNG WOMAN FIRST CAME TO ME WHEN SHE WAS FIFTEEN. She was the first in her family to graduate from high school. She was afraid of everything. The first sleepover at the center was a requirement of our youth leadership program—she cried the whole night. But she was really hardworking.
I JUST KEPT PUSHING, exposing her to new things. I forced her to go on a mountain climbing trip with me. I took her on the EOYDC’s very first college tour. She applied for 107 scholarships, and got 37 of them. She made it into Cal and finished her degree. After the first funeral she experienced, she put a plant in the ground as a memorial. By the time she graduated, she had a field of plants—that’s how many deaths she experienced in her family. I encouraged her to do a study abroad, and I met her to travel together through Spain and Morocco and France. She applied to seven Ph.D. programs, and was selected for them all.
SHE WAS TWO YEARS INTO HER Ph.D. program at the University of Wisconsin, and it was tough for her there—some people marginalized her because of her background. She called me and said, I think I’m going to leave the program. I thought, no, no, no—but I said, may I ask why? It wasn’t that she was pregnant, or in love, or something like that.
SHE SAID, I’M BEING ASKED TO GO TO WORK IN THE WHITE HOUSE. I said, go with my blessing, and make sure you negotiate a ten-year ability to return just in case you want to stay longer than this president. This child has become a presidential appointee in a leadership program. She’s now considering the timing of leaving the administration so she can go back to her Ph.D. research. This child has just turned 26. She affirms for me on a daily basis the soaring opportunity of young women in particular when you expose them to all the possibilities, and when you affirm them in each phase of their lives.