OPINION: An Agenda for Jobs and Freedom in Oakland

By Regina Jackson With Phylicia King

President and CEO Regina G. Jackson has set the strategic direction for the East Oakland Youth Development Center (EOYDC) for 27 years. With a platform focused on character-based leadership development, her youth-led initiatives have empowered thousands of young people to achieve academic and career success.

Now, as she prepares to transition from her EOYDC leadership role this month, Regina shares lessons in leadership from her lifelong journey toward fulfilling her life’s purpose. She speaks in her own words below.

For nearly three decades, I have focused my efforts on investing in and helping to nurture the potential of youth across Oakland. Like so many areas across the nation, East Oakland is a vibrant community brimming with possibility that is often overshadowed by the very real impact of higher poverty and crime rates.

In a community where many families struggle to meet basic needs, the kinds of enrichment activities that can inspire kids to explore, discover and develop their gifts and talents are often financially out of reach.

And that’s why, now more than ever, the efforts of community-based organizations are so important. They are not only a conduit for developing the social and leadership capacities of our youth, but they also provide safe spaces that uplift them as they navigate life circumstances that can be overwhelming to face without meaningful support.

As I approach the end of my time leading EOYDC, I wanted to share some important lessons that can benefit nearly any organization seeking to improve its community. Given the challenges we’re facing, there is no more important time to understand how we can act in the lives of young people and set them up to thrive.

Know Who You Are and What Drives You

Leadership is not just a position or a title, it is action and example. To effectively lead and make a lasting impact in our communities, we must tap into our passion for service in a way that creates value in the lives of others. This charge begins with one specific attribute of emotional intelligence: self-reflection. As leaders, it is critically important that we know ourselves. We must ask: who am I and what do I stand for?

Thinking back, my passion for service began in my early years as a Brownie in the Girls Scouts. Earning my first merit badge lit a fire in me to continue to serve and, in doing so, I developed a strong sense of accountability and responsibility that remains at the core of who I am today. As a spiritually grounded, purpose-driven leader, knowing who I am and what I stand for upholds me on this path I’ve been called to walk. I accepted my role at EOYDC because I felt aligned with the center’s mission, fueled by passion and sustained by a work ethic that allowed me to face challenges with determination, lead with integrity and inspire others to join me along the way.

As leaders, what we discover about ourselves creates the foundation of our character, purpose and authenticity — all vital keys to our success in leadership. We must take time to reflect and assess who we are, what we value and how we show up in the world in order to truly make a difference. When we’ve done this important internal work, we can effectively lead others toward a common vision or goal.

Challenge the Notion of What’s Possible 

There is power in possibility. Leaders who aspire to break barriers look at their surroundings, circumstances and the people they lead through the lens of possibility and set expectations based on that perspective in order to shape the future.

I meet every student I mentor where they are mentally, physically and emotionally — and I walk beside them on the path to endless possibility. Through EOYDC’s summer program, we place young people in positions to lead through exposure and opportunity.

Youth as young as 13 design curriculum, teach classes and manage people. We put the power in their hands and offer positive reinforcement to guide them along the way. As a result, students gain independence and self-confidence — and that is exactly what a successful leader should aim to influence.

As leaders, when we set expectations for the people we lead and challenge them to stretch and grow to meet them, we help unlock their potential and change how they view themselves. This process is not without discomfort, but we must encourage those we lead to embrace discomfort as a byproduct of growth and remain focused on the goal at hand.

Leave a Legacy

A leader’s legacy is only as strong as the foundation they leave behind that allows others to continue to advance. True leadership is not about the role, it is about the goal — and with service as a goal, our work is never done.

At EOYDC, we guide youth into new opportunities by exposing them to new concepts and practice areas and helping them develop the skills they need to succeed. Many of the students I’ve mentored who have gone on to work in prominent positions in the public and private sector point to the supervisory experience they received at EOYDC as critical to their subsequent success as working professionals. I’ve seen kids sit up straighter, walk into rooms with more confidence, and continue to serve because we helped them realize possibilities.

When it is all said and done, leaders raise up other leaders. This is our legacy. One of the things I’m most proud of is the fact that the majority of current EOYDC leaders are EOYDC alumni — and as I move on to the next chapter in my journey, I feel confident that I am entrusting my work to the next generation of leaders who will carry the mission forward.

To follow the next phase of Regina’s leadership journey, reginagjackson.com. To learn more about the East Oakland Development Center’s programs and initiatives, visit www.eoydc.org.

** Phylicia King is an associate with SMJ Communications.

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