By Heather Tirado Gilligan
The East Oakland Youth Development Center should feel institutional, with its white walls, scuffed but clean blue linoleum tile floor and tiled drop ceiling. Instead, the small lobby brims with the lively sounds of young people laughing and sneakers squeaking, spilling down the hall from the gym.
On a recent visit, a young boy sat alone on a bench in the midst of the liveliness, head low, shoulder hunched. Regina Jackson, the center’s director for the past 17 years, strode down the hall towards him, dressed in jeans, a crisp polo shirt and polished sneakers. She was slightly out of breath from joining the kids in the races in the gym.
Jackson was about to put the Center’s philosophy of change into action. She leaned in front of the young boy and asked him to apologize for pushing another child in the gym. His contrition was genuine. Jackson enveloped him in a hug before she sent him back to the summer activities.
Exchanges like this are crucial to the development of kids at the center, located in a high-poverty, high-crime area of Oakland where children don’t always get the mentoring they need at school or at home. The hands-on guidance provided by Jackson and other leaders – including local teens – is complimented by a range of classes at the center that prepare East Oakland kids for college and careers.
“Our theory of change is steeped in character development, embracing who we are, and then readiness – training and attitude,” Jackson explained.
Their theory of change is part of the center’s mission. “We hold a four or five-year-old,” Jackson said, “to the same standard as we do 30-year-olds.”
The 30-year history of the center illustrates how well this approach works. More than 150 students participate in EOYDC’s summer Cultural Enrichment Program each year. Their Pathway to College program has a 100 percent college acceptance rate. Ninety-six percent of those students graduate from two or four year institutions. Perhaps the most telling measure of EOYDC’s success, however, is the return of former participants to teach and mentor younger neighborhood kids, who give what they’ve learned back to East Oakland’s next generation.
Jackson doesn’t sugarcoat the hard realities of the neighborhood. EOYDC is in a rough part of Oakland.
“We are located in the middle of the killer corridor,” Jackson said.
Rates of violence in the center’s East Oakland neighborhood are three times higher than the national average, Jackson explained, describing a recent week that saw two shootings within a few blocks of the center – one of which was fatal.
The center’s location was deliberate. Founder and former Clorox CEO Robert Shetterly wanted programs available in the neighborhood where they were most needed – and at little or no cost to participants.The center is partnering with the city on new projects to make ensure that kids’ short term needs are met so they can grow up to realize their full potential. The center will remain open on Friday nights till midnight as part of a larger Oakland program, Late Night Live, because violence goes up in the neighborhood during hot summer months.
EOYDC is also part of the summer free school lunch program, and has 20 extra meals each day to give out to people in the community, too. Whole families often come to the center for lunch during the summer.
Violence and poverty have a ripple effect on neighborhood kids and their parents. Rates of stress for women in East Oakland, for instance, are three times higher than in the rest of Oakland, Jackson said. The pressures, including high rates of unemployment, are many.
“You get home, if someone is there, it’s because they don’t have a job,” Jackson said. Working parents are often overwhelmed, Jackson added.
“And sometimes,” she said, “where you live can just be an extension of the street.” That means while kids have a roof over their heads, they don’t get much else in the way of nurturing from their home.
The young people in the program are all too aware of the challenges they face. Recently, a group of teens put together a book of poems called “Y U Gotta Call it Ghetto?” with help from poet and recent Berkeley Ph.D. LeConte Dill. Jackson pulled out the slim book of poems and read from one by Jamal Cole, called “Safe Routes”:
Caution: This area is over-rated and under-estimated
When you observe my section, think 2 yourself
about the environment and how society
or the government treats the lower classes.
The center teaches kids to respect where they come from, Jackson said. They draw on their experiences as a source of strength, as they do in the book of poems, and they are also expected to have empathy for their neighbors in need. “We are compassionate,” Jackson said.
The summer program goes a long way towards fulfilling the center’s mission of character development and career training. Kids aged 6-13 get a full compliment of courses, from computers to cooking classes, at the very subsidized rate of $75 for the whole summer.
Youth Instructors run the center’s summer classes, and having teens in a leadership role helps give all of the center participants a sense of ownership of EOYDC, Jackson said.
Science teacher Ashaki Scott, 17, teaches with a hands-on approach. Scott grew up eight blocks away from the center. Now she’s on her way to UC Davis to major in computer engineering, but she plans to keep spending her summers teaching at EOYDC.
Scott’s not alone, Jackson said. Recently, a former program participant and college student came back with a group of friends spend a day replacing tiles in the center ceiling. Famous alumni of the center, including former NBA star and LA Lakers assistant coach Brian Shaw, continue to raise funds for the center. Jackson has worked for the center since she was 21 years old.
Scott recreated the experiment from that day’s science class in the parking lot. After cautioning onlookers to stand back, she dropped a Mentos in a bottle of Coke to demonstrate the difference between a chemical and a physical reaction – and shot an impressive arc of soda into the summer sky. That’s a physical reaction, she explained.
“They get to see someone like themselves who looks like them and is excited about learning,” Jackson said of the influence teen instructors on kids in the summer program. “If we look at Ashaki and think she is amazing, imagine what the younger kids think when they see her.”And the interaction with younger people is the best part of the job, said 17-year-old physical education instructor Jamal Rashead: “Knowing the kids are having fun and just being themselves without worrying about whatever problems they’ve got when they go home.”
Cooking instructor Trent Robbins, age 19, agreed with Rashead’s sentiments. He’d spent the morning teaching 6-year-olds how to make macaroni and cheese and turn boneless skinless chicken breasts into fried chicken strips. “Making the food and seeing the kids smile as they are interacting,” he said. “That’s my favorite part.”
An elevated sense of possibility
EOYDC offers a comprehensive program during the school year too, with computer literacy, job training, college prep classes and courses in arts and music.
One of the Center’s successful year-round programs is the GED course. Participants pay a small fee for the test prep classes. The summer course held about five participants learning to convert measurements, considering how many cups were in a quart. A GED bus ferried students to the test itself later that day. When students pass, Jackson said, they get their fees back.
Seventy-five percent of the people who pass the GED go on to junior college, Jackson said. And most of the people in the class arrived there under from juvenile detention under a court order.
“They see an elevation in their own human possibility,” Jackson said.
That sense of potential is continually reinforced at the center. Back in her office, Jackson stacks small teddy bears dressed in caps and gowns into a cabinet. The bears are gifts to graduates, whether they are finishing grade school or master’s programs.
Once they finish their education, Jackson said, the center matches participants with real-world opportunities. A recent job fair put 200 people to work, and young people have gone onto internships both local and far from home – one teen went on to intern at NASA, Jackson said.
These long-term successes are important, but the small everyday interactions matter just as much, according to Jackson.
“I believe that true leadership is what you do when no one else is watching,” Jackson said. That’s why she was running in the gym, Jackson explained. “I’m like OK, Ms. Regina is 48 years old. Win or lose, I’m gonna give it 100 percent. It’s amazing what the impact is.”