When people ask me where I’m from, I proudly tell them I’m from “Deep East Oakland.” I was raised in the heart of the East Oakland community where, like many other youths, my loving and nurturing family faced substantial hardships. The compounding effects of those hardships—along with the violence, substance abuse, and community blight spurred by decades of systemic oppression—took a toll on me during my adolescent years. I struggled with depression and was in critical need of hope and encouragement, in ways I didn’t yet understand.
My family’s budget often did not cover basic living expenses, and my community’s underfunded public schools offered few resources for enrichment activities. So when my mom learned about the East Oakland Youth Development Center (EOYDC), she immediately leaned on the center’s free programming and support to help me and my siblings. There I met the CEO, Regina Jackson (whom I still lovingly refer to as Ms. Regina), when I was just 11 years old. She transformed my life in powerful ways.
Ms. Regina is a purpose-driven leader who nurtured, fostered, mentored, and equipped me with many of the life and leadership skills I have today. I believe her commitment to cultivating the next generation of leaders played an instrumental role in preparing me for my dream job of becoming CEO of the EOYDC.
As I step into this role standing on the shoulders of Ms. Regina after 25 years of leading EOYDC, I wanted to share some important lessons that can benefit any leader seeking to make a lasting difference. Given the challenges we’re facing, it couldn’t be a more important time to understand how we can act in the lives of young people to set them up to thrive and to navigate and disrupt the systems of oppression that fuel outcomes like homelessness and cycles of violence.
Create opportunities for others to lead
Strong leaders do not wait for others to rise to the occasion. They create opportunities that show people the potential that lies within them. One of the most powerful aspects of Ms. Regina’s leadership approach is the way she intentionally creates opportunities for others to lead in meaningful ways.
By the time I was a sophomore in high school, I had enthusiastically completed every section of the series of free computer classes offered at EOYDC. With no classes left to take, I wondered what to do with my desire to continue learning. I am so grateful that, where I saw an ending, Ms. Regina saw the beginning of a new opportunity to explore my potential. She created the first-ever youth computer instructor position at EOYDC, and I proudly taught classes to younger students for the next two years.
Neither of us knew then that this opportunity would sow a seed of passion for learning and instruction that would later blossom as I earned a Masters of Science in Learning and Organizational Change. Or that now, more than 20 years later, EOYDC has dozens of youth serving in instructional positions each year, and even partners with organizations like The Hidden Genius Project to help them develop youth educator programs. By creating a leadership opportunity for me, Ms. Regina helped create similar opportunities for countless others. The impact of true leaders has a compounding effect on the organizations they lead.
Set the bar high and offer support
Setting expectations is essential to the success of any organization. In fact, a leader’s failure to set expectations often frustrates team members and undermines outcomes. As leaders, we must establish and communicate clear and achievable expectations for those we serve, but we must not stop there. True leaders not only set expectations, but also provide support and guidance to ensure that others have the necessary tools to succeed.
The importance of guidance and support factored most prominently for me as a public school student in East Oakland. It was no secret that academic expectations for me and my peers were often low. However, at EOYDC expectations were always high. Ms. Regina not only communicated that she expected more of me, but she also took the time to show me the way. If I turned in an assignment, she did not just hand it back to me with mistakes highlighted. Instead, she saw mistakes as opportunities to improve, and she remained by my side to help me make corrections.
Successful leaders meet those they serve where they are and offer support to help them along the way. This approach not only enriches the lives of others, but its benefits are also twofold. The goal is accomplished and the person receiving support gains valuable knowledge and confidence to complete similar goals independently in the future. Leaders who guide and support the people they serve inspire them to do more and be more—and that is the greatest accomplishment of all.
Cultivate an ecosystem where everyone thrives
Leadership is a team effort. No successful leader will ever tell you that they accomplished great things on their own. One of the things I admire most about Ms. Regina is the way she cultivated an ecosystem of support at EOYDC that is sustained by the culture of leadership it produces.
Everyone who walks through our doors is encouraged to explore the depth and breadth of their own capabilities. Staff members are empowered to use their unique talents and passions to deliver on the organization’s mission. Youth are encouraged to balance big dreams with an even bigger commitment to doing what it takes to achieve them—to “have dreams with feet,” as Ms. Regina often says. As a result, the EOYDC ecosystem is a place where a growth mindset flourishes and people believe that they have the ability to develop their talents, abilities, and skills.
When I was in seventh grade, I was responsible for walking my sister to dance class at EOYDC. I often sat in the lobby waiting for her class to end. One day, the EOYDC receptionist, Marcia Thompson, asked if I could assist her with a few things. Bored and with little else to keep me busy while waiting (we didn’t have smartphones back then), I agreed to help. Shortly thereafter, I became a part-time receptionist at EOYDC. Looking back, I realize that Ms. Marcia didn’t need my help, but she saw that I needed to be connected to a larger purpose and she provided me with an opportunity to realize that for myself.
I don’t know where I would be if she had not taken a moment to look up from her own work and see me, but I am grateful that she felt empowered by the culture of leadership at EOYDC to create an intentional leadership opportunity for me. Leaders are only as successful as the teams we lead. By cultivating an ecosystem where everyone thrives, there’s no limit to what we can accomplish together.
This is truly a full-circle moment. What was once a long-held dream has now become reality, because Ms. Regina helped me learn how to not only dream but to give those dreams feet. I will apply all that I have learned from her to impact the next generation of leaders and continue to advance the mission of EOYDC.
Selena Wilson is the CEO and president of the East Oakland Youth Development Center.