On a Mission for Kids

On a Mission for Kids

Regina Jackson never stops believing in — or doing things for — her kids.

The post office was almost closed for the night when East Oakland Youth Development Center CEO Regina Jackson stopped her car and a teenage girl, Lanikque Howard, came barreling out, clutching college and scholarship and financial aid applications that absolutely had to be mailed that day.

It was after hours following a long workday, and Jackson had two children of her own, but she was racing around the East Bay knowing that college-hopeful Howard had been at home while her single-parent mother worked another double-shift at Walgreens.

“She would regularly come over and take me to mail off college applications. It was full service. You just can’t get that,” said Howard, now 29. 

In May, Jackson was in the audience when Howard received a doctorate degree in social welfare from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, after less than four years of study. Howard then immediately came home to Oakland to try to give back to her community as the early childhood special projects coordinator for First 5 Alameda County.

Howard’s story is just one of thousands from the last 24 years that illustrate Jackson’s inspiring commitment to helping young people through EOYDC, an oasis of calm and love that annually provides educational and enrichment programs for more than 2,000 youth and adults in East Oakland’s so-called “Killer Corridor” of poverty, drugs, and crime. This year is EOYDC’s 40th anniversary.

Affectionately referred to by current and ex-students as “Ms. Regina,” Jackson is a tough-love dynamo of positivity and responsibility who demonstrates by personal example how character, hard work, and service can lead to success and fulfillment. 

“You set a bar for kids, and they try to meet it. If they’ve never had anyone in their family to set that bar, they wouldn’t even know it existed,” said Jackson, who has a national and international reputation as a researcher and speaker on youth development, trauma, and violence prevention.

“I have heard from my young people that it is what made them try hard, the fact that we communicated that expectation,” Jackson said while giving a tour of EOYDC, a gleaming, 26,000-square-foot complex of classrooms, gyms, and studios.

Standing at International Boulevard and 82nd Avenue, an intersection where the sound of gunfire is hardly foreign, the center in 2016 got a $12 million upgrade after a capital campaign that Jackson said “nearly killed” her.

On the walls of EOYDC are reminders that sodas and sagging pants are verboten. Children are expected to respond politely when addressed. Eye contact is paramount. Compassion, empathy, and kindness are the coin of the realm.

“I call it a bubble,” said Jackson, explaining how EOYDC strives to surround students with love and support. “We try to get them to take risks. To learn to tackle things they’ve never tackled before,” Jackson said.

For those interested, EOYDC’s activities range from classes in science and technology to healthy cooking, art, and martial arts. There are the center’s HOYAS sports teams (Helping Our Youth Achieve Success). There are sleepovers and camping trips in the Sierra, a stretching experience for some who never imagined sleeping outside. 

Everything is supplied free, largely as a result of corporate gifts from many local companies, notably Clorox, EOYDC’s initial sponsor.

Born and raised in the Oakland hills near the city’s zoo, Jackson is grateful for her own high-achieving parents, both lawyers, who emphasized the importance of giving back to society. 

Jackson attended public elementary schools, Bishop O’Dowd High School, College of Alameda, and then UC Berkeley before getting a Coro Foundation fellowship in public affairs, the first of several postgraduate programs she did, including Harvard Business School’s executive leadership program. It was as a Coro fellow that Jackson was first asked to join EOYDC’s board of directors.

Then in 1994, after several jobs at local government agencies, Jackson took over EOYDC during a time of financial turmoil. On her first day, she had to slash the budget by $1.8 million and eliminate all but 12 of 42.5 positions. Today, there are 37 full-time equivalent employees, 16 of whom are part-time and young.

Throughout EOYDC, kids are encouraged to take responsibility. They have many chances to lead, for example by designing and teaching classes to younger students, and they get intensive leadership training. It’s a strategy Jackson calls “Cascade Mentoring.”

“Our real mission is to develop social and leadership capacities in young people so they are interested in higher education, so they will go after leadership opportunities and they will go into careers that will fulfill them,” Jackson said.

The results are evident on colorful poster-boards in Jackson’s office and in the halls that are covered with photographs of smiling boys and girls at various events. Jackson, a divorced mother of two adult sons of her own, points with pride as she rattles off the jobs her students later got or the schools they went on to attend, ranging from community colleges to Ivy League bastions and Bay Area enclaves like UC Berkeley and Stanford University. The walls of a couple of rooms are covered with college pennants that students send back from school.

Under Jackson’s leadership, EOYDC in the last decade alone has given college scholarships to more than 400 kids. The vast majority have gone on to graduate in four years, and an increasing number, like Howard, have been pursuing advanced degrees.

Jackson was there to help with that transition as well. When Howard was evaluating graduate programs, Jackson took her to a conference where she got to meet with Rosa “Rosie” Gumataotao Rios, then the U.S. Treasurer, who told her how highly regarded the Wisconsin program was.

“Ms. Regina played a pivotal role in pretty much every step of the way for me,” Howard said.

Jailyn Anderson, 23, who has been coming to EOYDC as a student and an employee for the last decade, tells a similar story.

“She is one off the most selfless people you would know. She will be tired, exhausted, but she still keeps going,” said Anderson. 

It was to Jackson that Anderson turned for advice before deciding to decline a full-time White House internship offer that would have required her to postpone her last year of undergraduate studies.

“She is someone I could call and rely on, and who knows me,” said Anderson, who like Howard radiates poise, confidence, and gratitude. “She is someone I admire and love deeply.”

Anderson is today a graduate student at UC Berkeley’s School of Journalism who during the semester works up to 12 hours a week teaching technology classes to kids at EOYDC, which she considers her second family.

Anderson credits EOYDC with helping her find her dream career because it was on an EOYDC field-trip to KRON-TV in San Francisco that Anderson first saw a newsroom and fell in love. This summer, Anderson is working as an intern with anchorman Lester Holt at NBC’s Weekend Nightly News in New York City.

It was also one of EOYDC’s annual college tours that prompted Anderson to choose to attend Howard University in Washington, D.C., rather than other schools she had identified as her top prospects. 

EOYDC has taken students on several college tours a year since 2008. In addition to seeing campuses where other EOYDC kids are going to school, the kids get to visit museums, houses of government and memorials, meet corporate executives, and even take in shows. 

Flights throughout have been provided free by Southwest Airlines, which this year granted two more tours and also agreed to provide transportation for an EOYDC international service mission. 

Jackson has previously taken a total of 30 children on trips to China and Haiti, and she recently took nine kids to Washington, D.C., for the “March for Our Lives” against gun violence. While there, U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, took the children to meet Michelle Obama, including a 9-year-old girl who didn’t know her father because he was shot to death when she was an infant. This year, Jackson is thinking of taking five kids ranging in age from 13 to 18 to Mexico, where she hopes to break down some walls.

One of Jackson’s goals with such travel is to give inner-city kids who likely have never flown on a plane or even left Oakland exposure to varied experiences. 

Ultimately, Jackson also wants her students to give back, and she tells them that the way to show appreciation for what EOYDC does for them is to succeed, be good citizens and, in turn, help other people.

“Service is really, really important to me,” Jackson said. “Doing for others is really, really important, especially when you have nothing, when you think you have nothing.”

Even networking becomes a service medium in Jackson’s sights, said Anderson. She and other youth from EOYDC learned to be on the watch for opportunities for each other, not just for themselves.

As for herself, Jackson is planning to write a book to share lessons from her EOYDC work. Late last year, Jackson also became a fellow of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, for which she will be conducting research about youth violence in Oakland through 2020. In addition, Jackson accepted an appointment from Mayor Libby Schaaf to the city’s police commission.

“I’m doing a little more. My six-to-seven-day-a-week job doesn’t keep me busy enough,” Jackson said with a laugh. “If I can help, that’s what I’m trying to do.”

Faces of the East Bay