22 Feb, 2023
February 22, 2023
Written by Dana Wellhausen, Senior Director of Strategic Operations
When the Rogers Family Foundation announced the sunsetting of our Oakland education strategy in October 2020, our team knew we’d reach a point of reflection on our grantmaking and improvement efforts over the last two decades. That time is now. This piece represents the first in a series designed to highlight the work and reflections of grantees across our strategic focus areas over the lifetime of the Foundation. Our hope is that these pieces will remind our grantees, partners, and community of their incredible journeys, lessons learned, and accomplishments in service of students and rally efforts to persevere for years to come.
“When you show a young person the power of their possibility, they begin to create a trajectory toward that north star.”
– Regina Jackson, former Executive Director, East Oakland Youth Development Center
From its founding in 2003, the Rogers Family Foundation’s mission has been to support the youth of Oakland. The Foundation has always sought to support excellent organizations that help children learn, grow, and reach their full potential. While schools were a main focus area of the Foundation strategy, the time and programs that children spend out of school can be just as instrumental to their growth and learning. The symbiotic scaffolded supports, safe environment, and caring mentoring relationships provided by out-of-school youth development organizations play an important, and at times critical role, in the growth and development of young people. Therefore, the Foundation made an early commitment to funding quality youth development programs in addition to quality schools.
Early grants to youth development organizations and programs focused on college readiness, science, the arts, sports, and safety. After a few years of making grants to various youth development organizations, we began to notice an important distinction between the organizations that created short term impact, and those that were truly moving the needle for Oakland children. Our learning as a Foundation is that the most effective youth development organizations, those which create sustainable positive growth and learning for students, are anchored in the community they serve. Only by being truly embedded in a community is an organization able to foster trust, increase access, bolster program relevancy, build multi-generational relationships, and create the long term positive outcomes that children need to thrive. Below we highlight three such deeply rooted organizations – East Oakland Youth Development Center, East Oakland Boxing Association, and the Boys and Girls Club of Oakland. The Foundation has had the privilege of working with each of these organizations over the last 19 years.
The East Oakland Youth Development Center (EOYDC) building is hard to miss with its beautiful purple and red facade and windows covered with powerful words rooted in youth development principles and elements of EOYDC’s programs. You can’t walk past the building without holding your head up a little higher and feeling the inspiration it brings to the community. EOYDC has served the East Oakland community since 1978 and provides a continuum of care that spans from ages 5 to 24. EOYDC’s programs, which include education, career, arts, and wellness, are designed to ensure that youth have the social and leadership capacity to succeed in education, career, and community. What makes EOYDC stand out is the consistency, stability, and sense of empowerment it creates for young people.
EOYDC has had the fortune of incredible leadership, Chief Executive Director Selena Wilson, an EOYDC alum, and former President and Chief Executive Officer Regina Jackson have led the organization over the past 28 years and have strong roots in East Oakland. EOYDC has nailed it with youth empowerment through the use of a cascading mentorship model which develops young people both as mentors to other youth as well as leaders within the organization. Selena, a primary example of the model herself, reflected “not only does that create opportunities in the present near term for them [youth] to have that leadership, but it instills a commitment to service and to leadership.” Empowering youth to lead gives them a head start in their professional lives. Many EOYDC alums pursue successful careers in nonprofits, education, wellness, and business. Seventy percent (70%) of EOYDC staff are alumni, those who benefited from EOYDC are called to return to serve the community. EOYDC youth bring experiences and learnings into their homes and out to their communities, finding more outlets for demonstrating and practicing their leadership skills. Together these experiences create the conditions for youth to become courageous leaders who remain connected and in service to their communities.
In youth development work, there is power in responding to the needs of youth with compassion. EOYDC staff bring a thoughtful and mindful approach to working with youth, taking the time to notice and listen, and very importantly, build compassion within and across the youth themselves. Selena shared how critical it is to center the community, listening intently to what matters the most to them. This is particularly key when working with youth. Find ways to co-design with youth ensuring they “have a meaningful role in designing and making decisions.” This approach requires honoring self-determination and adults being mindful of how they show up. Selena also reflected on how critical it is that programs balance between enabling and supporting youth, adjusting to ensure youth are provided with opportunities aligned with their unique growth trajectory. If you truly have compassion and care for youth you quickly see how often the bar for them is set low. “Our kids deserve abundance, joy, fun, vibrance . . . we know and recognize that our kids deserve everything,” said Selena. This includes a focus on building bridges to new experiences that open up what is possible and help youth build social capital. Regina summed this up beautifully, “When you show a young person the power of their possibility, they begin to create a trajectory toward that north star.”
The East Oakland Boxing Association has been a beacon of light at the corner of 98th Avenue and San Leandro Street since 1987. While EOBA remains connected to its roots in boxing, over the years the organization expanded its programs to include academic support, cooking and nutrition, art and media, and a broader range of sports and exercise. Recognizing that need within their community doesn’t stop with youth, today EOBA aims to serve the whole family knowing this will have rippling impacts on youth and the community at large. In 2021, EOBA welcomed Tonya Allen as its new Executive Director. Tonya was instrumental in getting EOBA open after the COVID-19 pandemic so the organization could continue to support youth, their families, and the community. EOBA’s stable, consistent presence in the community and its potential to be a long term force for good in its East Oakland community is what drew Tonya to lead the organization. She approaches the work through a lens of love and a focus on what families and the community need most.
As a new leader working on solutions to long-standing problems in the community, Tonya felt it was important to reground the organization and return “to the basics.” In the past EOBA grew and expanded its program offerings as an attempt to meet the complex and continuously changing needs of Oakland’s youth and families. A risk of this approach for any organization is over-diversifying their programs. “EOBA was becoming an octopus on roller skates,” Tonya shared. “As a new person coming in to lead an organization sometimes they’re afraid to move in a different [direction],” says Tonya. She also realized quickly after taking the helm that she needed time to truly understand the current reality of the organization and the impact of decisions from the past. Tonya’s reflection and instinct to reground EOBA and find a solid foundation for programs is important for any youth development organization as well as community facing nonprofits.
Tonya acknowledges that EOBA families need support and services outside of what she and her team can offer. The reality is that no one organization can do it all. She is a proponent of tactful collaboration which enables EOBA to hone in on core programs while tapping into other resources in the community. Any resource Tonya and her team can share with families, even if it is provided by another organization, puts families in a better place. From Toyna’s perspective, “I want to collaborate. You be the success and expert in your area. We just want to partner with you.”
As a youth development organization, it is key for a leader to understand, empathize, and be part of the community they serve. This requires daily active listening – by both the leader and their team. For Tonya and her team, this means keeping track of youth and paying attention to what motivates them to come in or causes them to stop coming in. The youth and their families can feel and see the intention, focus, and love from the EOBA team who truly care about the experience of participants. Tonya reflects on how she would want to be treated or what services she would want if she was an EOBA family. This kind of reflection and thoughtfulness drives the ability to serve from a place of love each and every day.
The Boys and Girls Club of Oakland (BGCO), with roots back to West Oakland in 1937, currently operates three clubhouses serving West and East Oakland. The heart of the organization is reflected in the broader Boys and Girls Club logo of clasped hands – hands reaching out and extending support to those across the community. BGCO’s core programs focus on character and leadership; education and career; health and life skills; the arts; and sports, fitness, and recreation. Calvester Stanley, BGCO Executive Director, a former student member himself, attributes what makes the organization so special to its people – club members, the staff, volunteers, and board members. It is notable that former student members have served at the helm of the organization for fifty-seven consecutive years, including Calvester who took on the role in 1992.
One of the driving factors for Calvester and the BGCO team is to keep the programs relevant to the challenges of today’s youth. “Our young people have changing needs. We are constantly and perpetually looking to ensure what we offer meets our kids’ changing needs.” Doing this does not require any fancy tools or systems. As Calvester shared, the solution is simple, “We talk to them.” Daily the BGCO team listens to and builds rapport with youth which in turn builds trust. Every day presents an opportunity to have an “aha moment” with a young person – it is about building spaces and conditions for these opportunities to happen. Calvester framed it as, “winning kids confidence so they can show you their real needs.” The key for Calvester is staff with incredible emotional intelligence and skills to build relationships and community with youth.
Calvester has been at the helm of BGCO for over three decades, an impressive demonstration of dedication to Oakland’s youth, their families, and their communities. In reflecting on his experience over these decades, he pressed on the importance of staying mission focused, developing a solid strategic plan, and deliberating working that plan. To this day BGCO’s mission hangs in clear view in his office. Over his tenure Calvester has seen the rise in partnering across organizations. While partnership is a critical component, it should be approached with thoughtfulness and purpose, making sure that partnerships are rooted in strong relationships first with a shared set of goals that drives the joint work.
BGCO aims to serve youth across the city, which requires accessibility and affordability. Today BGCO operates three clubhouses, but at one point operated seven sites, three in partnership with public housing. The newest facility located on High Street was added during Calvester’s leadership. This was a significant achievement for BGCO as it bridged the access gap across West and East Oakland. BGCO’s programs have always been highly affordable, a point of pride for Calvester in a region where affordability is rapidly diminishing. Even with the locations across the city, BGCO has seen shifts in access by virtue of changes in school attendance patterns as well as transportation patterns, walking is not longer the primary mode of travel for youth. These shifts and lessons are relevant to any facilities-based youth-focused program, as quality programming is not impactful if youth can’t attend and engage. For BGCO, access for youth equals real results, in particular for academic achievement – over the past three years all of BGCO’s high school seniors have graduated.
“See youth as the leaders of today and tomorrow.”
– Selena Wilson, Executive Director, East Oakland Youth Development Center
Tonya, Selena, and Calvester all reflected on the challenges that students continue to face as a result of the pandemic. Staff across their organizations see challenges with socialization after isolation, high anxiety, and low self-esteem. Tonya shared that these challenges can ripple out to families who often feel they are getting the runaround when they seek help. Calvester spoke about the mixed signals that youth hear from adults – inconsistency in what they say and what they do – particularly adults who operate in the spotlight. Our youth need consistency in their community and adult allies to support continued growth and development, despite ongoing challenges. Selena touched on the challenges of social media on young people who bear the pressure of knowing that their image or what they say or do could be captured and shared any day. In addition, young people don’t have consistent access to technology, skills to navigate the media, and regular engagement in issues that impact them now and in the future, like the climate crisis and environmental justice. Tonya shared an uptick in how many families are accessing EOBA’s weekly food distribution service. While she is glad EOBA can respond to the increased demand, this reflects the harsh reality that more families are struggling with food security. The leaders spoke about the lack of secure housing, which forces many Oaklanders to seek housing in surrounding communities even when their families, social networks, and hearts remain in Oakland. This has reverberating impacts on organizations and programs as communities become fragmented and youth relocate to places without a network of free, culturally relevant programs and services.
These leaders and their teams continue to be hopeful for the future. Tonya finds joy and hope in the smiles of the youth who come to EOBA each day, “You can’t fake that. A kid is going to tell you the truth.” Those smiles and continued participation are some of the greatest indicators of success for Tonya and her team. Selena is inspired by Gen Z – their ability to question the status quo, develop solutions that blend creativity and technology, and approach the world with an open mind. She finds inspiration in the work of community elders and ancestors who continue to both teach youth and move their own work forward, as well as local nonprofits creating spaces dedicated to fostering community and supporting self-determination. Calvester focused on the fact that people in the community continue to show up and step up to support youth. The needs of youth don’t stop even as our collective attention shifts from one crisis to another. Calvester emphasized that kids will have needs regardless of whether a pandemic or heavy inflation is happening in the community. The fact that individuals continue to give their time, attention, and money to youth is testament to a desire to support their dreams and aspirations.
The community must take part in the solution to create a better Oakland for our youth. These dynamic leaders are dedicated, and we feel the passion in their calls for change and calls to service. Selena powerfully framed the challenge to “see youth as the leaders of today and tomorrow.” This is a critical reminder that youth today have the creativity, passion, and power to lead. We need to collectively support opportunities and platforms that allow their leadership to grow and thrive. Tonya spoke to the reality that Oakland does not have a future without an investment in safe havens for youth and academic and educational systems. Those in positions of power need to consider long-term impacts of their choices and find the confidence to stray from the norm if it means a brighter future for the children and youth of Oakland. That said, all the leaders drove home the importance of understanding community needs before designing any work – listening and understanding before acting is critical. Calvester called on Oaklanders to help “raise our kids” and give them a fighting chance. Youth today face a multitude of challenges and it is incumbent on all of us to consider our part in creating a village of care and respect. This includes leaders taking action against the rise in senseless crime across the city that continues to devastate our communities. The leaders also touched on the lessons from the pandemic and how those years showed us how deeply we are all connected and have the collective ability to come up with new, creative solutions. We must remember these lessons, demand a new way to understand social challenges and find solutions – there is no “return to normal.”
The Rogers team expresses deep gratitude to Tonya, Selena, Regina, and Calvester for taking the time to share their perspectives, wisdom, and lessons, as well as the life changing work they do each day for Oakland’s youth. Over the course of the Foundation’s history we have built relationships with many youth development programs and organizations across Oakland. We also thank and recognize them for their tireless work and dedication to the children, youth, and families of Oakland. A complete list of our youth development grantees can be found here under Youth Development.