NS Leadership Conference gains new director
By Sean P. Ray | Managing Editor
ALLEGHENY CITY CENTRAL — The Northside Leadership Conference has a new executive director, though one who has a long history of community activism and involvement.
Jerome Jackson took on the top role at the Leadership Conference on July 18. He comes after working for 13 years as the executive director at Operation Better Block, a non-profit community betterment organization based out of the Homewood community.
While he may have been working in another area of the city, Jackson is actually a Northside native. He was born and raised in Manchester, and currently lives in Brighton Heights. In fact, being able to work closer to his home was one of the reasons he sought out his new position.
However, Jackson did not get his start in community work. After graduating from the former Langley High School, he went to learn welding, as the steel industry was still a major part of Pittsburgh’s economy at the time.
“And then the steel mills crashed,” Jackson said. “So I went and learned about metals and didn’t have a job.”
Subsequently, he moved to Washington, D.C. to do welding work there. That career path was brought to an end when he was diagnosed with vertigo, which prevented him from continuing in the high-beam welding field he was working in.
Jackson moved back to Pittsburgh and began getting involved in community work around the start of the 1990s, first working at the summer school at Trinity Lutheran Church.
“I started out there, and it was right around when the gang stuff was happening in the city of Pittsburgh,” Jackson said.
Jackson frequently spoke to his students about gangs in Pittsburgh, asking them about how they felt about it and how it affected them. Jackson said he watched as many of his students started getting pulled into gang culture out of a need for protection.
“So at that point I knew that the gang stuff in the City of Pittsburgh was serious, and that we were not equipped in the City of Pittsburgh to deal with gang activity from either a law enforcement perspective or even a community perspective,” he said.
Jackson said he began researching gangs and gang activity in the city, eventually creating a kind of catalog of gangs within the city and surrounding communities, which went on to be used by county officials.
Later, while working at a juvenile detention center, Jackson took conflict resolution and remediation training. Through this training he began a new career path as a trainer and remediator.
“That kind of started me working with young people and working with the community,” Jackson said.
Jackson said many of the kids he worked with would complete remediation programs, only to relapse a few months later and be in need of guidance again. This was something he began looking into and researching further.
“What I realized was that we kept sending them back to the same environment,” Jackson said. “So how do we expect young people to live a better life if we keep giving them something and sending them back into the same environment?”
This drove Jackson to get involved in community work, wanting to create a better environment for kids to grow up in. He got his start at Manchester Citizens Corporation, eventually becoming the association director and then joining Operation Better Block in Homewood.
Jackson hopes to implement for the Northside many of the successful programs he oversaw at Operation Better Block. One example is something he terms the “cluster planning process,” which he called a “highly resident-involved planning process.”
The procedure divides neighborhoods into multiple sections, or “clusters,” and seeks to identify the specific needs for each cluster. Such needs are picked based on feedback from the neighborhood through methods such as door-to-door visits, social media and public meetings.
Once a plan is developed, each household within the cluster is given a copy of the plan document. The goal is to get a cluster to pursue grants and programs which specifically work towards goals in the plan.
As an example, Jackson said one Homewood community had an issue with too many renters, and so the community opposed any non-housing ownership developments.
Another Operation Better Block program he’s seeking to implement is a home refurbishment process whereby the organization would purchase homes and refurbish them, and then sell them at discounted rates. However, there is a caveat where if the new homeowner sells the house within 10 years, they would have to pay back some of the money from the sale to Better Block.
As an example, Jackson said one house Better Block sold was appraised for $125,000, but the organization sold the home for only $100,000.
The end goal of the program was to raise property values within the neighborhood and promote long term homeownership.
Jackson further said he wants to take a look at what services are offered in each neighborhood of the Northside and see how service delivery could be improved.
As for why Jackson enjoys doing this kind of work, he said it was due to being able to see “change” in his community.
“I think my biggest thing is just making sure that young people grow up in a good, clean, safe neighborhood,” he said.
After roughly a month on the job, Jackson said things have been going well and he’s been learning a lot about the Northside he hadn’t known before, even as a native. What’s struck him most is learning just how many festivals and events take place in the area.
“I really want to work to bring people from across the city to the Northside events,” he said. “So these events are not just for Northsiders, but how do we get others to attend?”