Gabrielle Jackson has been engaged in three careers lately, at the same time: educator, organizer, and civic leader. “I’m an executioner; I like to get things done.” She is working all her angles. “I like being really busy.” Even as her social media profile might look like she is at the pinnacle, most notably as President of the Northeast Ohio Young Black Democrats (YBD) and a winning Deputy Political Director for U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown’s campaign under her belt, she does not want to be mistaken. She is a YWCA Distinguished Young Woman who is still climbing.
She particularly likes teamwork and empowering others. Working with the executive leadership of NEOYBD has helped her hone her listening skills and including diverse viewpoints from talented, committed leaders on her team and within the membership. As President of NEOYBD since 2016, she engages the full team to lead in their busy schedule of events and outreach activities, whatever their capacity is, even having an intern plan 2019 summer events. “I like to develop other people, so I’m a connector, too. It would be no good if I am the only person excelling.” She focuses her leadership on pulling other people up, especially other women.
In addition to politics, Gabrielle Jackson teaches 4th graders at school as part of her urban educator career path, but by night she works on the systemic problems she sees undermining her students’ and fellow teachers’ efforts by engaging in community organizing through two civic organizations. One, decidedly partisan, is the NEOYBD, which she has been involved with since 2014. In 2016, she was appointed President of the group. The second organization is non-partisan and focused on grassroots inclusion strategy of all sorts of diversity, including voters, non-voters, and people who do not necessarily vote for the party that she is strengthening through NEOYBD; it is the Lakewood Community Relations Commission.
Jackson states that she has always taught in urban schools, encouraging her students to be advocates for themselves and for their community. “I’m a mentor teacher. The fact that our kids don’t understand being accountable for their actions, they need more positive reinforcements for positive actions. They need to see role models giving back to their community.”
Kayla Griffin, Special Project Director for the City of Cleveland in the Division of Recreation, nominated Jackson for the YWCA Distinguished Young Woman recognition. The women have collaborated on events and outreach through Griffin’s work at the Cleveland Chapter of the non-partisan NAACP, where Griffin serves on the executive committee and the young adult chair. Griffin explains that even though NEOYBD is partisan and NAACP is non-partisan, they can partner together for events that elevate the challenges of racism, like a joint event they did on a film documentary of James Baldwin, “I Am a Man,” or facilitating discussions of race at other events.
In regards to Jackson’s relationship with her students, Griffin wrote, “In her classes at school, she encourages them to watch CNN Student News, helping them to understand at this young age, why their vote matters, why legislation matters, and why it is important for them to vote for legislators or even to become legislators themselves who will serve their underserved communities well.”
Jackson describes being involved in both politics and education as a blessing. “Lots of teachers don’t have a clue what’s going on in policy and there are lots elected officials who don’t know what’s going on in classrooms.”
“I want my kids to have the same opportunities and the same drive as students in Solon and Beachwood. There, teachers are well-paid and students well-educated. Here, teachers have a hard time paying for supplies. Kids have troubles eating and having uniforms… I’m seeing it directly and not at a distance.” That is why she demands some changes in policies that influence her students’ lives.
Prior to this Spring, Gabrielle worked alongside her team to get more young people in the Greater Cleveland community to run for office, to encourage black and minority communities to register to vote, and to help them understand the importance of their vote. Through NEOYBD, she is proud to have helped grow what was a membership of only its 5 executives to a membership of around 60 individuals while serving as its president.
She considers herself a planner and as such, she wants the NEOYBD to keep their long-term plan in focus and only do the activities that are focused on achieving the benchmarks that takes them where they want to go. “I’ve learned a lot about politics; It is a system. We’ve [NEOYBD] got folks elected that didn’t get the larger parties’” support, so now NEOYBD gets the serious attention of the Democrat party’s candidates and activists.
Because of the statewide executive losses this November and the potential policy challenges that come with their opposition controlling both the governor’s office and the statehouse, the NEOYBD executive team is analyzing the losses for lessons learned to move forward for the local 2019 and larger 2020 elections. Jackson is supporting people already who have expressed interest now in running for office in races further down the line and those ready to throw their hat in the ring for 2019. She says people are supportive of NEOYBD “and others throw daggers at our group, but I want to understand where people are coming from when they are critical of the group,” because she is dedicated to listening to different opinions and views to learn about increasing minority turnout and inclusion in politics.
Since March 2018, though, she went headlong into politics and became a full-time Deputy Political Director who got Senator Sherrod Brown re-elected to the U.S. Senate by engaging Northeast Ohio. Due to the timing of elections, she took a leave of absence from teaching this fall. Asked what the most consequential work she did was campaigning for Senator Brown, she said she could not pinpoint one group that she mobilized that was crucial, because everyone is crucial. “Unions, women, and minorities really showed up for the Senator,” including the diversity of the Latinx and African-American communities. She emphasized that the Senator even got votes from voters who went for Trump two years ago both because of who the Senator is and because of a well ran campaign.
She considers her leadership style as strong and strategic. These strengths were recruited daily working with different NEO leaders to organize their base through canvasess, fundraisers, affinity groups, their unions, or whatever energizes each leader’s base.
This was not her first foray into politics. As much as an educator, she considers her career as one of a community organizer. Born and raised in Northeast Ohio, she is committed to her community. Growing up in Warren, her parents examples of hard work and nurturing are her inspiration for not only her ethic, but for politics. Her parent’s roles were reversed from gender norms; she saw her mother work in manufacturing as the breadwinner of the household and struggle to provide the best she could for her brother and Gabrielle. So throughout her own education and her teaching career, she has been campaigning for elected officials who will help families like hers and families like those of her students achieve some equity. She campaigned twice for Obama and even landed a paid position in his 2012 campaign.
Working on the Lakewood Community Relations Commission, she celebrates Lakewood’s rich economic, racial, ethnic, and legal status diversity, as immigrants and refugees find homes there. Commenting on the commission, she says, “We are still developing; we focus on bringing certain government aspects to the community.”
As part of an inclusion strategy, she works on the commission’s two major events: Welcome Lakewood and One Diversity Potluck. Both events have helped her listen diverse voices about their interests and analysis of their community and the government policies and programs that shape them. She brings strength to the inclusive work of the commission not only through her identity as an African-American woman, but as a young adult working with NEOYBD and especially with the executive team, where she is learning about the diverse interests of millennials. There, Jackson tries to balance millennials’ stated needs for balancing gender (from men and women who want to be more involved and represented), advancing graduate school careers, starting families, and advancing at work. She considers all of her careers, both civic and educational, as assets in preparing to become an elected official herself.
“We have a long way to go regarding participation and inclusion… We need to talk about what is happening in the world or how it is affecting our communities. Tear-gassing children,” she exclaimed, referring to the U.S. Border Patrol’s Thanksgiving holiday assault on Central Americans on foot in Tijuana, Mexico seeking eventual U. S. asylum protections. “This has happened in the past,” and she wants to make those connections of government violence and disregard for the humanity of people of color through history and other recent events and make consequential changes in national policies.
“Being an African-American women, how am I going to use that to help other women, particularly women of color, to define and figure out what they want to do and encourage them to do it? I am in a lot of white spaces when it comes to politics, and even when it comes to education. We need to involve women in power positions. Where is the inclusion? You can’t solve anything or move anything forward if you don’t have a plethora of views and opinions.”
“I want to run for elected office, maybe even on the federal level,” but not necessarily on a well-worn path of being elected first to city council, then county and state political office, on a predictable path. She has been listening to so many different people both in her role in Senator Brown’s campaign, with NEOYBD, and as an educator on the local and regional level already, connecting with diverse populations in Lakewood and with voters in Collinwood and East Cleveland. It fuels her fire for policy change: “How can we craft policies and make changes to help our babies, our kids, our parents who are beginning to age and can’t retire?”