Leon Jackson relies on life's lessons to help inspire others
(EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first in a series of Saturday stories during Black History Month that profile inspiring individuals within the area's black community.)
SANFORD — Leon Jackson is an energetic man and isn't afraid to show it.
Some people apparently take offense to that and think of him as aggressive, but he doesn't care about that. In fact, he has a note on his desk at the unemployment office reminding him every day of his mantra: "I'm not concerned about your feelings, only your life."
The lead Veterans Employment Representative at the Division of Workforce Solutions on Lee Avenue, Jackson — who served in the 82nd Airborne Division for more than 20 years — said he can't be concerned about offending people. If he thinks he needs to push someone out of his or her comfort zone in order for that person to succeed, so be it.
"If you have the right skill set and the right mindset, you can get a job," he said.
In addition to veterans, he also works with a population — recently released prisoners — whose experiences are equal parts similar and opposite. Both are coming from a system in which discipline is imposed on them every day for years, meaning they must work at finding a way to combine freedom with self-discipline in the civilian world. As a retired sergeant first class, he knows a little something about discipline, and he tries to bring the stability of military life to the lives of some of the formerly incarcerated.
"If a guy or a gal doesn't have that stability, they're going right back in," he said, adding that since 2009, close to half of the 139 people he's worked with have accomplished the goals they set for themselves, such as going back to school, getting a job or getting back in touch with family. The prospect of starting a new life is overwhelming in a way that's similar to eating an elephant, he said; it's a big task, but possible if a person knows where to start and has some help.
"If you want to change, you can," Jackson said.
As for Jackson's own stability, he relies on his wife, Nancy, as well as a web of friends who help him with logistics, ideas and venting. William Johnson from the Boys and Girls Club — a man who, like Jackson, the word enegetic doesn't even begin to describe — and Kent Everett, the chief jailer at the Lee County Jail, are Jackson's sounding board. And Kate Rumely, executive director of Brick Capital, gave him a place to meet and continues to give him support.
"It's so simple and such a no-brainer for us," Rumely said of Jackson's work with those who were recently in jail. "And he does that completely of his own heart, you know? He doesn't earn any money from that, he doesn't have any grants, he doesn't have any support from churches or anything like that ... but they turn their lives around."
According to numerous studies, veterans and former prisoners both have higher rates of unemployment, homelessness, psychological issues and substance abuse problems than the population at large. Both also, according to Jackson, need someone to lead them and be a role model. He said his own childhood could've easily been lacking in stability and positivity, and that he might have ended up like some of the men he helps every Friday night in Project Point Five, which meets at at 6 p.m. at Brick Capital on Makepeace Street.
"As history has it, when I was 6 months old, my mom gave me to her aunt to raise, and my great aunt raised me 'til I turned 18," Jackson said. "I know how it feels to grow up without a father."
But growing up on a plantation in Louisiana, he wasn't without mentors. The tough love they showed him led him to adopt that saying he keeps on his desk, and he grew to appreciate encouragement and criticism alike.
"People sat me down, gave me some instruction, gave me rebukes, and told me what I could do," he said. "If someone would never had done it with me, I'd never be able to give it back now. ... You can't give something that you don't possess or never had."
So he takes the values he learned growing and tries to share them with fellow veterans, and he takes the lessons he learned in the military and tries to share them with fellow fatherless men. And although he's a black man, and black men are statistically most in need of the kinds of services he offers, Jackson said he helps whoever comes to him, regardless of race, gender, age or background.
Men tend to have higher unemployment rates than women, and the unemployment rate for black people was higher than the overall average in all 50 states as of the end of 2012. Furthermore, according to the non-profit Prison Policy Initiative, 61 percent of prison inmates in North Carolina are black even though only 22 percent of the population as a whole is black.
"It's very alarming to hear those statistics," he said when asked why it is that Lee County's unemployment rate for black people is more than double what it is for white people, after sitting in silence for about 20 seconds. "All I have to say is that opportunities are available."
Jackson has worked with the unemployed in Lee County long enough — nearly a decade — to know that getting a job is easier said than done. And even though he doesn't have a magic solution for unemployment, or homelessness, or people returning to prison, he does think there's a brighter future in store locally. The trick is finding how to get there.
"I have confidence in our leaders," he said. "I have confidence in our civic groups. I do. ... But it won't be easy. It's going to take some time."