In January, friends and family in the Washington, D.C., area said a final goodbye to community champion Rita Jackson, but her indomitable spirit and the vision she had for the lives of the District’s disadvantaged youths are alive and strong in hundreds of lives she touched.
Jackson’s girlhood dreams of becoming a professional dancer came to a halt early in her career when health problems emerged. Yet her talent, inspiration, generosity, and natural leadership capacity would take her to an even larger stage—upon which she would touch the lives of more than 5,000 at-risk youths through an outreach program she initiated in her D.C. community—The Northeast Performing Arts Group.
When Jackson first began her outreach in 1979, her neighborhood was drug-infested and plagued with violence. “There would be police on one side and gangs on the other, shooting across what we called a playground,” Jackson recalled. “People were being shot; some were burned up with gasoline.”
With her hallmark determination, Jackson did not wait for outside support, but just cleared out the furniture from her front room and opened the door of her apartment to neighborhood children, offering lessons in the basics of dance and vocal performance. At that time, she could not have foreseen the enduring and widespread impact her efforts would have. Not only did her apartment become a “safe house” for the youths, but, for a number neglected and displaced children, it would become, literally, home.
The number of youngsters who initially trickled in soon multiplied beyond capacity as word of mouth spread, so Jackson made arrangements to use the multipurpose room of the Mayfair low-income apartment complex where she lived with her two young sons. The numbers continued to grow, and she was soon given permission to use the recreation center at the adjacent Kenilworth/Parkside public housing development.
Jackson taught young people a professional level of skill and stage presence, but her classes also conveyed elements that would carry them through life: patience, diligence, determination, and goal-setting. And all these could be crucial for survival and success in a neighborhood where kids were growing up against the greatest odds.
“The arts are gifts that keep on giving,” Jackson once said. “Once these young people get on stage, no one can talk to them about doing drugs. They have to rehearse and practice and work hard. And I’m proud to say that none of the young people who stayed with my program for more than five years have gone the wrong way.”
Since the time when her own sons were in elementary school, Jackson raised eight other young people to adulthood. “I just stretched whatever I had,” she said, “Whenever I got paid, I’d ask: Who needs jeans? Who needs tennis shoes? I never received any support from the city.”
With Jackson’s guidance, support, and inspiration, all eight graduated from college. One who moved in with Jackson when he was eight went on to become an accomplished architect and the director of the “emerging partners” department of a major international hotel corporation. Two others launched their own dance company.
The Arts Group also served as a hub for community involvement as parents and neighbors became inspired by what the young people were doing.
For its 30th annual production, “The Lion King,” a program participant who had graduated from college in fashion design drew up the ideas for the costumes. “Then we taught the parents to sew, and they made the costumes,” Jackson explained. “They saw the drawings, so they could visualize what these creatures should look like, and they figured it out, saying we could use this or that to make that!”
In one conversation, Jackson talked about what she had received from more than 30 years of investing in the lives of thousands of young people.
“For me, it gives me a feeling that money and material things can’t buy. Young people keep me inspired. And the things they learn last a lifetime. Even if they did just one show, they will always remember that time. And many of the young people who come to our shows would never have otherwise had the chance to see a live performance. When they see others who are their age doing great things on stage, they want to do that, too—even the little three-year-olds!”
Jackson’s life is a reminder of what can be accomplished, against the greatest odds, when just one person has vision beyond the circumstances and raises that (dance) bar high for the next generation.