LAKISHA YOUNG HAS never been afraid of a heavy lift. The co-founder and CEO of Oakland REACH, a parent advocacy group, she is dedicated to uplifting the education of low-income children.

“Education in many ways is ground zero — it’s often where everything comes together or falls apart,” said the Oakland mother of three. “But right now our schools are perpetuating a failure loop because our kids aren’t being taught to be proficient in reading and math.”

The pandemic was a watershed moment for Young. When schools shuttered, she rolled up her sleeves, quickly creating a citywide virtual hub to keep learning alive. Her organization also connected families to much-needed resources, from cash assistance to laptops.

“I knew our families were going to be the ones that were hurt the most. We built something so that no matter what happened out there, our babies could keep learning,” said Young, 47. “You would be surprised what we can accomplish when we have a deep belief that our students can thrive.”

Instead of seeing the hub as a quick-and-dirty stopgap measure, Young envisioned a high-quality academy that ranged from math to martial arts. Her mantra is giving all children access to the enrichment that privileged families have long enjoyed.

“Lakisha is a powerhouse,” said Sanam Jorjani, founding co-director of the Oakland Literacy Coalition. “She leads with authenticity, and it is clear what drives her. She has a powerful ability to keep us focused on what matters most — seeing students and their families thrive.”

Literacy is the cornerstone. The hub offered high-dosage tutoring to K-2 students and quickly posted big gains. During its first phase, 60 percent of students went up two or more reading levels on the district’s assessment. Young chalks that success up to evidenced-based practices that many schools still do not use, despite exhaustive research.

“California has not made the commitment to do the work in a science-based way and, as a result, we’ll keep having kids in our state that can’t read or do math,” said Young. “When only 3 out of 10 kids can read, we are not doing things right — and need to do a full pivot.”

‘We need to grow a pair’

Young has never been one to mince words. In the education sphere, a space often brimming with jargon and platitudes, she is known for her candor. When asked if she had any mixed feelings about criticizing the fractious teacher strike in Oakland Unified, for instance, she made no bones about it.

“No mixed feelings! Just anger about how unnecessary that strike was, and that more leaders in our community did not come out to protect kids,” she said. “As adults, we need to grow a pair if we are really about the kids. This strike has caused quite a bit of damage.”

While many bemoan pandemic learning loss, she has long been an outspoken critic of the public education system’s failure to meet the needs of children of color.

“The school system has failed Black and brown families for generations,” she said. “The pandemic has just highlighted how bad we’ve let our public education system get. It’s a catastrophe.”

Lakisha Young

“The school system has failed Black and brown families for generations,” she said. “The pandemic has just highlighted how bad we’ve let our public education system get. It’s a catastrophe.”

The first in her family to go to college, she knew she would have to fight to ensure her children got the education they deserved. Her journey began in 2008, when her neighborhood school was on the brink of closure, so she entered a lottery for a charter school spot for her daughter. There were 93 applications and nine spots. She landed one.

“We were lucky,” she said. “You shouldn’t have to get lucky to send your kid to a good school.”

She found the vast disparity in quality between Oakland schools galling, and that inequity has fueled her activism ever since.

“I discovered there were schools in the hills and then there were schools in the flatlands,” she said. “The hills were primarily white and privileged. The flatlands were everyone else, especially Black and brown folks.”

Leaning in to literacy

Connecting with families, she found out children weren’t alone in struggling to read. If you want to close the achievement gap, she says, you also have to grapple with adult literacy.

“We had parents raising their hands and saying, I’m functionally illiterate,” she said. “I never really learned how to read. Yes, I work, and yes, I take care of my family, but this is a shame that I carry.”

For her tireless efforts to bolster public education, she has been hailed a hero. Last year, she won the KRON4 Remarkable Women award and her organization received a $3 million donation from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott.

“Lakisha is the fiercest advocate for children that I know,” said Megan Bacigalupi, the founder of CA Parent Power, an advocacy group. “She is unabashedly pro-kid and pro-family, but she doesn’t just claim that; her work has demonstrated that for years.”

But accolades are not her focus. She’s too busy training parents and other caregivers to work as high-dosage reading tutors in the schools.

“I don’t see myself as that special, but I definitely think we’re doing special work,” she said. “We’re not literacy experts, but we are parent experts. We know how to bring parents to the table and how to build their knowledge and power.”

This story originally appeared in EdSource.