Leaders on the Rise: Rasheem Rooke, Executive Director, Youth Guidance DC

February 2, 2022

Each quarter, we feature a past participant of the Rising Leaders program in a section we call "Leaders on the Rise." For this installment, we spoke with Rasheem Rooke (RL ’19), executive director of Youth Guidance DC about his new position, the foundations of Youth Guidance, and words of advice for other participants in LGW programs.

You graduated the Rising Leaders program in 2019. Obviously the world is a bit different now. What did you take away from that experience, and has it helped you navigate the past couple years?

Rising Leaders was a wonderful experience. Having come up through youth leadership positions to adult leadership positions, and actually training young leaders, I thought I knew it all. I’d read the books, done the workshops, even led the workshops, but theory and practice have to come together at some point. And while I was practicing to help other executives lead successful organizations, I subconsciously left myself a very tiny lane with not a lot of space to move around. After doing the Rising Leaders program, and engaging with my peers in that program and with folks who graduated the Signature Program, I started to look a lot wider than that narrow lane I was in. At that time I was a Program Manager, but then I began looking at other opportunities to really execute all of these leadership theories. I don't think I would have looked outside of my lane were it not for Rising Leaders. After engaging with my fellow cohort members I realized I was selling myself short and needed to look for something else. By the end of 2019, I had an offer to be a director somewhere else. I’m grateful for it.

Speaking of new opportunities, you recently started as Executive Director at Youth Guidance DC. Would you mind sharing a bit about the organization and what you’re doing there?

The mission of Youth Guidance is to create and implement school based programs so students can remove obstacles, focus on education, and ultimately succeed in school and in life. From 1924 to 2001 they had become known as the go to organization for social emotional learning programs with schools based throughout Chicago. In 2001 a new program was created called Becoming a Man – BAM for short – working specifically with Black and Brown boys in the Chicago Public school system. It’s centered on social emotional learning and helping them make better decisions in life. The Mayor of Chicago at that time, Rahm Emanuel, invited President Obama to come and sit in one of our BAM circles, and he loved it so much that it became the cornerstone of his My Brother’s Keeper initiative. When he announced the initiative he highlighted BAM and our exposure went up overnight. It went from 600-700 students in Chicago to over 7000, and it spread from Chicago to Boston, Dallas, LA, Seattle, Kansas City, London, then finally DC. 

As the Executive Director, I was brought in to build the expansion of youth guidance programming in DC public schools. We also partnered with a program that JP Morgan Chase offers called the Fellowship Initiative, a program for Black and Brown boys that’s built on career mentorship, leadership, development, and community service. What makes our DC program unique is that students will be able to start with BAM and once they finish, transition into the Fellowship Initiative.

With the current COVID Omicron surge, kids and schools have become a hot button issue. In-person vs virtual schooling is a debate we’re seeing a lot of. What challenges does Youth Guidance see in this new and somewhat unstable environment?

Consistency with the programming is one of the biggest challenges – is it going to be in school or virtual? We have the ability to pivot to a virtual engagement that will allow us to continue working with students, but it can be challenging to identify when we need to make that pivot, and then put the logistics in place so that all the students have the technology that they need in order to maintain involvement in programming. In DC specifically we are starting the program as the schools are coming back from COVID, and Youth Guidance DC was not established until I was hired six months ago. Starting in August gave us a really short runway to plan the work, to execute the work, and then move into a phase where we can evaluate it. Other locations had the entire pandemic to plan what BAM would look like when schools reopened, and we’re building the plane as we’re flying it. 

Another broader challenge is just the effect of the pandemic on children as a whole. We work with students starting in the 9th grade, and it’s a four year program, and right now we’re working with students who have not been physically in school since the 7th grade. They didn’t have the chance to go through that social maturity. How do you orientate yourself and grow mentally from being a 7th grader to a 9th grader? So now we’re working with kids who already needed extra attention, and now we have to put a little bit more mumbo sauce on that, a little more attention, to help them develop in that process.

Besides the Rising Leaders and the Signature Program, LGW also offers Youth Leadership Greater Washington, a program focused on engaging high school-age leaders with critical issues in the region. Do you have any advice for these young leaders?

Reflecting on my own experience as a youth leader, I would tell them to allow yourself space to make mistakes. It’s a part of the process – we learn from them and we grow from them. The best test is when you come across that same problem in the future and you know what to do. You don’t make that mistake, so just don’t beat yourself up for it.

The other piece I would add is don’t take yourself too seriously. You have to have balance. I don’t think anything in excess is good, and as young leaders we listen to our parents who say you have to do this and you have to do that. I love parents, parents are great for bringing children into the world, but they don’t give great advice 100% of the time. Sometimes telling a kid they have to be so serious can put them in a detrimental position.

Of course the work you do at Youth Guidance is important, but you know what they say about all work and no play. What do you like to do in your free time? Are there any other projects you’re excited about?

I look for balance. I'm good with boundaries and I don't like them to overlap. My main go to activities are anything that deals with getting lost in imagination. I love movies, stories, and poetry, and I also love creating and writing. I started off with poetry and did a lot of performance poetry and spoken word, but then I transitioned into novel writing. And while writing a novel is a lot of work, as I read it, I enjoy what I’ve written. I want to be able to give somebody the feeling I get when I consume it. If I don’t get that feeling consuming my own work then I know it won’t work for anyone else. I’m actually in the process of completing a second novel right now - I’m just in the rewrite phase, getting it polished up. So those are the things that I do to check out, separate myself from everyone, and go into my own brain. And spending time with my family of course. When I’m not working or writing, I’m just present with my wife and my daughter, just having a ball.

The new Rising Leaders class will begin meeting in March. On a closing note, is there anything you would like to share with the upcoming cohort?

I would say to the new incoming cohort, experience the sessions, but while you’re doing it, look for opportunities to gravitate towards each other. There are friendships you will find within Rising Leaders that didn’t exist the day before you started the program. For me a really important piece is once the program is done, the magic happens when you look for opportunities to reconnect, share with each other the projects you’re working on, support each other and help each other develop and grow. All of this can happen after you have graduated. Walking in the door, some people you might have a natural gravitation towards and others you might have to consciously try to connect to. But look for people you can have those connections with so that when the program is done, there is a greater level of support and a greater network that you have.

For more information about the Rising Leaders program please visit the program site. Registration for the Rising Leaders Class of 2022 is now open through February 24 here.

Leaders on the Rise: Rasheem Rooke, Executive Director, Youth Guidance DC