Nonprofit leader Amber Blackwell-Lee's after-school program develops youth from the ground up

Julian Glover Image
Friday, March 1, 2024
East Oakland nonprofit develops youth from the ground up
Higher Ground Neighborhood Development Corporation is an Oakland-based community program that provides safe after-school programs.

OAKLAND, Calif. (KGO) -- Twenty years ago, Amber Blackwell-Lee founded an after-school development program aimed at creating a safe space for kids to be kids. Two decades and 8,000 students later, Blackwell-Lee remains as dedicated as ever.

Higher Ground Neighborhood Development Corporation, Blackwell-Lee's nonprofit, is an Oakland-based community program that provides safe after-school programs to over 300 elementary-aged children each year. The program's 17 staff members work together to help young students become happy and well-rounded adults.

"My parents gave me a well-rounded life," Blackwell-Lee explained. "I felt that children in Oakland at the time I started this, 20 years ago, were not experiencing that."

ABC7 Anchor and Race & Social Justice Reporter Julian Glover caught up with Blackwell-Lee last week. In a portable classroom tucked behind the blacktop of East Oakland Pride Elementary School, she and Program Teacher Irene Mejia engaged kids in diverse activities, from a history lesson on the Mayans to an inspiring talk about Sonia Sotomayor.

Each corner of the classroom provided a glimpse into how much Higher Ground offers students: baking soda volcanoes, paintings hung up to dry, bikes lined up against the wall, and a drum set tucked away in the corner. Outside, the kids' after-school offerings include martial arts, competitive cheerleading, and even circus training.

As students grow older, Higher Ground incorporates career readiness into their programming, including career exploration activities and innovative entrepreneurship lessons.

Blackwell-Lee emphasized the heavy responsibilities many of their students take on at home. Higher Ground offers them a safe place to just be kids.

"You're not mom, you're not dad, you don't have to run nothing, you go make sure you have fun," she said. "Being here, they are allowed to be safe. They are allowed to be children."

While talking with ABC7 News, Blackwell-Lee fondly recounted how some of the children who went through the programming as second graders now come back to visit as college graduates.

"All through college, I envisioned being able to have influence and impact on the Black community," she said with a smile. "This work makes my degree worth it."

To learn more and support Higher Ground Youth Development Corporation, visit here.

To see more ABC7 Allies in Action, visit here.