Town Heroes is a profile series featuring people who grew up in Oakland and are making a positive contribution to their hometown. Know of someone who you think we should feature? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jackson Stearns calls himself a “Dimond rec center kid.” Growing up, he split his time between different neighborhoods in Oakland: Piedmont, Grand Avenue, Laguna Avenue over in the Dimond District, and West Oakland around Peralta. “Half the time, I would be at the Poplar rec center, and the other half, I would be at Dimond Park,” Stearns said.
“I never got my license in high school. So I was always on the bus or riding my bike,” he recalled. “I would ride the 658 from Skyline and then the 57 bus route down MacArthur and the 40s. I really enjoyed it because, every afternoon, you got this little snapshot of Oakland from the east all the way to the west.”
Like many kids born and raised in Oakland, Stearns is a product of Oakland public schools. He attended Sequoia Elementary, Bret Harte Middle School, and Skyline High School, with a brief stint at St. Paul’s Episcopal School in sixth grade. “My parents wanted to see how private school would go. I did not gel with it, having gone to public school for the amount of time I had,” he said. “In seventh grade, I went back to Bret Harte.”
He credits much of his success as an adult, and his decision to stay in Oakland, to all of the after-school programs he attended here growing up, including those offered through the city’s department of Parks, Recreation & Youth Development.
“After-school programs started when I was six years old and [continued] through high school,” he said. As a freshman, he was a “counselor in training.” When he was a sophomore, he got hired to work at summer camps and went from the Dimond rec center to Montclair when the director at Dimond transferred there. “By the time I was 11 or 12, I knew I was going to be a counselor in training and then a junior counselor,” said Stearns. He was also on the Lions swim team—part of the Oakland summer rec swim league—that trained at Lions Pool at the Dimond rec center.
“I don’t know what my life would look like without those Dimond rec center programs,” he said. While spending his afternoons at the rec center, he built a tight-knit community with other kids who would go there from different neighborhoods. “We called ourselves ‘camp bootsy.’ We were fortunate to have really good counselors who were positive role models for all of us,” he added. “I still keep in touch with a few people.”
Even when he was away for college—he attended San Diego State University—he would come home during the summers and work at the rec center. When he moved back to Oakland in 2012, he ran summer camp programs for the Berkeley YMCA. He also worked in Orinda and Piedmont in similar roles.
“I don’t think any of that would have happened if I hadn’t had such a foundational experience in Oakland at rec programs,” he said.
Stearns believes the city of Oakland could be investing more than it currently is in after-school programs that benefit local youth, by hiring more rec center staff and paying them livable wages. City-funded after-school and summer programs play a critical role, he said, in providing healthy food, transportation, and field trips for many Oakland youth.
“Field trips are a phenomenal learning opportunity,” he said. “If there were more funding, I’d try to fix a whole bunch of stuff.”
As the Oakland City Council begins discussing the city’s next two-year budget, he hopes elected officials will see the importance of these programs and the correlation between violence prevention and giving young people more opportunities to participate in healthy activities.
“I get it from the standpoint of taxpayers; we need to prioritize police, fire, infrastructure, and then everything else,” he said. “But as a parks and rec person, I can tell you that if you’ve got good parks and rec programs, and the kids are growing up in the right headspace and have the needed resources, then you don’t have to invest as much in police down the road.”
Last year, the Oakland Department of Violence Prevention launched “Town Nights,” a series of summer events organized by local community groups that included family activities, live music, free food, and games. The department used $1.1 million of its $25 million 2021–2022 budget to put these events together, part of a wider effort by the city to increase public safety through community-based initiatives as an alternative to policing.
Having gained a greater understanding as an adult of how local government operates and other factors impacting local residents, Stearns is committed to fostering a sense of community in his hometown. Today, one of the main ways he’s doing that is through a sport that Stearns was introduced to as a high schooler at Skyline: ultimate frisbee.
“I learned to play ultimate in PE class with Coach [John] Beam and Coach [James] Salazar,” he said. “I had a ton of fun with it. I was the kid that did PE for three years.”
During his time coaching at Skyline High, Beam won 15 league championships, 11 section championships, and had four undefeated seasons. Now Beam is a football coach at Laney College, where he led that school’s team to a California state football championship (CCCAA) in 2018. Coach Salazar is currently the athletic director at Skyline.
Learning to play “ultimate” (a trademark prevents teams from using the word “frisbee”) influenced Stearns’ decision to attend San Diego State University, one of many colleges with a frisbee team. He played ultimate through college and afterward played professionally with the SF DogFish from 2014-2015 and the San Jose Spiders from 2016 to 2022. The latter team was sold in 2021 and moved to Oakland in 2022. The now Oakland Spiders will kick off their 2023 season on Saturday, April 29, with a home opener against the Seattle Cascades.
Coming home was always on Stearns’ mind throughout his time elsewhere. “I knew I wanted to get back involved with community outreach and youth programming [in Oakland],” he said.
An opportunity presented itself when Stearns transitioned from being a Spiders player to becoming the team’s general manager in December 2020. The following year, when the Spiders were sold and looking for a new home, Stearns was instrumental in helping the team secure one in Oakland. Today, the team practices at Oakland Tech and plays its home games at Fremont High. In January of this year, Stearns became the club’s president.
“I was crazy enough to think that my background in youth programming and community events was similar to putting on a game,” he said of taking on leadership positions in the team’s front office. “I got this. Why not?”
To build a fanbase for the Spiders in Oakland, Stearns has drawn on the relationships he fostered over the years at Oakland’s schools and youth programs, the knowledge that’s come from working at the rec center, his hometown upbringing, and background as a professional player.
“I’ve felt comfortable stepping onto any campus, any middle school and elementary school, and getting the kids to be more familiar with the sport,” he said.
Social media has also played a significant role in spreading the word about the team. “That’s where most of our fans are currently,” he said. “How do we figure out how to break through everybody else’s individual algorithms on social media to connect and resonate with what we’re putting out?”
The team has special nights for educators, first responders, and nonprofits throughout the season. They host local food businesses and artists on game days as well. In doing so, the team is taking a page from the Oakland Roots playbook. Stearns says that the soccer club has been nothing but supportive of the team. “The Roots back up their values, they talk and walk it. They are supportive partners.”
Being from Oakland, Stearns has seen professional sports teams come and go—the Raiders and the Warriors—and the Athletics recently confirmed their desire to relocate to Las Vegas. On the flip side, he has also seen the Roots have success expanding its fanbase while demonstrating a real commitment to staying local.
“They are committed and passionate because they have this grassroots mentality of, ‘We’re not going to ask somebody else to do it. We’re just going to do it ourselves,’” Stearns said of the Roots. “It’s the recognition that other sports teams want to be here. And that’s all you need—community support and everything else is going to shake itself out,” he said.
“Ultimate is an unfamiliar sport for a lot of folks. But I’m excited with where our trajectory is now and how the connections we’re making are starting to pay off,” he said. Berkeley High and Oakland Tech are two Bay Area high schools that have ultimate teams. At the college level, UC Berkeley also has a team. “I’m very optimistic that we’re going to keep rolling. It’ll be up to the town as to whether they’re with us on that.”
Stearns wants the games to be affordable for everyone. Ticket prices start at $20, and kids 12 and under get in for free. “The game itself is good enough that kids are going to fall in love with it,” he said. “And I see that every time I go out to coach.”
The team currently averages close to 500 fans per game. The largest crowd was 700. Stearns said the goal is to get up to 1,000 fans per game. He also wants to increase the number of young people in the team’s youth programs and help make the sport more inclusive and diverse. As the Spiders’ president, Stearns has continued to work with Oakland youth; the team hosts youth clinics in the winter, spring, and summer.
“Through going out to schools, doing PE classes and clinics, we got in front of about a thousand kids,” he said. “I’d like to get that to 3,000 to 4,000 [students reached] with a thousand registering for a summer camp or an after-school program.”
Stearns ultimate goal is to ensure that future generations of Oakland youth have the same opportunities he had while growing up. The Town has produced a vast amount of talented individuals, he said, while also being a leader in promoting social justice. He wants the Spiders to reflect and promote those values.
“I want youth to be open to new ideas and new opportunities because there’s so many [in Oakland]. We have the arts, music, culture, politics, history—be open to it,” he said. “You don’t know how it’s going to help you later on in life, whether in Oakland or wherever life takes you.”