Adding value: Leading Edge

What’s your personal mission? What are three qualities of a great leader? What would you say to a young man who stopped you on the street to ask?

For five Wednesday afternoons this summer, participants in the library’s Leading Edge youth development program set out from the Main Library to pose such questions to pedestrians in downtown Oak Park.

“My question made people think,” said Jonathan Beech, 21, who’s been a peer mentor in Leading Edge for two years. “And it got me outside my comfort zone.”

Like others in the program, Beech has developed his own mission statement: “To help individuals with their problems by listening … and assuring them that they can reach their full potential and expectations.”

Leading Edge provides peer mentorship and social-emotional support to youth ages 14–21, the majority of whom are performing in the bottom 25th percentile in school and qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch.

It’s about life skills and making connections, said Social Services Specialist Stephen Jackson, who leads the library program and previously ran a motivational mentorship program at Oak Park and River Forest High School through the Oak Park Township.

As someone who prefaces all feedback with “May I add value?” and whose mantra is “I’m still learning,” Jackson serves as a model for youth practicing leadership skills like organization, patience in the face of adversity, self-care, and strategic decision making.

He also offers young men the benefit of his deep roots in the community, knowing where to turn if kids need help with schoolwork or finding jobs and mentors.

For one of the group’s weekly sessions, Jackson brought in his own mentor, motivational speaker Dr. Samuel Betances, who discussed ways to excel in school and in life: how to work confidently with others to reach your goals, advocate for yourself and those who look up to you, and avoid what popular culture says constitutes manhood.

“At some point, you want to be that person to know, to give back,” Jackson said. “I want to add value. And I want these young people to feel they’re adding value to each other’s lives, to the world.”

Beech, who graduated this summer from Triton College and is headed to North Carolina A&T State University this fall, said he mentors high schoolers in Leading Edge “to give back, be a role model and mentor to younger kids. I was in their same position once. I want to give them my knowledge and advice for how to cope with situations.”