By Saraya Wintersmith
F. Alexis Roberson is in the business of helping people in the District of Columbia turn their lives around. As President and Chief Executive Officer of the Opportunities Industrialization Center of the District of Columbia (OIC-DC), she oversees the organization’s efforts to provide comprehensive job training programs to the young and old alike. Since taking the reins of what is described as the nation’s “foremost self-help organization” in 2001, she has shaped careers and helped thousands of hard-working D.C. residents receive training and access to job opportunities. Her warm laughter and bright smile might belie the fortitude and diligence that drove her to become one of the top female public servants in the nation’s capital.
A native of Aiken, South Carolina, Roberson, is the daughter of two educators. She got her start helping people help themselves by assisting her mother Flossie (whom she is named after). “At night she volunteered and she had adults in training,” said Roberson. “I was in 9th grade when I was assisting her in teaching adults how to read and write. Her class grew to be really large and she needed help, so she taught me how to teach reading and math and grade papers…I did that until I graduated from high school.” At 16, she graduated and came to the District to attend Howard University.
Roberson says she loved her time at Howard – even the strictly enforced 7 p.m. a curfew – because it allowed her to bond and build relationships with her Tubman Quadrangle cohabitants – women who she calls her life-long friends. “Howard prepared me for life’s work,” she says of her alma mater. “I could compete with anybody because of the professors at Howard. They cared about us and they made sure that we got what they knew.” Roberson earned a Bachelor’s in Sociology and minored in Education and Psychology and began working as a reading teacher at the District’s Adult Education Center. “I knew how to do it because I’d been doing it for four years,” she says. She went on to work for OIC as an instructor and was promoted to Deputy Director of Operations.
In 1983, Roberson became the first woman to head the Department of Recreation – a cabinet-level position of D.C. government, under then mayor Marion Barry. Under her tenure as director, the agency’s growth and community involvement increased. She managed a nearly $30 million budget, was responsible for hundreds of employees, oversaw the retention of many familiar programs and established a slew of new initiatives like outreach to seniors, the Joy Evans Therapeutic Recreation Center, the Mayor’s Cup Invitational Amateur Boxing Tournament and the popular Potomac Riverfest that attracted more than 200,000 citizens annually.
After a successful 7-year stint, Roberson again achieved a “first” when she was appointed to head DC’s Department of Employment Services (DOES). As DOES director, she was chief adviser to Mayor Barry on labor and employment issues, managing more than 1000 employees and presiding over a $200 million budget that included the unemployment compensation trust fund account for all DC business owners and employers.
Roberson says women in management and executive administration were treated differently than they are today. Her trail-blazing career path motivated her to prove herself with every work-related assignment. “People didn’t expect a female to be in that job,” she explains. “I worked hard to make certain I dotted every “I” and crossed every “T.” ” Roberson says sometimes at meetings or national conferences she would often find herself the only female and the only black person in attendance. She also says she sometimes-faced subliminal ridicule from her male counter parts. “They would say things that were a little bit condescending.” Roberson says she got through by learning to tactfully handle the snide remarks. When someone tried to undermine her credentials, her favorite quip was “I don’t need that. Let’s talk about the issues, here.”
Years later, Roberson was hand-picked by the late Reverend Leon Sullivan to revive the OIC-DC . The office re-opened in Ward 8 in 2001 and she leads the organization, facilitating training and opportunities for DC’s underserved population. She says that perhaps she’ll retire in 5 years or so – a plan she’s been considering for the last 10 years – but, for now, she loves what she does. “It feels wonderful. This is not work to me.”