Peers Reflect on Executive Director Eric Jacobson’s Leadership Over the Years

Eric Jacobson, Executive Director for the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities (GCDD), announced his retirement last October, saying he wants a new person to lead the DD Council work. Jacobson began working for what was then called the Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities in 1992.

In 1997 he was appointed the Executive Director and has overseen the organization ever since. Jacobson has led GCDD on its mission to collaborate with Georgia citizens, public and private advocacy organizations, and policymakers to positively influence public policies that enhance the quality of life for people with developmental disabilities and their families. A few of his peers reflect on Jacobson’s leadership and work over the years.

Donna Meltzer, Executive Director of the National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities (NACDD), describes Jacobson as a passionate leader who is multi-dimensional, helping others to see the light that he sees. Jacobson and Meltzer met in 2012, when she was new to her job at NACDD only a few weeks in her role. Jacobson served on the national board and called Meltzer one afternoon and introduced himself.

“He shared wisdom and insight of the role of the organization, welcoming me. We were at a leadership summit for learning and sharing with other leaders to connect with one another. Eric was planning an additional day program, as he had gone through the Asset Based Community Development and wanted my support,” said Meltzer. “I understand him as a leader in the national council and in our field nationwide. He gave the opportunity for our peers to learn, grow, and move forward in a new concept of how we build our communities for people with developmental disabilities and get support for them. I have spent a lot of time with Eric over the last 10 years. He gave me many opportunities to come down to Georgia and spend time with the Georgia Council.”

A special memory Meltzer has of Jacobson is when he offered to host a meeting in Atlanta. She told him that she wanted to get the leaders at the meeting out of the hotel rooms to see the city. Meltzer explained that Jacobson has passion for civil rights and social justice. Together they hired an Atlantan to coordinate the day for the leaders. The group ended up seeing the AIDS quilts, the Martin Luther King Jr. Museum, Ebenezer Baptist Church, and the Center for Civil and Human Rights Museum.

“Others look to him as a strong leader and visionary. His attitude is how can I get the best out of everyone and how can I get the best for everyone,” said Meltzer. “That’s how he thrives. He is a deep thinker who thinks through the issues. He says what are we going to do next and makes it happen.”

Ruby Moore, Executive Director of the Georgia Advocacy Office (GAO), said Jacobson brought other leaders in the state of Georgia together to learn about the developmental disability community, not being set back by policies, but by focusing on actual community support. That Moore said, is Jacobson’s strength.

“When we started The Children’s Freedom Initiative, GAO, Jacobson, and IHDD, these were defining moments of my relationship and leadership relationship with Eric,” said Moore. “It was so clear what we had to do, which was to work together. We all had to lead.”

Moore said Jacobson has done great work at GCDD and in the developmental disability community and said that he is passionate and has a great sense of humor, which helps him to navigate some of the things incredibly hard to do in a role like his.

“We’re pretty close. I wish him the best, and what I want for him is that he can see a clear path to the next cool thing that he will be doing. I’m looking forward to seeing what he does next,” said Moore.

Zolinda Stoneman, Ph.D., Director and Anne Montgomery Haltiwanger Distinguished University Professor at the Institute on Human Development & Disability at the University of Georgia, said she has known Jacobson since he started to work for GCDD.

“When Eric took the role as Executive Director, there were a number of challenges. It was a difficult period, but he took it from that point to one of the strongest councils in the nation. I believe today that GCDD is one of the strongest councils in the country, and that happens because of leadership,” said Stoneman.

She says part of Jacobson’s success is that he respects people, and he has a great capacity to connect with people of diverse backgrounds. Stoneman went on to say that he has a wonderful background when it comes to decision making and planning. A memory that she has working with Jacobson is when they worked together in 2005, when three DD programs were charged at the national meeting to come up with a topic. Jacobson, Stoneman, and a third person were at a hotel on a sofa and were having a brainstorming conversation. They were excited about this idea where no child is in a facility or other bad situation where they may not be getting the best care. Out of the conversation, they came up with the idea for the Children’s Freedom Initiative.

“Eric has been involved in and has shown leadership in this over the past two decades. His passion has persistence about trying to make the world better with significant change in the state of Georgia. There is no doubt in my mind that he’s going to keep working to make people’s lives better on a new journey to improve the lives of people in a new role just like he has done at GCDD,” said Stoneman.

Colleen Wieck, Executive Director for the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities, and former director, Ann Trudgeon, both met Jacobson 30 years ago at a national conference. They both shared that he has always served as a leader in interacting with federal officials and is able to fly to Washington D.C. to be their Ambassador General, no matter how big or how small the issue. According to both Wieck and Trudgeon, Jacobson knows the DD Act extremely well and can work out details in a fair manner. He has excellent diplomacy skills by synthesizing the widest ranges of opinions into a coherent position they added.

“Eric was able to creatively use grant funding to apply John McKnight asset-based community organizing approaches in his state. People with developmental disabilities always come first in Eric’s values and leadership. He listens, learns, and acts in ways that are inclusive,” said Wieck. “He has served as a mentor to many.”

A special memory Wieck and Trudgeon is when Eric and his children, along with Council directors and members, attended an Atlanta Braves baseball game. Prior to the game, Wieck and Trudgeon purchased two baseballs from the gift shop. During the game when a long fly ball headed to the upper deck where they were all sitting, timing and sleight of hand were critical. A souvenir ball would be tossed up and Jacobson would catch it without a glove. He would then present it to one of his kids. What a dad! Then another fly ball headed in their direction and again, miraculously Jacobson reached up and caught the ball without hesitation and presented it to his other child. Everyone cheered Jacobson’s athletic prowess to catch two balls in one game, according to Wieck and Trudgeon.

“We want Eric to have the best send-off possible. We only want the very brightest future for Eric and his family. We wish Eric will bring all of his knowledge, skills, and abilities to the federal level. His level of creativity is needed to help all states,” said Wieck and Trudgeon.

Steve Wiseman, Executive Director of the West Virginia Developmental Disabilities Council, said that as a fellow director of a DD Council, he has had the privilege over the past 22 years of knowing and learning from Jacobson. Wiseman said he has always admired Jacobson for leading the way on civil rights issues and community building and that Jacobson has always addressed the big and small discussions at their national meetings with thoughtfulness and wisdom, often mixed with a bit of humor.

“I remember a retreat attended by a few of our fellow executive directors that followed a leadership development weekend several years ago. We met at the family vacation home of one of the directors. It was an opportunity to share our thoughts on the issues of the day for our councils or to simply relax with no agenda. None of the attendees ran out of ideas and opinions to share,” said Wiseman. “Everyone felt it was a great thought provoking and restorative open-ended time together.”

Wiseman said he was honored that Jacobson brought his family to West Virginia for a vacation when his children were 11 years old. The family enjoyed white water rafting, swimming, hiking, and other outdoor activities that the south-central part of the state affords. Wiseman said Jacobson’s family seemed to have a great time and that he was particularly proud to be able to take them to a gourmet Italian restaurant that is tucked away in the mountains and is owned and operated by his friends.

Former GCDD Chair Mitzi Proffitt who works at Parent to Parent of Georgia has known Jacobson for 13 years and says he is a meticulous trainer and a great leader who knows the history of the DD Act in Georgia and how to advocate for people with disabilities.

“No one ever asks what you want to change, but Eric did ask. He has led a force as a great leader, and he is well-educated in this topic. He does not have children with disabilities, but over the years I noticed at meetings how he was always the first to greet individuals who had disabilities. He never shies away from people with disabilities,” said Proffitt.

Proffitt says Jacobson has the respect of his peers and all DD leaders. Whenever she shared with Jacobson that she needed help in an area, he would teach her. Additionally, she said he is supportive, and he handles controversy well because he has a great ability to get people to understand complex issues when he spoke.

“I have a child with a disability. Eric never makes you feel below him. He looks at everybody who has a disability. Eric has a sense of humor. He always made sure everyone understood what we were talking about when it came to policies. I’m happy he’s retiring,” said Proffitt.