I was recently at a school board engagement in Oakland. We were trying a new format that would allow for more community engagement. It was set up to allow community members actually to engage in deeper conversation on a selected topic or topics. The first one came together well. There were a decent number of people there. Folks were respectful, and even some of the biggest naysayers of the District gave the new format props.
Though conflicted, I say this as someone that helped plan the event. I
wanted needed to see more Black families there and let me tell you why. I say this as a person that grew up in Oakland in Oakland schools. When I write, I always speak as me.
There was a good representation of families that had kids enrolled in our schools in the hills. These mothers and community members are passionate, and they do a good job of representing for their self-interests and feel that they are saving public education from their lens. I’m not mad at them for doing it. They’re supposed to. I’m jealous. I’m jealous that they have and use their voices and the people like me do not. Here’s where my heart broke.
There was a moment when a community member stood up for public comment. She pointed out that she was a UC Berkeley graduate and that she lived in the better part of town. Allow me to paraphrase. She said something to the effect of, parents that choose to leave traditional public schools for charters are taking the easy way out, and she’d prefer to tough it out, so that’s why she stays in traditional public schools. The crowd cheered for her. This crowd cheered on a woman that was essentially calling a subset of parents doing their best and making what they feel is the best decision for their children cowards. Now, allow me to be fair, the word “coward” never came out of her mouth but it’s the way I heard it. We all have our lens and triggers and I definitely have mine. I don’t know this woman and I don’t doubt that she has the best intentions but without poor parents from some of our worst schools in the room there to speak out, it hit me in the chest like Tyson in the 80’s.
This bothered me deeply. First, I need to acknowledge that this white woman has a high-quality education and represents an area that has strong community schools.
Second, I have a problem with suggesting that a poor Black or Latina mother that reside in communities failed by our system consistently and makes a choice that she feels will best serve her children is in some way a coward. Again, not the words said, but it’s how it landed on me.
Third, when I heard people in the room clap I felt sad for our kids because there are some people that hate charters more than they care about children. That’s what it felt like to me.
I say this a lot and will continue to — if it’s my child I want the best for him or her. I don’t care if it comes from the traditional public school, the charter or the private school if I had the dough. I am committed to improving our traditional public schools. The 70 hours a week I spend working on it is my proof of that. However, I approach my job and commitment to this district by wanting to reform in a way that makes our schools competitive. I want people to come to our schools because they want to, not to force them. Black and Brown people DESERVE to be competed over. When LeBron James entered the NBA, Nike had to compete for his business. When you are a highly valued employee, companies compete for you. However, anytime you mention competition and schools in the same breath WHEN REFERRING TO POOR PEOPLE it’s somehow out of line. Stop it!
So I need those Black and Brown moms struggling with life to be in the room when these conversations happen. I need privileged folks to look them in the eyes and hear these real stories when topics become over politicized. My people had been mistreated and miseducated far before charters became any issue. We need you there to tell your stories and demand quality because you’re worthy. I know I shouldn’t have to say that but I think we all need a reminder sometimes.
I know with work and just trying to survive in an Oakland that’s changing rapidly it can be tough to get involved. So tell me what needs to happen. How can we help? We will ensure that we have childcare. If it’s working together to get car pools, say it. If you need smaller groups before or after big meetings so you can have a better understanding of the policies, we can do that too. But when we aren’t in the room, folks that don’t look like you, that don’t deal with what you deal with or don’t have the same things at stake as you tend to speak for you.
This isn’t about downing anyone. I think the folks that show up and speak for their self-interests have every right to do so. I just want that same type of privilege for my people.
(Author’s Note: I made some edits based off some feedback I got. The reason being, the purpose of this article is to attract a group of parents that weren’t in the room, not discourage the folks that do come. I stand by my words. I don’t want comments taken out of context to distract from the main point which is I need to see my people at these engagements ALONG with everyone that comes and let’s their voice be heard. Be blessed.)