Tuesday, March 5, 2019

More Than Just Surviving

This week public school teachers and students returned to school after a high-profile strike that many of you probably heard at least little bit about. Everyone knows the teachers were fighting for a pay raise, and almost everyone agrees that they deserve(d) one. Before the strike, OUSD teachers were the lowest paid in the Bay Area—a difference of tens of thousands of dollars per year in salary. But here’s the thing—even after winning an 11% raise over a few years, OUSD teachers will STILL be the lowest paid in the Bay Area. TheIR new salaries will still leave many of them unable to afford to live in the city where they work, where the average rent for a one bedroom apartment is almost $3,000 per month.

Showing cross country solidarity while at the 17th Annual Alumni of Color Conference at Harvard Graduate School of Education

I’m writing about this not to rain on anyone’s parade, but to suggest that we have to do more. We have to fight for more because we want to do more than just survive.

Some reading this will ask if enough will ever be enough. They will say that unions are the problem, quality is not about money, and other such ideas that I’m not going to demolish in this particular blog post. If you think it’s time to celebrate and head to back to business, I want you to consider few things.

First, the #OaklandTeacherStrike was about a lot more than teacher pay. In fact, that’s exactly why students and families were virtually unanimous in their support of teachers. During the week-long strike, fewer than 5% of students attended school. Many parents came together to form Solidarity Schools, where students could go instead of crossing the picket lines. The strike was also about stopping school closures, reducing class sizes, increasing support staff such as counselors and nurses, and challenging the unchecked expansion of charter schools in Oakland. 

On Sunday, OUSD teachers converged on the Paramount Theater to cast their votes for or against the Tentative Agreement reached between the district and union leadership. Before the vote was even cast, journalists and politicians across the country were celebrating the historic agreement as an across-the-board win. But what you might not have read in those articles is that fewer than two thirds of the teachers actually voted "yes" in support of the new contract. You also may have missed what happened on social media after news of the vote outcome was announced.* So many students were expressing feelings of anger, betrayal and frustration—feeling that their teachers "sold out." That’s because while the salary increase is significant and clear cut, many other aspects of the new contract are quite weak. For example, class sizes may be reduced by only 1 or 2 students in many cases, still leaving many teachers with more students than desks. 

The contract also does not change the fact the district plans to close up to 24 schools, the vast majority of which lie in low income Black and Brown neighborhoods of Oakland. Many people agree that OUSD is operating “too many” schools based on the number of students it’s serving. We certainly don’t all agree on what is causing this low enrollment, and whether charter schools are a systemic threat, a systemic solution, or both. What I do know is that closing a school is incredibly painful and harmful to the community and families that it serves. Just last year I visited my neighborhood school in East Oakland as I look forward to having children of my own (nobody’s pregnant). I met the principal, got a little tour, and started envisioning what it might be like to be a parent in that school community. And then I read last month that the school would be closing. Destabilizing to say the least, and I don’t even have kids at the school. While I see the logic of consolidating to reduce overhead cost, there's one question I can find no logical or respectable answer to: "How is it possible that we simultaneously have critical levels of under-enrollment AND overflowing classrooms? Let me know if you have an answer.

Throughout the strike and leading up to the vote, I was deliberately agnostic about whether to support the Tentative Agreement, either publicly or privately. For one, I’m not a public school teacher or member of the union. Primarily, I just wanted to support the teachers, students. But it's important for people to understand that many students, and many of OUSD teachers opposed the new contract. Why? Because they want to do more than just survive.

Survival is critical, but living in survival mode can be crippling to the development of a human being  or the progress of a community. Today in 2019, so many marginalized communities are being pushed to survival mode that actual systemic progress has become a secondary priority… and that is not an accident. When Black History Month rolled around this year, I was already feeling exhausted with fighting White supremacy this year! Yes, my ancestors are rolling their eyes, but the feeling of fatigue is real and can be debilitating. This BHM, I hardly posted, didn’t work much on the #28StoriesProject. My observance was limited to staying Black, leading a high school field trip to the Western Addition, and reading two very good books.**

Honey, Hush! An Anthology of African American Women's Humor - Edited by Daryl Cumber Dance
Trials, Tribulations and Celebrations: African-American Perspectives on Health, Illness, Aging and Loss - Edited by Marian Gray Secundy

I did not in any way give myself a pass, but did need to gather some strength for the work ahead. The motto for this year—better yet, the battlecry—is “more than just surviving.” This theme is borrowed directly from title of Dr. Bettina Love’s newly released book, We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom. This summer, when we reconvene for the 3rd Annual 2020 Conference in Oakland, Dr. Love will be back as our Warrior in Residence. This year’s theme is “More Than Just Surviving.”

I’m excited to once again bring Dr. Love into conversation with high school students of Oakland and the greater Bay Area. The Conference will be a space for them to define what it means and looks like to break out of survival mode, to build the communities and world that they really want to live in. 

We also know that our youth cannot do this work alone—they need us to support, lead, and in some cases follow them. If you are an adult, one of the ways you can support is by helping a student get to 2020 Conference this summer.

Today we are kicking off our fundraising campaign for the 3rd Annual 2020 Conference, and I ask that you help us make this happen. We welcome and depend on contributions of any amount, but I want to encourage you to go big this time. Please consider making an online donation today… 

Thank you for reading, thank you for supporting, and thank you for not settling for survival.

Pura Vida,


As a special thank you and kick in the butt, we have a special gift for every person that makes a donation of $100 or more before Monday, March 11th… 

an autographed copy of 

We Want to Do More Than Survive!

If you live in the Bay Area, please consider joining us as we host a book signing and conversation with Dr. Bettina Love at Marcus Books in Oakland, the nation’s oldest Black-owned bookstore.

Sunday, March 10th
2pm - 4pm
Marcus Books Oakland
3900 MLK Jr Way
Oakland, CA

Dr. Bettina Love
w/ USF Professor Dr. Farima Pour-Khorshid

* I have a pretty strict policy of not following my students, or other minors on social media, mostly because I don't want to know. But we stay very connected with them for the "work" via our organization's social media accounts, so we really get a window into the world of high school instagram, for better or for worse. (instagram: @youtheducation4success; twitter: @YES4org, Facebook: @YES4

** The first book (Honey, Hush) was recommended by the good peoples at Marcus Books. I inherited the second book (Trials Tribulations and Celebrations) from my grandmother, via my mom. The inside is signed by the editor with a special message to the late Vera Foster.