Woke Parents, the System’s Worst Nightmare

Mama Williams graduated from an Oakland public high school with A’s and B’s, but she couldn’t read.  This week she was organizing with nearly 100 other Oakland parents at DeFremery Park in West Oakland the goal was “breaking the cycle.”  You can see the video here.

They were part of the first class of an ambitious parent empowerment program, The Oakland REACH.  And it was invigorating to see parents, grandparents and great grandparents coming out to stand together for better schools and better access.  It’s an ambitious program, to actually listen to families and build an agenda around their needs.  And while many people talk parent empowerment most are not really living it.

Hopefully they are not “too ambitious”

There are a lot of hard truths to be told in Oakland, across the public education sectors.  Neither the charters nor the district are consistently delivering for our underserved families that really need high quality, responsive schools.  The numbers bear this out, but I don’t need numbers, I know the stories behind the numbers.  So do these parents.  They have lived the numbers.

And I have a sense that they will be unsparing in their attempt to turn over the system.  In this first meeting, I heard about special education, the tyranny of charter lotteries, and quality and responsiveness questions around charters and district schools.

Unlike the professionals, these parents were not focused on the political battles about public education sectors.  They were focused on getting real access to quality schools, and making their voices heard within those schools.

That is their strength but I hope it does not become their weakness.

Everyone says they want parent organizing but they don’t

Interest groups want parents as props.  They really don’t want them as leaders.  It’s a sad truth.  I have been in those meetings when some rich (usually) dude talks about activating parents with talking points and pizza.

But when those organized parents go off script and start voicing THEIR concerns, yeah not so much interest in funding that.  And if they are now organizing against jacked up practices in their own schools, or the charter sector more generally, yeah that’s a definite budget killer.

They make you pick sides in this game.  You can get funded by the unions, or the charter/choice folks, with very little room in between.  That is the tightrope the Oakland REACH is walking, but someone has to.

Honestly, it was more of a dance than a tightrope walk.  The event was a celebration of real stories and calls and response, and not a bent knee begging for change, but a demand.  A demand for those parents who struggle to play a rigged game with unwritten rules, who were dismissed, pushed out, and left feeling defeated by the system.  Where schools don’t believe in your child, coach them out, and cripple their futures.  They were failed by the system.   Though I would argue the system did not fail—it did what it is supposed to do, pick predictable winners and losers.  But they were not sitting quietly through the predictable outrages.

“Fired Up and Ready to Go”

They were together supporting each other, “fired up” and “ready to go,” the energy crackling in the air with each successive call and response.  “Do I have all the answers- no, but we together can make a change…We’re woke now.  And we ain’t going nowhere, we demand change, we are breaking this cycle.”  Mama Williams said.

The crowd erupted.

We have been waiting for change for too long in Oakland’s underserved communities.  Glad to see the waiting is ending, and looking forward to the battles ahead, alongside these authentic, powerful and determined parents.

More to come.

What do you think?

More Comments