Who Is Silenced When Privilege Tantrums? Student Board Members, the Unsung Heroes of OUSD.

A guest post from OUSD Director Jumoke Hinton-Hodge.

We don’t often hear about the unsung sheroes and heroes of our boards of education, the student board members!

They represent the authentic voices of everyday students. They sit side-by-side with elected board members, attend meetings twice a month, special meetings and facilitate youth convenings upwards of two to three times a month—and by law they have an advisory vote.  

They are at the heart of the business of our school district in Oakland. And recently they talked from the heart about why they stopped attending our board meetings and what needs to change. And adults hissed them. You can view the video here.

Every group of student directors has made thoughtful votes, weighing everything from budgets and curriculum adoption to supporting policies that move the district forward. And they have been doing the real work on behalf of students, quietly—while others loudly disrupt but don’t move anything forward. 

Over the last several months, these students have been the ones silenced. They broke that silence with a powerful statement.

Students Working and Getting Results for Students

Last spring, OUSD student directors waged a campaign to save vital restorative justice services and foster care case managers as elected board members were prepared to cut in order to make the 11% raise for well deserving teachers. It was a hard call, but students in the end weren’t having it. I got into a lot of trouble trying to make it to that Board meeting—the students were worth it.

Students directors with All City Council continued making their demands during and after the strike—they couldn’t attend school, so they spent their time during the teacher’s strike walking the halls of City Hall. Student directors sought meetings with Oakland’s mayor, the City Council and Alameda County supervisors to demand resources be allocated to restore these vital programs and initiatives within the district. They articulated without hesitation and with great eloquence the need to restore foster care and restorative justice programs.

Amidst all the fighting and gridlock they kept fighting for students.

So, these sheroes and heroes of the Student Board are nothing short of relentless and effective. Throughout the year these directors participate in board meeting to report out on the valuable empowerment activities of students from across the district. The investments made to support meaningful student engagement have proven to be invaluable investments—with the greatest return in brilliance and leadership of the student directors.

The Kaiser-Sankofa Merger, How the Empire Struck Back, and Student Directors Left

During the September 11th meeting, the Board of Education made some bold moves to improve quality and realign resources of the district by merging two schools in North Oakland, a Hills school and flatland school of Oakland. The idea of merging and redistricting wealth of predominately white school is not so common to say the least. We are usually having to reassign or close the predominately black schools in the flatlands.

After that decision a newly organized group of parents and teachers committed themselves to disrupting and stopping the business of the district. These disruptions had a direct impact on the student directors. By the end of the year—the student directors stopped attending the meeting. We no longer were receiving the reports on students or hearing the work of these vital leaders in our system. Their stories of student success or honest feedback from students about the system were halted because a privileged community of adults was able to center themselves above flatland families and student voice.

Student directors were silenced. Unable to fulfill their responsibilities bestowed on them by their 37,000 peers of OUSD.

The Real Work of Student Board Members: Fighting for the Real Needs of Students

Their public service has been interrupted—the space was unsafe for everyone attempting to engage in the business of the district. However, in the New Year they felt restored. The Board was absolutely thrilled to have the student directors back and present for a board meeting on a Wednesday night. 

It was powerful to hear they had not stopped working—during the fall they surveyed middle school and high school students, held trainings and convened students from all over the district.

Most impressive, they are participating in a statewide campaign to increase funding for California public school Schools and Communities First. They have actively participated in the collection of thousands of signatures needed to ensure this historic referendum on California school funding is on the ballot in the November general election. The student directors and the All City Council successfully registered 100 students to vote in the upcoming election.

Who amongst us is doing this work? I am deeply proud and grateful for their work. This report demonstrated their commitment to Oakland students and the power of student agency.

As they concluded their report, they opened up about their experience over the last few months. Why they were absent for the chaotic board meetings. They paused and took a deep breath of courage and checked in. The student directors shared understanding the pain of school mergers. They also acknowledged there were hard decisions the board had to make.

They seemed to understand the math a little more than many adults. They emphasized their expectation that we must follow through with the promise of realigning resources and improving the quality for black and brown students who attend flatland schools.  They had a very clear analysis of the racial and power dynamics surrounding this decision.

Additionally, they commented on the presence of police officers and pondered exactly what many of us wondered: Would the police response be the same if had it been predominately black and brown parents disrupting a public meeting? The students reflected on the contrast of how they experience police officers on the streets—they believed they witnessed a patience and grace not usually afforded to their peers on the streets when they encountered police officers. 

They have a racialized experience around police but in this case, they witnessed privilege that wasn’t punished or checked in anyway. It was almost as if their own safety was in some ways minimized to treat these families different. The student directors spoke to their safety.

As a board member and along with my colleagues we definitely heard the student directors and noted their courage to speak their truth. We were moved—but you know who wasn’t moved?

Hisses from the Privileged Few and a Trampling of the Grasses

The Renowned in the Town Social Justice Warriors, these folks actually hissed during the student reflection, when they didn’t like being called out for their un-civil disobedience that verged on violence and was untenable at times. After their hissing—the Renowned Social Justice Warriors in the Town took the stage. The students had the floor but were disrespected and silenced. There is no doubt the students should have been centered.  But the protesters immediately made the space unsafe and unproductive. They took the floor, lectured the students on how they should feel safe and turned the entire event around to be about their children’s victimization. 

So, after the Renowned in the Town Social Justice Warriors took the floor for over 20 minutes, the students left the stage.

This was more than I could take! I was truly pissed. The disruption by adults of young leaders who are courageously speaking their truth. For months we have been bombarded with gaslighting and ideological rhetoric, but these students, these leaders, shouldn’t be in the middle. I’m reminded of the African saying, when the Elephants fight it’s the grass that suffers.

Freedom of speech is an entitlement for us all, not just the privileged. Some children have been centered—advocated for but now when our youth leaders, who actually were chosen by their peers, who are entitled and have been granted the authority to represent the diversity of students in our system, they were shut down.

Within 20 minutes of their presentation adults took over and centered themselves. Why were the students immediately invalidated after reflecting on their work and commitment to fight for justice for all students of Oakland? Was it speaking truth to power that triggered them to react to young people in this way? I’ve grown accustomed to this behavior and managed through this sort of targeting, but I won’t tolerate the manipulation and taking center stage from young people who are demonstrating their own agency to lead.

These unsung heroes and sheroes put up with more adult power play in and outside the classroom. When will folks recognize their privilege and power to lead in education spaces?

Our progressive city can’t be so righteous that we replicate the very system we are always waging war against. By no means should you be so comfortable and self-righteous that you take the stage, silence a young black woman and young brown man who are speaking their truth about their own safety.

There is something wrong with Oakland’s progressive community. We should think about how privilege and power plays out and actually hinders the growth of our children.

These unsung sheroes and heroes spent the past couple of weeks attending their classes, engaging the superintendent about the prioritization of the 2020 budget. They have been doing the work. Hopefully they can return on Wednesday to a regularly scheduled business meeting and continue their public service as Youth School Board members without being interrupted.

What do you think?

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