For those who think themselves revolutionaries, Why a Black Lives Matter sign is simply not enough

A guest post from former OUSD director James Harris and his TownBiz blog

If we understand ourselves to be revolutionaries, and if we accept our historic task, then we can move beyond the halting steps that we’ve been taking…. Then there will be a new day in Oakland, there will be a housecleaning in Oakland. 

I borrowed and slightly modified the declaration above from Brother Eldridge Cleaver of the Black Panther Party. It appears in a book that my sister (in law, but like a sister) recently passed on to me. It’s called: New Day in Babylon and was published in 1992.

“If we understand ourselves to be revolutionaries, and if we accept our historic task, then we can move beyond the halting steps that we’ve been taking…. Then there will be a new day in Babylon, there will be a housecleaning in Babylon.”

—Eldridge Cleaver, 1969 

When I first opened the book, Cleaver’s profound words arrested me. I was thinking: This says it all about who we are in Oakland.

I believe that just about every person that lives in this city feels in some way like a revolutionary— in some profound way different, and rocking a little more swag and hustle than the average cat. That’s how we roll.  It’s a badge I know I am proud to wear. We “understand ourselves to be revolutionaries.” 

I have also been thinking about how to bring to a close this phase of my reflection on my work on the Oakland School Board for the last eight years and these words hit me with the weight of a sledgehammer. 

It was the “if we accept our historic task” part that really struck me because that’s the part we can’t get right in Oakland. It seems sometimes that we want the glory of what it means to live in Oakland, but we don’t want to make the sacrifices necessary to live in the glory of what we believe Oakland is capable of. 

So, as I close this phase of reflection, first I want to express my unwavering belief that we are bursting with the capability to be who we want to be. We need only decide where we want to go and let no one turn us from that destination. Second, I have a question. What if our “historic task” was to make sure that every Oakland child was educated to the best of our community’s ability?

I believe that coming together to effectively educate our children is this city’s most important “task,” and that a laser focus on quality education is the key to Oakland being a stronger and safer city. Our primary goal must be to make sure every child has a remarkable and safe experience at school and on the way to school. Education is the key to everything we do. 

The OUSD has a physical footprint in nearly every neighborhood in the city of Oakland and our education system has deep, historic roots that, if tapped, will allow us to address every challenge from illegal dumping to safety and homes for the unhoused. Not to mention, by making Oakland education the foundation of our community building efforts, we’d be working to build a stronger future for all of our children by making sure every one of them can read, write, and do math on grade level as a basic human right in the city of Oakland. 

I have learned from my brief time in politics that our city cannot focus on more than two things at once; anything more is too much for the bureaucracy to bear. I believe there are so many political and structural complications that the city needs one focal point to begin to cure its historic woes. Like we tell our children and students, before we can solve a number of big problems, we need to work together to solve one single and important challenge first. Education should be that challenge. The rewards will be well worth it when we can say, we made it our mission to make sure that all Black and Brown children— 70 percent of the population of Oakland Public Schools— are reading and writing on grade level and have safe passages to schools. And this happened because “we” made it so. 

In all of my work on the school board and after all the reflection the pandemic has granted me, I want to say plainly to you that we— the people of Oakland— have to do more than plant a Black Lives Matter sign. “We” have to make our social justice real through concerted action. I believe that’s what it means to be from Oakland. You don’t just get to say “I’m from Oakland” and allow our children with the greatest needs to languish for decades in substandard academic conditions. Do you think Brother Cleaver would approve of who we have become? 

Our “house cleaning,” after we accept our “historic task,” is to put down the adult issues that have prevented us from building an infrastructure for our children. Remember, the blame instinct drips from our politics. We are never fighting for what we want for Oakland because everyone is too busy promoting what they want for Oakland. Whether it’s the union and private debates or the district versus charter debates or the developer and anti-developer debates, we cannot see the forest for the trees.  

If we are going to get to a new day in Oakland, then we, as a city, have to rally all of our resources around our children. And this, my friends, is a time sensitive matter. I checked the other day, and the average home listing price in the city is $925,000. So, if we wait it out ten years, don’t worry, the education challenge will solve itself. No one without means will be able to afford the rent or to buy a house in this town. I think more people with means will be moving into to Oakland in the years to come, able to bring their time, privilege and resources to positively affect the education challenges in their neighborhood schools. The working class will be replaced by a more affluent and technocratic citizenry who is aware of the history of Oakland, but certainly not willing to do the work needed to honor it. 

If we want to be what I think Oakland is meant to be, we won’t let this happen; we will come together right now in the name of education. 

A Reflection

City of Oakland home owners spend thousands of dollars each year for a host of services they are likely unaware of. 

The City of Oakland charges us for various facility bond measures (indirectly), a violence prevention measure, Measure Q— a homelessness improvement measure, for city library services, and more (check your county tax statement for exact details). These are all in addition to the standard city, school, community college, and transportation taxes. Each one is designed to solve a different issue.

There are also remarkable collaborations that exist like the Youth Ventures JPA and Oakland Thrives Leadership Council that are poised to do the work of serving youth and families better. Oakland taxpayer dollars are paying for this organization too. In the case of the leadership council, the school district, city, and county budgets all kick in good money— along with host of other public agencies and private partners to help improve outcomes for Oakland youth and families. They are poised to bring together every pubic agency working on behalf of children in the city of Oakland. This group is formed, assembled, operating and ready to work on challenges facing our children right now. I served all of my eight years on the school board as a member, and for many years as co-chair of this organization. I believe they can bring it all together to solve Oakland’s greatest challenges. The only thing that can stop them is politics. 

There are also active school parcel tax investments that are voter approved and doing remarkable, traceable work on behalf of children right now. Measure N’s investments and clear focus on college and career readiness has almost single-handedly increased student participation and graduation rates by nearly 15 percent. This game is not over though. Graduation rates are still at 75%. We still have work to do, together. 

Measure G1— another measure approved in 2016— has given middle school students more access to language, sports, and extra curricular activities as well as a $5 million annual bonus to teachers.  This measure is helping students and teachers succeed, but it will be rendered meaningless if we don’t maximize the potential of the system at large. 

My point is not to run through the list to make you feel like you are not getting your money’s worth— well it kind of is— but I won’t keep going. My essential point is, that it’s not a new tax or a new politician that solves the challenges we face, it is how the community— together— works to organize all the tools we have to solve the challenges we face.  We are paying for the service, but not getting the desired results due to lack of organization and vision about where we are headed as a city. 

I think the pandemic was the moment we all needed to see what is really important and what really matters most. For me the education of our children is the matter of greatest concern, and from all my conversations with the people of Oakland, I think you agree it’s at the top of the list. It is time to “move beyond the halting steps that we’ve been taking” and to realize “a new day in Oakland.” 

What do you think?

More Comments