“Guns, pick up your guns, pick up your guns, and put the pigs on the run, pick up your guns,” sang a group of Black youths, their voices ringing clearly through the pixelated footage of my pirated copy of The Black Power Mixtape. The youth in the documentary clip were students at an Oakland Black Panther Party School, where the only use for a gun was in community self-defense. From the video, which I first watched in college, I was interested to learn that in addition to developing this ethos of self-defense, the youth were also trained in a robust accountability process for repairing the harms that students occasionally inflicted on one another: Volunteer student-run circles within the Oakland Black Panther Party School carried out transformative justice practices with their peers that were dramatically different from the punitive practices that were commonplace in the Oakland Unified School District.
In stark contrast to the Black Panther-led school, my own education had been rigidly hierarchical. As an undergrad film major, I was being prepared for a profit-driven, product-based industry in which everyone is a means to an end toward a factory model of art making. I cherished the militancy and collaboration that I saw in footage of the Black Panther Schools, and I decided that I would try to work my way toward becoming an art teacher who could facilitate a radical and caring space with youth to counteract the capitalist public, charter or private education systems that afflict most of us.
Over time, I learned that an autonomous community education will not be achieved through appealing to the paternalism of the private or public sector of education, but by reclaiming the resources and land that these institutions continue to steal from us. Thus far I have experienced two truly communal places of learning that have given me hope and proved to me that only we can provide the education we deserve.
A Taste of Liberatory Community-Based Education
When I moved to Oakland, California, from the east coast in 2014, I had just finished my undergraduate education, and knew I wanted to become an art teacher. In my early days in the city, I slowly started picking up caregiver gigs and after-school jobs to gain more experience working with youth. During this time, I worked at many places throughout Oakland — but I always came back to Qilombo, a Black community center on San Pablo Avenue, because it offered a powerful and grounded experience of what a radical and culturally rooted educational space can feel like at its very best.
Qilombo officially replaced a predominantly non-Black anarchist squat in 2014 after several Black organizers sought to remake the space to genuinely be for Black, Brown and Indigenous people in the neighborhood. Qilombo was a truly community-led squat — or reclamation of stolen land — where community members shared knowledge and taught each other for free. The center included literacy classes, Swahili classes, Maroon history classes, gardening classes, dance classes, yoga classes, poetry classes, community mural painting opportunities, 24/7 free food and clothing giveaways, spaces for community members to sleep if needed, chess competitions, a free space for other community groups to meet, an event space for really good punk shows and poetry readings, and even just a free place for people to be able to use the bathroom. It was a space where youth and adults could learn from each other and share experiences together.
In Qilombo’s space I saw 8-year-old children gleefully rap about their favorite snack foods to a joyful room of encouraging elders at all-age cyphers, and I saw unhoused community members cook up healthy vegetables from the garden. I also saw biological and chosen families strategize how to save the space. As so often happens to liberating, nourishing, invigorating community actions that occur without state approval, Qilombo soon came under attack: The City of Oakland came to put an end to the space, claiming that if the center didn’t come up with $1 million, the property would be taken because developers were trying to buy out and destroy all of the properties on the block to build more luxury condos. Under mounting pressure, tensions arose within the space. But ultimately, we can blame the city for destroying the best educational space that existed in Oakland in the 2010s.
A Demoralizing Experience of Public Schools Under Attack
Qilombo was my model for what genuine culturally sustaining education looks like, but I realized that I needed to support myself through work in other educational spaces until I could help to rebuild another space akin to it. That is how I came to experience firsthand the demoralizing denial of resources to the public school system.
During the 2018-2019 school year, I was a student teacher at an Oakland public high school where my cooperating teacher taught design and was very involved in the teachers’ union. Not only did she teach me all of her tricks of the art teaching trade, she also taught me the ins and outs of union membership.
That school year, the City of Oakland was considering closing up to 24 public schools within the next five years. In response, the Oakland teachers’ union went on strike. My cooperating teacher was instrumental in these strikes, and I got to spend student teaching days on the picket lines with her. We demanded an end to school closures; an increase in teachers’ pay by 12 percent over the following three years; lowering the cap for class sizes; more resources to special ed departments; hiring more school counselors; and an end to letting school administrations pay a small fine that allows them to not allocate all of the state funding to classrooms.
The last one particularly shocked me. I was student-teaching with old, slow computers in cramped, leaky portable classrooms that could barely hold the 31 students enrolled in the class. Next door was a portable classroom with 47 students in it — many of whom did not even have desks to sit at, just chairs. Meanwhile, school administrations across the city were pocketing money meant for classrooms and choosing to pay a fine instead of allocating the funds properly. The fines school admins paid were significantly less than the money they could decide not to provide to classrooms. It felt like a conspiracy to make public schools appear inadequate in order to have a reason to shut them down.
If you walked onto the campus of the Oakland public school where I was student-teaching, you could safely assume from seeing the hundreds of students and teachers striking together that the community was intent on the demands of the strike being met. On the seventh day of the strike, Oakland Education Association reps and the district announced that most of the striking teachers had agreed to a measly settlement, though no voting had yet taken place. The settlement proposed a meager raise that wouldn’t keep up with the cost of living, a class size cap of just one student fewer than before and a pause on school closures for five months. Most of the teachers on the picket lines were opposed to the settlement, but many had adopted a “But what about the children!?” rhetoric advocating that we settle and rush back into classrooms for the regularly scheduled under-resourced education. Two days later, about 70 percent of the Oakland teachers’ union attended a general meeting to vote on the settlement — 58 percent in attendance voted “yes” on the settlement and 42 percent voted “no.”
The following school week was humiliating. Students who had shown unwavering support for their teachers were disappointed in them. Teachers who had voted “no” on the settlement, including my cooperating teacher, seemed deflated. After so many months of organizing leading up to the strike, and seven glorious days of striking, the settlement was a loss for the students, families, staff and teachers who were fighting for so much more: for the well-being of themselves, their students and their schools. After the five-month pause, more and more Oakland public schools were closed. While gentrification has run many families out of Oakland, and while school boards like to frame this “mass exodus” as reason to close “extra” schools, the public school closures have resulted in students needing to travel across the city to other public and charter schools, where class sizes continue to grow and educational opportunities are cut to make space for displaced students. While it was empowering to be among teachers organizing collectively for the betterment of their jobs and schools, I felt their demands were misdirected at an educational system and state that will never deserve their love and labor.
A Firsthand Look at the Gross Exploitation of Charter School Teachers
My first official teaching job was an 11th grade Ethnic Studies and 12th grade U.S. Government and Economics teaching position at a charter school. I reluctantly signed my first teaching contract, which said that I could be fired without any warning or reason. Every day I scrambled to plan two different curricula from scratch, while facilitating three 90-minute Ethnic Studies classes some days and two 90-minute U.S. Government and Economics classes on the others, all packed with 25-30 students. On top of the hours and hours it took to plan and scaffold lessons, I was also grading, readjusting lessons and planning for advisory periods. I did not have my own classroom, so I spent most of my prep periods in the teachers’ lounge distracted by the teachers who came in every period to vent about their own teaching difficulties.
So far, everything was mostly fitting my expectations for what I thought a teaching career looked like. Then, in my fifth week on the job, the assistant principal of my school informed me that I was required by the charter to teach an additional 90-minute elective period, and since I had trained to be an art teacher, it would be a studio art elective. Thanks to my cooperating teacher the previous year, I knew that if I was in the teachers’ union, this would have been illegal. But because I was at a charter school, it was well within their right to overwork me, or simply fire me if I asserted my boundaries. Had the COVID pandemic not hit soon afterward and had the extra elective not been cut from remote learning, I would have definitely burnt out in my first year.
Oakland schools are caught in a vicious cycle: As public school administrators and local governments continue to neglect classrooms, the more public education suffers, the more likely the city is to shut down public schools, the more students charter schools cram into classrooms for more money, the more charter school teachers are exploited, and the more the workload and turnover rate of charter school teachers prevents them from being able to effectively unionize.
To unionize in the particular charter I work for, at least 50 percent of all teachers in the entire charter network — with schools spanning the state and beyond — need to agree to unionize. I don’t even know how to contact the hundreds of teachers I’ve never met before. As my enthusiasm for teaching waned, the city was closing more and more public schools in Oakland.
Ad Hoc Community Education Rises From the Ashes of School Closure
It wasn’t until May 2022 that I experienced another inspiring community-created educational space like what I had first seen at Qilombo.
That month, my housemate informed me of a community barbecue hosted by the teachers, mothers and students from the recently closed Oakland public school, Parker Elementary, which primarily served working-class Black and Brown youth. I decided to go to the barbecue with students from my charter school’s extracurricular queer and trans people of color (QTPOC) group, which I had started driving on weekly field trips to skate parks, workers rallies, fairs, cemeteries, and more.
I had heard about the elementary school’s closure and how school community members were occupying the grounds to demand the reopening of the school, but what I had heard did not at all measure up to what was actually happening at the Parker Community School.
When my students and I arrived at Parker, we were in absolute awe. Not only was the free food delicious, but the people had created a real community school, where teachers who had lost their jobs due to the school’s closure continued to teach core classes, but it was also a space where students provided other students art, dance and skateboarding lessons, anyone could participate in organizing daily free food giveaways, gardening workshops were provided, the library doors were unlocked, and the books bought with the community’s tax money were made accessible to the community. Anyone was welcome to strategize next steps to protect the school. Community members were fired up at the event — they talked about the inadequacies of the education the state was providing to our youth and how, given the resources and power, we could facilitate far more enriching places of learning.
An 8th grade student from our school was also in attendance at the event, and she was beaming when she told us about how after the city had shut down Parker, the school her little brother attended, she participated in the initial occupation — or reclamation — of the community school, and was even interviewed on local news and got to talk on TV about the city’s racist decision to take yet another resource from poor youth of color in Oakland.
As I listened to that student talk, I felt the light that had been ignited by Qilombo come alive again inside me. My students felt it too. We decided to stay for a security shift that night, and several nights to follow. On our first night, we were given ample instruction as to what we would do if police showed up at the school. My students and I agreed to the conditions of the security shift, then began our first tour of the school building. We couldn’t help but laugh so as to not cry as we marveled at how incredible the facility looked. We were coming from a charter school that boasts being better than public schools. A charter school that does not have a library, nor a gymnasium, nor a computer room, nor an adequate kitchen in the cafeteria, nor a field outside for sports. And there we were, at a public school the city deemed insufficient in serving its students, with an actual field outside, a legitimate kitchen and cafeteria, a computer room, a library and actual musical instruments for a music elective.
We roamed through the halls that were covered in bright and playful murals, munching on the free fresh bread we were offered by one of the mothers who helped start the reclamation of the school. After we grew tired of comparing how paltry the amenities at our school were in comparison to Parker, we sat with everyone else guarding the front door of the building. I saw someone I hadn’t seen since Qilombo had been stolen by the city, and we laughed about how we knew we were in the right place because we saw each other there. One of the mothers who started the reclamation and some other organizers talked openly about the fate of the community school. People wanted to keep Parker as a community school and also acknowledged that without enough community support, it would be difficult for the organizers who were starting to burn out to defend the school from the police officers and security guards that the Oakland Unified School District was sending to evict students and educators. Ultimately, the best bet was to demonstrate to the city how much better communities are at running schools than the state, while continuing to demand that the city reopen Parker Elementary as a public school.
During one evening security shift, a student from our charter school asked me to transcribe a speech she was asked to deliver at the 8th grade graduation at our school. In the written draft of her speech, she shared about how hard it was being one of the only Black students amongst a largely Latinx student body and she thanked the few Black staff members who supported her through the many anti-Black experiences she had at the school. When I saw her again, I asked her how her speech went and she told me that the white dean of students at our school edited her speech for her, removing all of the parts where she talked about her experience as a Black student. To be clear, the community school inspired this young Black scholar to critically observe her experience at her predominantly Latinx school, and the charter school censored her from sharing her scholarly insights with her school community.
Even though my students and I still had to attend our regularly scheduled schooling, the lessons learned during the hours we were able to dedicate to the community school were invaluable. One of my students had been having a tough year, putting up with emotional bullying from some of his elders, dealing with his mother’s serious health problems and trying his best to navigate the pressures put upon him to take care of his family members. His passion for school had been diminishing that year, and no amount of our “culturally responsive teaching” and counseling sessions seemed to be able to fully pull him out of his cloudy disposition toward life. I was elated to witness his disposition change as he participated in fighting for the Parker Community School.
On the day of the Bay Area Anarchist Bookfair, I went to pick this student up after a security shift at Parker, because he and another student from our school both wanted to pass out flyers encouraging book fair attendees to go to the upcoming school board meeting and demand Parker be reopened. After a night with little sleep, my student excitedly talked about what he learned during his security shift with a local poet. He said the poet taught him about “dialectical materialism,” and from what he remembered, it had to do with noticing the contradictions in our material conditions, and taking action based on what we notice.
While I had painstakingly planned in-depth lessons for his Ethnic Studies class — where my students examined capitalist society from various lenses, including a Marxist lens, and discussed and debated what kind of society and material conditions we deserve — clearly my student’s lesson on dialectical materialism was best learned in a truly radical environment, where the concepts did not entirely exist in a vacuum.
In the 21st century, U.S. school administrations are starting to implement professional development opportunities for teachers to learn ways of teaching that are not deficit-based, i.e., “what are students not doing,” “what do students not know” and “what are students lacking.” Ironically, however, school administrations and teachers themselves start every teacher meeting with “what are teachers not doing,” “what do teachers not know” and “what are teachers lacking.” Schools see their teachers through a deficit lens, in which the teachers and their instruction are the reason students are struggling in schools, when often it is the institutional structure of the home and the school that is rotten, at no fault of the educators and youth.
Rejuvenated by his late night with the poet, my student eagerly passed out flyers at the book fair, and told people all about Parker and the problems with school closures, and why they should attend the school board meeting. It was the happiest I had seen him in a while.
Confronting the School Board
The school board meetings were both inspiring and infuriating. It was infuriating to watch school board members look half asleep as community members cried and yelled and demanded that the lives of Oakland youth be valued, explaining that the closure of the school was a safety hazard that put students at risk of gun violence, as they would now have to walk at least 10 blocks across dangerous neighborhoods to attend other schools. But it was inspiring to see that regardless of how many weeping and pleading children the school board deigned to make eye contact with — continuing to refuse our demands — the spirit and energy of the community members at the school board meetings ceased to dwindle.
All of my students in the QTPOC group spoke up at the board meetings and were as poignant as ever. One student got on the mic and plainly told school board members that her school used to have a library and a computer lab, but because the school board continues to close more and more schools, the building no longer has either because it has had to make space for more core classrooms to accommodate the growing student body. It was a direct and logical argument.
My student who had recently learned about dialectical materialism got on the mic and shamed the board members for yawning and cutting the mics of the young Black students who cried in front of them because they had taken away their school. And then he started to list all of the amazing things that community members at Parker were doing, mentioning that one of the mothers would be leading a Parker Community School summer program.
While I was at home with COVID, I heard that security officers from Overall and Associates Security, Inc., representing the Oakland Unified School District showed up to a Parker security shift, inflicting violence on the community members at Parker and hospitalizing two of them. Once again, the violent pressure brought on by the state created tension and burnout in the community, and participation at the school became less robust, though community members still continued going to school board meetings. By October 2022, the school board voted to repurpose the building where Parker Elementary once was into a supposed “campus for adult and family program use.” The Parker community school space was already providing autonomous multigenerational programming, and the city’s decree is likely to install a do-nothing nonprofit “for the community” in name only.
Meanwhile, thanks to the tireless efforts of Oakland community organizers, on January 11, 2023, the school board voted not to close 6 of the 11 schools that were slated for closure. Class sizes in Oakland continue to be overfilled, the schools that teachers fought to keep open during the 2019 teacher’s strike were closed, and Parker Elementary remains closed, but this small win amid a sea of losses is due to teachers, organizers, students and family members who have continuously fought to keep schools open and make them better.
In my experience as an educator, I’ve seen that charter schools could never be better than public schools, because decision-making in charter schools prioritizes profit, and unions are harder to form and sustain. I’ve also seen the ways in which closing any schools hurts communities.
What gives me hope, as I struggle to stave off the teacher burnout, is that the best educational environments I’ve experienced are those where organizers take back spaces for the community with explicitly anti-capitalist, anti-property objectives. When we organize to make demands from the state or from the private sector for what we deserve, there are many small victories worth acknowledging, but the biggest wins come when we take what is ours.