Amid protests and hunger strikes against Oakland’s school closures, the community is raising concerns about racism and classism


By Kimberly Bajarias

OAKLAND, California– On February 9, the Oakland Board of Education made a disheartening decision to close seven schools over the next two years over allegedly low enrollment and budget problems. In addition to protests and hunger strikes, community members organized in front of the California State Building on February 17 to demand that schools remain open, raising concerns about the vulnerability and impact on the education of Black and Brown communities.

Natalie Gallegos Chavez, director of the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) student council, encouraged community solidarity and youth advocacy, proudly calling the children “little leaders.” Speaking about her community in Oakland in general, she said “These are my people, this is my community and I represent them.”

During the education committee meeting to vote on the school closures plan, Gallegos Chavez acknowledged that the board was voting to close predominantly black and brown schools in February — Black History Month. Many of the schools have a majority of black students, and voting against the formation of black communities fueled tensions in race and class relations.

“We have two teachers who are on a hunger strike for our students right now, and they are risking their lives for us,” noted Gallegos Chavez, Referring to Westlake Middle School teachers Maurice André San-Chez and Moses Olanrewaju Omolade.

On February 19, despite Omolade’s recent hospitalization, teachers will enter the 19th day of their hunger strike. At the special session of the Education Committee on February 18, principals decided against postponing school closures, prompting community members, teachers and even students to go on their own hunger strikes.

Board members VanCedric Williams and Mike Hutchinson, who voted against the school closure plan, are allies of the community protests. According to Gallegos Chavez, “They have always been there to fight for us and they always listen to us.”

When asked about the future of school closures in the Oakland community, Gallegos Chavez said that “it’s a story that sadly keeps repeating itself.” Last year, the Board of Education tried to close schools but granted an extension due to recovery from COVID-19. Their elementary school was merged in 2007.

“Our youth and community, they’re always fighting for each other,” Gallegos Chavez said of Oakland’s strength.

Community members like Sarah Wheels, a fifth-grade teacher at Piedmont Avenue Elementary School, are doing just that. Her school is unaffected by the closures, but she protested Feb. 17 in solidarity.

“This isn’t the first time they’ve tried to close schools since I’ve been working in the district and I haven’t been working here that long,” Wheels said.

Like other community members, Wheels noted that “it’s really racist and classist,” referring to institutionalized racism and gentrification through the closure of predominantly black and brown schools. One of the goals of the community protests is to steer black and brown communities into fighting to keep schools open. Many students from these communities come from underprivileged backgrounds, and the closures have raised concerns about finance, transportation and finding new schools.

While Wheels acknowledges that “it’s really tough being a teacher in Oakland right now,” she notes that the teachers “went out on strike a few years ago. It looks like we’re going out again.”

Many non-Oakland residents also protested on February 17, such as Aidan ByrneSarno and Eden Sharma. Both expressed disappointment with the education authority, the harassment of blacks and browns, and the privatization of public resources.

“It was very common for governments to close public schools or take money from them and put them in either charter schools or private schools,” Sharma said.

ByrneSarno added, “There have been so many attacks across the country and I think this is essentially the result of trying to privatize the education of billionaires trying to make a profit.”

Many of the speakers at the February 17 protest raised the idea that the Oakland Board of Education has provided little to no feedback, transparency, or explanation. The board directors who voted to close the schools attributed their decision to falling enrollments and financial concerns. however, opposing board members claim this as lies.

As of this writing, parents are threatening to remove their children from the school district, and community members are doing so Start petitions to dismiss board members who voted to close.

Kimberly Bajarias is a sophomore at the University of California, Berkeley.


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