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Ripples from the Oakland teacher strike

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Oakland Education Association president Keith Brown addresses picketing teachers at Manzanita Community School and Manzanita SEED, two Oakland Unified School District schools that share a campus in the Fruitvale neighborhood. (Courtesy Alec MacDonald)

There is something about us humans that enjoys throwing a pebble into a pond. Perhaps we enjoy seeing something so small as a pebble create ripples that elegantly undulate outwards.

We in Oakland have been tossing pebbles into a pond. The pond I’m referring to is Oakland Unified School District (OUSD). One of the pebbles tossed into this pond launched a series of ripples that we refer to as the “Oakland teacher strike.” Even on this eve where a tentative agreement has been met by the district and the union, the reality is that this particular moment is beyond that of a fight and victory for worker rights. We have to move beyond a moment where the goal is “if we strike, we win” and to an orientation of widespread, sustained movement.

The teacher strike is but one ripple in the pond, and we should certainly celebrate the significance of this victory. But the strike is not a movement unless there is authentic movement beyond the strike. Otherwise, the strike was a ripple. The movement must be a comprehensive fight about public education.

Having worked in different capacities within the field of education for 20 years, I was uniquely positioned for this particular series of ripples. While I have been known to be a teacher, school leader, a coach/teacher of teachers and school leaders, and a critical scholar, for this fight, I mostly engaged it as a parent of school-aged children in Oakland schools.

My partner and I have two children. Our daughter, Mayarí, attends Melrose Leadership Academy. Davao, our son, attends the Rice and Beans Preschool Cooperative, which is housed within Roosevelt Middle School. Both Melrose and Roosevelt are district schools. In just this scenario, there were at least 5 ripples created: 1) Mayarí not attending classes at Melrose, 2) Mayarí and Davao being on the picket line each morning, 3) Mayarí attending a “solidarity” learning space (aka “solidarity school”), 4) Davao’s preschool being moved each day of the strike from Roosevelt Middle to a small room within a church 3 miles away, and 5) Davao’s entire preschool community adjusting (while growing more fatigued from the disruption to their usual routines) to the new space.

But let us briefly depart from the teacher strike and return to ripples. When we throw a pebble into the pond, we tend to pay attention to the first few ripples – the ones that seem the largest. But if we skip pebbles or throw multiple rocks into the pond at once, the ripples not only magnify, they interact with other ripples creating new, unexpected undulations. But how much are we noticing the impact on the entire ecosystem of the pond?

There have been countless ripples that us Town folks have been both creating and navigating lately.

On the first day of the strike, a group of over thirty OUSD Principals went to Sacramento to lobby policy makers, including State Superintendent Tony Thurman, for increased state funding for public education.

Countless parents and community members took turns coordinating or volunteering to support a solidarity learning space.

Some parents organized to bring the strike to the Elihu M. Harris State Building in downtown Oakland. Parents, children, and other community members took over the lobby to call attention to this fight.

Recently, 4 other school districts expressed solidarity through a “sick out.” This meant that participating teachers took a sick day and attended strike-related events. Rallies have included local community-engaged celebrities such as Mister F.A.B., Kamau Bell, and Boots Riley to show support. Outside of rallies, other local celebrities such as Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs of the film, Blindspotting, publicly expressed teacher support on social media. The support seemed unprecedented.

But there have been countless ripples. Some, however, have not been as elegant as these people-power narratives just mentioned.

Other ripples included parents who did not had the luxury to take “sick days” to be a part of solidarity learning spaces, let alone trust who watched the children in those spaces in the first place. Some African American parents expressed outrage at the very message that told them they should not send their children to school. Those parents reminded us of how this country once made it illegal to go to school, let alone learn to read. I heard others ask the question, “Teachers have been failing my children for years, so what’s more money going to do when they weren’t holding it down before?” Then there were the stories of the harassment, psychic violation, and challenges to one’s human dignity that some experienced throughout the strike.

There have been countless ripples. But rather than provide more stories that speak to the complexity of what we have been facing, I challenge us to move beyond the binary of teachers versus the district or even district schools versus charter schools. Without doubt, there are still issues of exploitation to contend with between teachers and the district. Without doubt, there are serious issues with the system of privatizing schools, but these are still ripples. When we only pay attention to the ripples, we can easily get caught up in riding them, especially the big ones that garner the most attention. What then happens, we neglect the other ripples created, which are no less important.

Then again, if we only pay attention to the ripples, we can be shortsighted. When we swim in the water navigating turbulence long enough, we can forget that we are in water in the first place. The water, no matter how unhealthy, starts to seem invisible. The ripples start to seem natural. I recently heard about a child coming to tears and asking his father, “When will things get back to normal?”

This saddened me, not only because of how the strike and its ripples were wearing down our children, but because it assumed that “normal” was good in the first place. In her self-titled book, Assata, she says “People get used to anything. The less we think about our oppression, the more our tolerance for it grows.”

So if we’re talking about rocks being thrown into a pond, I want to throw out some by asking, who threw out the first rock? What are the conditions of the pond in the first place? What are the foundational, yet often hidden, beliefs that created the ecosystem that contains the pond in the first place?

When we talk about demands like a retroactive salary increase, reducing the class size limit, increasing the amount of counselors and school nurses, or challenging the closure of schools in our most marginalized neighborhoods, are we only focused on what exists in the pond right now? Now that a tentative agreement has been reached, when teachers and students go back to school next week, and parents go back to their regular work schedule, and community members stop volunteering at solidarity learning spaces, and the news moves onto the next thing to sensationalize, how do we move beyond the ripples of this pond? I urge us to continue to ask, what made (and continues to make) the pond the way it is in the first place? Then let’s “strike” on that.

This morning, like the previous 6 days of the strike, I took Mayarí and Davao to the picket lines and then to their solidarity learning spaces. But I did so thinking about the long haul in mind. The Oakland teacher strike was but one ripple of many ripples that we in Oakland have been navigating for decades. If we really want to fight for public education, we have to look at the whole ecosystem and beyond creating more ripples in the same pond.

Dr. G.T. Reyes lives in “the Town” with his partner and 2 beautiful children and is committed to improving urban education. He is also an Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership at California State University, East Bay.

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