“Just looking at the data, it’s very clear that African American students, families, and educators need and deserve targeted support,” said Iminah Ahmad, co-founder and program director for the Office of African American Female Excellence at Oakland Unified School District (OUSD).
On September 16, OUSD held a Racial Justice, Equity, and Healing summit, inviting all of its staff, families, student leaders, and community partners to learn about ways to strengthen their support for Black students. Ahmad explained that the summit served to spark conversation, educate participants on antiracism, and celebrate Black culture and achievement specifically within OUSD, hoping to continue the fight for Black community members needs to be met.
The summit, held on OUSD’s staff development day, occurred mostly on Zoom, ending in a Black Joy Celebration. The online portion contained workshops, which aimed to educate and inspire faculty, covering topics like the four C’s of anti-Blackness, the n-word, and empowering Black students. The ending celebration included performances, games, and catering from student chefs. “It was really beautiful,” Ahmad said.
The majority of participants were faculty and families, who looked to serve the students through educating themselves. Ahmad noted that after looking at feedback forms, many participants had breakthroughs, inspiring possible future change in classroom policies and a better overall understanding of dynamics surrounding Black members of OUSD.
“I really want to see (Black students) feeling like they have a real place in this district, they are seeing their value, feeling like they are heard, they are supported, and that their schools are a place for them,” said Ahmad.
This summit was the first OUSD has ever had specifically targeted towards the Black community, and may even be the first of its kind nationally. It was made possible by OUSD’s unique and extensive Office of Equity, which spans the school district and contains targeted initiatives for underserved groups like African American Female Excellence, Latino Student Achievement, Arab Asian Pacific Islander Student Achievement, and LGBTQ+ Programs. The Office of Equity was founded in 2016; its initiative of origin was OUSD’s African American Male Achievement (AAMA) initiative, founded in 2010. Last year, a new position was created for a Racial Justice Coordinator, who will focus on implementing racial justice and equity throughout OUSD.
According to Jamal Muhammad, targeted strategies specialist for OUSD’s AAMA initiative, Oakland schools have a history of systemic racism, causing disproportionate damage to its Black students. “Unfortunately, the conditions that produce the need for an Office of Equity are there,” Muhammad explained. “But at the same time, years of grassroots organizing, community activism, and a fight for justice has created people that can answer the call.”
The combination of an intense need for racial justice intervention within OUSD and a history of activism created a sort of perfect storm that provided a push for a revolutionary program to be created.
“This is a continuation of the legacy Oakland has,” said Ahmad, explaining that decades of advocacy for Black students by groups and figures like the Black Panther Party and Superintendent Marcus Foster have led to the current well-developed Office of Equity in OUSD.
“I personally can attest to the power of being able to have a class full of Black boys,” said Muhammad regarding AAMA, which has created elective classes and programs across OUSD specifically for Black male students. AAMA focuses on fostering a “positive cultural identity” and education surrounding Black men’s “innate excellence” within its students. Muhammad said that AAMA students have expressed an appreciation for the space the classes provide to just be themselves, and receive love and support. “(Students in AAMA) get a sense of cultural pride, identity, love, support, engagement, encouragement, and empowerment,” Muhammad said.
OUSD’s Office of Equity is unique, and according to Ahmad and Muhammad, likely the only of its kind in the country. Because they are pioneering the work that they are doing, there is always room to improve. “We’ve still got work to do, in terms of increasing our presence across OUSD, especially in terms of policy around suspension,” Muhammmad said. He explained that a main concern of the Office of Equity currently is the disproportionate rate of suspension and absences among Black students specifically, as well as other marginalized groups.
“I would say (working within the Office of Equity has been) the most rewarding eight years of my professional life,” Muhammad said. “It’s been an honor, and it’s been humbling as well, because there’s things I had to unlearn and relearn. … I don’t think there’s anything more valuable than this type of work.”
In terms of the future, OUSD is on track to have summits in January and June.
“What we’re doing with the summit, with my office, with the Office of Equity, is institutionalizing the change. … We’re making this a core part of how our district operates, and that’s something that I would love to see across the country and around the world,” Ahmad said, explaining the value of institutionalized change over just conversations and workshops. “White supremacy was institutionalized into these systems, and racism was institutionalized. So the changes and the antidote to that need to be institutionalized as well.”