Otis R. Taylor Jr. sees students learning power of protest.
Lauren Kahn was a sophomore at Oakland Technical High School in November 2016 when she watched students stand up and walk out of class to protest the election of our president.
That was the first Lauren had heard of a walkout. Two years later, the 17-year-old senior, who is in her final semester of high school, is helping plan the protests that are emptying her school’s classrooms.
“Quite honestly, it’s not the most difficult thing to convince students to skip school,” Lauren told me last week during a break from planning a recent protest. “Students have been pretty eager, especially if you can give them a really solid justification why they’re doing it.”
This week marks a year since a gunman killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Valentine’s Day. The heartbreaking tragedy sparked student activism across the country. In recent weeks, Oakland Tech students have been protesting to support the Oakland Unified School District teachers.
Teachers are threatening to strike if the school district doesn’t meet their contract demands for higher salaries and smaller classrooms. On Jan. 18, teachers who called in sick or took a personal day gathered in front of Oakland Tech on their way to the school district’s offices. Hundreds of Oakland Tech students walked out and joined the protest.
On Feb. 1, Oakland Tech students organized another walkout. And just a week later, dozens of students skipped school for a “sickout.” And they were joined by students from other Oakland schools.
For almost a year, I’ve been watching a fantastic trend brew at Oakland Tech’s protests: The protests are being organized and led by
As students marched along Broadway on Friday, girls held the giant banner at the front of the march. Girls held megaphones used to lead the chants as people stepped out of offices, car dealerships and construction sites on Broadway to watch the students pass.
“No matter how many teachers you don’t like or how many bad experiences you’ve had, you can’t deny everything teachers do for students,” Caroline Pers told me. “It’s so much more than just a day job.”
I met Caroline, a sophomore, while reporting on the national walkout against gun violence in the wake of the Parkland shooting. As a freshman, she helped organize the March protest. Last week, Caroline and Ivelisse Diaz, a junior, met me at a coffee shop across the street from campus.
Their Mock Trial team had won the night before, and they proudly pointed out that five of the eight attorneys on the team are girls. Right now, there’s a record number of women serving in Congress. I asked Ivelisse and Caroline, both 16, if their activism is a response to the policies and actions of the demagogue who invaded the White House.
“One hundred percent,” Caroline said without hesitation. “November of 2016 was a really big eye-opener for a lot of people. It definitely sparked something.”
Seeing the Parkland students share their stories in front of large crowds inspired Ivelisse to do the same. Lauren, Caroline and Ivelisse are girls who understand their power. I support them tapping into it.
“People like ourselves are seeing the kind of damage that men like Trump do, the kind of ignorance that makes him do terrible things,” Ivelisse said. “We have to make more of an effort to try and undo the wrongs of the past, because there’s so many.”
Last week, Oakland teachers voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike. The vote allows union leaders to call a strike after a neutral fact-finder presents their report, which is expected Friday.
“The fact that they don’t get more fairly compensated is outrageous,” Ivelisse said.
For Friday’s sickout, Lauren recruited students from other schools using social media apps including Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter to spread the word. She told me students from Oakland High School, Skyline High School, Madison Park Academy, MetWest High School and Coliseum College Prep Academy marched with Oakland Tech students.
The state of California funds school districts in part based on student attendance, also known as average daily attendance. If a student is marked absent, the district loses money.
“The sickout is going to demonstrate, not just to the district but to the state government, that students actually do have significant power in these negotiations and that we’re willing and able to use it,” Lauren said. “What we want to do with that momentum is establish ourselves in the negotiating process and even help the district appeal to the state for more funding.”
Oakland Technical High School students support their teachers rallying for higher pay and smaller classes.
Carlita Landrum of Oakland Tech rallies with her classmates as they march to call attention to their teachers who are threatening to strike.
Oakland Technical High School students march on Broadway in support of teachers threatening to strike.