Oakland school board representative Nikita Mitchell gives a voice to students

Nikita Mitchell smiling

OUSD School Board Student Director Nikita Mitchell, 16, takes a break in downtown Oakland.

Oakland School Board student representative Nikita Mitchell is a person who knows what she wants in life, and getting lunch is no exception. She doesn’t even glance at the pink paper menu as she saunters into the Hawaiian Walk-in restaurant in downtown Oakland, and orders her usual: chicken katsu with two scoops of rice and macaroni salad. The narrow walls of the restaurant are lined with faded pastel-hued posters of palm trees and rainbows, matching a little too much with the rose-pink paint and not enough with the blood-red carpeting. Mitchell estimates that she has eaten here over 50 times in the past three years—more, if you include all the massive take-out orders that she has picked up for the student meetings she has led.

Mitchell, 16, thunks a heavy-looking novel onto the table as she sits down, explaining that she has an English essay due in two days. “My family calls me ‘The Book Reader.’ That’s my title,” she says. “They gave me a hard time about it at first, but now they accept that that’s who I am.”

Mitchell, a senior at Oakland Technical High School, is just getting started in her role as the 2010-2011 All-City Council student representative on the Oakland school board. Like the adult school board directors, Mitchell makes recommendations, attends meetings, and reports back to the community she represents—all the middle and high school youth in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD). Unlike her adult counterparts, however, Mitchell has no official voting power on the school board, a fact that she considers a minor detail in her mission to make sure the voice of the district’s students is heard.

Despite her young age, Mitchell is hardly a novice when it comes to community matters. For the past three years, she has worked for Youth Together, an organization that promotes educational justice issues at several local high schools. She also recently began an internship for the Alliance for Educational Justice, a national youth policy organization. In all of her roles, Mitchell has promoted a common string of issues, including discipline policy reform and culturally competent teaching.

As Mitchell talks enthusiastically about her work, easily rolling off terms like “restorative justice,” and “A-G requirements” between bites of her lunch, it’s difficult to imagine her as anything other than the picture of success that she presents today. But those closest to her know that behind that winning smile and wide brown eyes is a young woman who has worked hard to overcome personal hardships in her school, home, and community.

“She is a voice for her people in those difficult places, and she has been able to go places that not all of her people can go,” said Sagnicthe Salazar, Mitchell’s mentor at Youth Together. “She can change her voice and her behavior. She’s learned to code switch to get people to listen.”

Although Mitchell describes herself as “just a normal teenager,” Salazar has a different perspective. “Nikita is wise beyond her years,” she said. “Her family and her community have played an interesting role in her life. They’ve shown her hella love and hella support, but have also served as a challenge. That’s the perspective she takes into her work.”

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Nikita Mitchell was born and raised in East Oakland, where her mother had also been brought up as a child. She was her father’s youngest child—he already had four children from a previous relationship—and her mother’s oldest. Mitchell’s parents divorced when she was 3 years old, and Mitchell continued to live with her mother and grandmother near the San Leandro BART station. Her mother later remarried and had another daughter, Bobbie Nicole, now 10, whom Mitchell affectionately refers to as “sister.”

As a child, Mitchell had an independent and adventurous streak. When she was 9, Mitchell remembers, she once took marbles from a vase of her mother’s and sold them at school, reinvesting half her profits to buy more marbles and the other half to get candy at the corner store.

“It didn’t shock me at all when I found out,” said Allison Bosley, Mitchell’s mother. “Nikita has a good head on her shoulders. She saw an honest way to make a dollar, and she went for it. It was good entrepreneurship.”

Although Mitchell can’t remember what her grades were like in elementary school, she liked school and was always interested in learning something new.

Despite her outward confidence, Mitchell, who is African-American and grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood, struggled with issues of race and identity. “A lot of black youth have no idea what black identity is like,” she said. “When I was 6 or 7, I went through a phase where I thought I was Mexican. I thought their lives were better, so I imitated the way they dressed, the way they talked. I didn’t speak Spanish, but I tried to make it up. ”

By middle school, Mitchell was struggling socially and academically. As she grew older, Mitchell began to spend more of time with her older cousins and friends, whom she describes as being frequently in trouble. She began drinking alcohol at age 11, cutting school and smoking marijuana.

“Middle school was life-changing, but horrible,” she said. “I had such low self-esteem that I didn’t analyze anything. I just went with the flow.”

Mitchell’s relationship with her family also became more strained during those years. “Eighth grade was her worst school year,” said Bosley. “Maybe it was because I was going through situations with my husband, and dealing with her father and trying to get him to be a part of her life. That probably put some mental stress on her.”

More than anything, Bosley recalls her concern for her daughter. “I wanted to know what was going on with her,” she said. “Was it boys? Drugs? Things just started running through my mind. A few times I snapped. I didn’t know how to communicate with her. I was so worried.”

“I felt like I was two different people,” Mitchell said. “Adolescent means ‘lost person.’ You don’t know who you are, but you think you do.”

Mitchell began to reevaluate her life after a few close calls with violence in 8th grade—she remembers a neighbor shooting at a couple having a violent argument outside of her aunt’s house, and having to stay still in the hope that a stray bullet would not hit her.  “It scared the mess out of me,” Mitchell said. “I stepped back and thought, ‘This isn’t normal. Is this really my life?’”

In 9th grade, Mitchell began attending Oakland Technical High School in North Oakland, leaving her childhood friends behind in East Oakland. Despite liking her classes, such as freshman biology, Mitchell had a difficult time adjusting academically and relating to other students. “They wanted me to sit and read the book,” Mitchell said. “But I didn’t know how to transition from doing no work to doing work. I was also one of only two black kids in my classes. I didn’t fit in.”

Mitchell also had a difficult time interacting with one of her instructors, who didn’t know how to handle her style of communicating. Mitchell had been raised to be honest and opinionated, and did not have trouble expressing her thoughts when she felt an adult needed to hear some advice. To her, being respectful meant not swearing; it did not mean remaining silent when something had to be said.

“I had a student teacher that fall, and there was a personality conflict between them,” said Kathy Keeran, Mitchell’s 9th grade biology teacher. “He wasn’t on top of his game, and she was outspoken about it. It was a rocky relationship.”

By the end of 9th grade, Mitchell was anxious for a change of scene, and, despite her mother’s protests, transferred to the East Oakland School of the Arts (EOSA) at the Castlemont Federation of Small Schools. Her mother, aunt, and cousins are all Castlemont alumni. At EOSA, teachers of color inspired Mitchell to talk about her issues around race and identity. “I remember our teacher had us read A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn,” said Mitchell. “It really spoke to me. I started to see myself differently. I became proud of being a black person.”

Mitchell forged close relationships with her teachers, often engaging in lively discussions with them during class time. “As an adult, you sometimes get caught up in being right,” said Earl N. Crawford Jr. Mitchell’s former 11th grade English Language Arts teacher. “We didn’t always see eye to eye, but she was there to push me to be a better teacher. She reminded me that students can be the ones who give you a lesson in life.”

Mitchell’s grades skyrocketed at EOSA, and she gained confidence in her abilities. “I found out I was brilliant,” Mitchell said, laughing.

During her sophomore year, Mitchell also began to get involved with community organizing. She noticed a sign for an after-school meeting for an organization called Youth Together, which focuses on education justice issues. The sign also advertised that there would be free pizza, so Mitchell decided to attend. “We did an ethnic studies workshop where we talked about cultural bias and the history of racial oppression,” said Sagnicthe Salazar, Mitchell’s future mentor, who was present during that very first meeting. “Nikita got very emotional. She shared with me that her aunt practiced traditional African healing methods, but she had had a negative perspective on it because of the prejudices that were taught in society. She got really angry about that.”

For Mitchell, the meeting threw a new light on a lot of her personal experiences. “I had been treated badly by people, but I always thought it was just about that individual,” she said. “I thought to myself, ‘Wait, my whole life has been like this,’ and I made the connection. I had experienced racism and sexism, but I just never knew the name.”

The most emotional aspect of Mitchell’s realization was thinking about discrimination’s impact on her own family. “My sister is darker than I am,” said Mitchell. “I asked myself, ‘If I don’t dismantle sexist and racist institutions now, what will my sister experience in the next five years?”

At the end of that first meeting, Mitchell approached Salazar and asked her how she could change the world. Salazar replied that it was something they would all work toward together.

For the next three years, Mitchell worked with Youth Together at Castlemont. She eventually became the lead strategic organizer for the group, championing a school district-wide initiative to encourage alternatives to punitive disciplinary policies, such as suspension, expulsion, and incarceration. Mitchell felt that youth who had committed offenses, such as fighting at school or cutting class, should have the chance to learn about how their choices affect others by participating in counseling and community service, rather than through punishments that do not make the connection between self and surroundings. The initiative, which she continues to work on, is ongoing.

Mitchell’s own experiences made her particularly passionate about the initiative—she was haunted by an incident in 7th grade when a boy she secretly liked told her that he thought she hated him because she had been so mean to him,. “When I was young, I didn’t think about others’ feelings,” she said. “It took time for me to see how my actions affected others. I’ve known youth who’ve gone to jail, and it hasn’t done them any good. People need to realize that it’s not the people that are wrong, it’s the situation that’s wrong.”

Mitchell’s mother believes her daughter has changed a lot since her middle school days. “Nikita has really matured,” Bosley said. “She listens more. She doesn’t always have the answers, but now she will occasionally take others’ advice.”

Salazar added that Nikita has found the confidence she lacked as younger person. “The biggest difference between then and now is that she understands her power,” she said. “She understands that she is setting an example for the people who watch her. She is a role model. After a workshop, you see young people go up to her and tell her how much they admire her.”

Mitchell’s work with Youth Together eventually led her to other community organizing groups, including the Alliance for Educational Justice and the All-City Council, which serves as the governing body for middle and high school students within OUSD. At the end of the last school year, her fellow students in All-City Council, which is comprised of two students from each middle and high school in the district, elected Mitchell to be the district’s 2010 Student School Board member. Mitchell had to campaign for the position by making speeches alongside the other nominees. “I was a little nervous at first because of the time commitment,” Mitchell said, “but I believe in representing the opinions of my peers.”

For Mitchell, the time commitment includes attending bi-monthly school board meetings, which begin at 5 pm, and can often go later than 10 pm. On those nights, Mitchell does her best to complete her homework in the hour between the school day’s end and the beginnings of her preparations for the school board meeting at 3:30 pm. “Sunday is my sleep day,” Mitchell says.

Although she has no voting power on the school board, as the voice of the district’s students, Mitchell can make recommendations to other school board members. She takes her job seriously.

“It’s my job to persuade the directors to listen to the student vote,” Mitchell said.

Eric Adams, the former student school board representative for All-City Council and Mitchell’s close friend, had special advice for Mitchell on her non-voting role. “You’re there to raise hell,” he told her. “That’s your job.”

Mitchell continues to develop the issues that she’ll champion as the student voice of the school board, but says that in general she plans to hold the board accountable for its promises to students. “The economic downturn can easily be viewed as an excuse to cut programs, but we can’t just sit on the resolutions that have already been passed,” she said. “Students in Oakland know what it’s like to have to make something out nothing. They know how to maximize their resources, and the district needs to do the same thing.”

Mitchell is grateful to have found support in her fellow school board directors. For example, School Board President Gary Yee sat down with Mitchell and helped her go through Superintendant Tony’s Smith’s education plan so that she would be prepared to talk about the district’s direction in future meetings. Director Alice Spearman offered some of her office space for Mitchell to work in. “Everyone is being really nice, but it’s still a transition,” Mitchell said. “It’s a very formal setting. I’m used to wearing jeans, not microphones.”

But Mitchell does feel prepared to express her opinions in a professional manner, a message she hopes to promote with her fellow directors.

“I do not give up my opinion unless I’m given a logical reason,” Mitchell said. “I watched school board meetings last year. I didn’t like the cussing. That’s not my style. I’m working on patience. I’ll be there to help people calm down.”

***

Mitchell has finished her chicken katsu, and she neatly slides the remnants of her meal, in its clear plastic container, off to the side of the table near the bottles of soy sauce and sriracha. She has to leave in a few minutes so she can finish her book. “It’s for our summer reading,” she says. “I was still at Castlemont then, so I only started it last week. I’ll get it done, though. It’s all part of switching to a new school.”

Just a few weeks ago, Mitchell made the decision to switch from EOSA back to Oakland Technical High School. Mitchell had been allowed to take the most advanced English Language Arts classes at EOSA as a junior, leaving her short on the four years of English outlined by the state requirements which students must fulfill to be eligible to attend college within the UC or Cal State system.

“It was hard to leave Castlemont,” she says. “They were my people there. It’s not like I can’t find people to relate to at Tech, but I was determined to graduate from Castlemont and show people that I could go to college. I’m still feel like I proved you can succeed there, but that would have been really meaningful to me.”

In the future, Mitchell sees herself as—above all—a high school and college graduate. She could envision herself working as a diplomat, and sees a special appeal in studying international relations. “I want to encompass the things I have learned about healing harms, educating folks, and changing stereotypes,” she says.

Mitchell is anxious to see changes to society and the education system, particularly for the sake of those around her. She would like to see more academic counselors and quality teachers in OUSD schools, less school violence, and more support programs for youth.

“Kids need a place to blow off steam, get family counseling and job placement,” she says. “There are a lot of issues going on with people’s families, and they need a place that understands that and gives them options in life.”

Family is an ongoing inspiration for Mitchell, who is sometimes described as her sister’s “other mama.” “I hate to think of my sister having to go through the things I went through,” Mitchell. “She is adventurous, which makes me nervous because she reminds me of me, but she’s a good kid. I take her to [Youth Together] with me all the time. I want to show her what you can do with your life.”

Mitchell’s mother said Bobbie Nicole has been preparing for Mitchell to go to college. “She wants to go with Nikita,” Bosley said. “The other day, Bobbie was practicing fitting herself in a suitcase. They really love each other. I know we’ll all cry when Nikita goes off to college, but it’s because we’re so proud of her. ”

Mitchell is making new friends and working hard at Oakland Tech, but she hasn’t abandoned her roots at Castlemont. She hopes to continue to work there as part of her organizing role with Youth Together. “I don’t want to forget where I come from,” says Mitchell. “That’s my biggest fear. I’m looking forward to learning something new at my Tech, but I don’t want people there to look at me and think I’ve always had it easy. It took me a long time to figure that where I come from is something I want to take with me wherever I go.”

Four years after she first came to Oakland Tech, Mitchell now finds herself once again in biology class—AP biology this time—but with the same teacher as in 9th grade. However, it is a very different Mitchell returning to the classroom.

“This time,” she says, “I know failure is not an option.”

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