Oakland Unified celebrates its 10th biannual ManUp! Conference
on February 9, 2015
The auditorium of Oakland High School was filled with warmth on Saturday morning as about 150 African American boys and young men trickled in from the dew and rain. First-timers took a while to say goodbye to their parents while the returning bunch pounded fists and clapped hands murmuring “Hey, brother” or “Hey, young king” as they entered.
The beating of drums pounded underneath the low hums of chit chat and breakfast clatter as Jahi, the program manager for the Oakland school district’s African American Male Achievement (AAMA) program, who goes by one name, stepped to the front of the room—mic in hand—and announced “Welcome to the 10th biannual ManUp! Can we give it up for ten? This is number ten.” The students, many of them still wearing sleepy faces, began to clap their hands.
Saturday’s ManUp! Conference bought in students from throughout the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), from elementary to high school. The students did goal-setting activities, exercised, met with African American male role models, and learned about what it means to be a man from workshops, dialogue, and interaction with their “brothers.” For many this was the first AAMA and ManUp! Conference they attended.
Oakland’s AAMA office opened in 2010 with the goal of combating the systematic and epidemic failure of African American males in the school district. African Americans make up 30 percent of the OUSD’s population. The office developed the Manhood Development Program (MDP), classes through which students are mentored by male African American instructors.
The first ManUp! Conference was held in 2005, prior to AAMA’s opening. Christopher Chatmon, who is now the executive director of AAMA, attended the event and found it to be important for the community. “The first ManUp! conference was kind of hosted by Asa Academy, which just closed [in 2009]. When the school closed, ManUp! kind of died,” said Chatmon. “I was really more of a community supporter and my sons went through it. So when Asa closed and ManUp! came and went, I was like, ‘We need ManUp! to continue.’”
So in 2010, with the support of the Bay Area chapter of 100 Black Men, the National Equity Project, and sponsorship by Honda of Oakland, Chatmon and a few others pulled together his first ManUp! conference. That October, Chatmon became the executive director of AAMA and made the conference a direct extension of the program, which also includes the MDP and increasing parent engagement in the school system. The program has gained national attention and is now looked to as a model for other school districts. Since its inception, the program has served 450 students across 17 elementary, middle, and high schools. (You can read more of Oakland North’s coverage of AAMA here.)
After an opening speech by Jahi and Chatmon, the conference attendees broke into smaller groups to attend workshops on topics like digital storytelling and how to dress for and attend formal events. The day also featured an early morning group activity with artist and advocate STIC, from the hip hop group Dead Prez, and performances by Bay Area and nationally-recognized poets whose art focused on African American history.
Poetry from the Young, Gifted, and Talented performance troupe echoed throughout the auditorium, reminding the crowd of great African American ancestors, warriors, and artists. Spoken word artist Amir Sulaiman left the crowd in awe with an electrifying piece about the recent deaths of young African American males killed by police officers. “Maybe I am overreacting, maybe seeing black dead babies shouldn’t phase me. But it does, it does! Are we not flesh and bone? Are we not minds and souls?” asked Sulaiman.
Though this was Metwest High School junior Toussaint Stone’s first time at the ManUp! Conference, he has participated in MDP and AAMA events for the past two years and is currently an intern at AAMA. He says he has noticed the positive change in his life since he joined the program and that his parents are grateful for the opportunities that AAMA has brought him. “My parents think this is a very big opportunity for me,” said a smiling Toussaint in front of a sign that read “Empower.” “It is helping my success rate and they believe that with this I will be a better person.”
“At today’s conference I learned that mind, body, and spirit is very important when it comes to happiness. Eternal happiness at least,” he continued.
Toussaint was one of the many young “kings” who enjoyed a morning conversation and workout with STIC. After an introduction about what made him the man he is today, STIC led the group in a workout session with each set of pushups, squats or jumping jacks dedicated to historical black figures. A special set of jumping jacks was dedicated to an African American legend in the crowd—Oscar Wright, an advocate for equal education in public schools.
“To see what’s happened here this morning,” Wright said, “and how focused these kids are really make me feel, at 91 years old, that maybe we are going to have a good chance to keep on moving forward.” With Wright overlooking the process, the group applauded him before doing a full set of jumping jacks just for him.
To cool the group down and finish out the morning, STIC showed the students how to meditate and spoke with them about being a man with a balanced life and goals for the future. “I appreciate mentorship. My own life without mentorship—I don’t know what I would be doing,” he said later in an interview. “When Jahi told me about ManUp! and asked me would I join, I was excited, like I was going back to high school! I have a son who is 13. Any chance I have to learn with other brothers who cultivate youth helps me be a better father.”
The afternoon continued with four workshops on digital storytelling, learning how to wear a tie, how to behave during formal and informal dinner settings, and interacting with police safely as an African American male.
Although the conference is only twice a year, it is meant to build on the ideas being taught to Oakland students in the daily MDP classes. The classes are meant to teach concepts like respect for yourself and your brothers, being a gentleman and being a goal-oriented man.
Emilio Ortega is an instructor at Madison Park Academy. His class of eight to ten students meets at the end of the day for MDP. He says the experience has been really great and that his students keep him young. “The great thing is that we are lifting up the brilliance of our kings—we call them ‘kings,’” said Ortega at the ManUp! Conference. “Oftentimes, what’s lifted up is the negative things, but we’re lifting up the brilliance. So the classroom challenges me to not look at when they are getting in trouble or being disruptive, but to look at the positive things that they are doing.”
When the students come into class, Ortega starts them off with the “do now” assignment, usually a prompt, question or quote, that settles the students and prepares them for the lesson or objective of the day. The lessons are often on subjects tied to the idea of manhood, such as helping out your brother. The class ends with a chant, solidifying the team or brotherhood safe space.
This event and the MDP are meant to emphasize brotherhood, higher morale, and teamwork, but the effect in the classroom has also become apparent over the years. According to the AAMA office, since 2010, grade point averages have grown for students in the program. Students in the course surpass students not enrolled by 25 percent on their GPAs. District-wide, the African American male graduation rate has improved from 42 to 57 percent since the course was introduced. (For more data, please see: http://ousd.k12.ca.us/Page/12267)
As Saturday’s conference came to a close the men, boys and Chatmon seemed elated about the successful day. “Man I feel blessed! To create a place and space for black boys and black men to come together to share information to share knowledge to build on relationships, and to bring in other brothers like STIC and to bring Jahi and just convene,” said Chatmon. “To the brothers who presented workshops, the brothers that were volunteering, I thought it was an amazing day. We had 150 kings from elementary, middle and high school, and I thought that was powerful.”
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