On a Thursday, during school hours, students from middle and high schools across the Oakland Unified School District met to conduct business. Held at the First Unitarian Church of Oakland, students, teachers, and advocates gathered for the All City Council Students Unions’ 9th Annual Youth Action Summit. The theme this year was #StudentVoiceMatter: Building Real Partnership to Real Student Power.
The All City Council Students Union (ACCSU) is a student governing board. Each year, students from different schools come together to elect the 11 students who will represent them by serving on the board, as well as to have an open conversation about their feelings about the school system. The day was organized and facilitated by the current student governing board.
To begin the day, the current student leadership welcomed students into Wendte Hall, a large meeting room in the church. Each student was given a different color wristband. Their wristband colors would determine the order of the “fishbowl” discussion sessions they would attend. It also served as a way to separate students from just hanging out with their friends. Once registration was completed, students enjoyed a drum performance led by Tacuma King’s group.
Dewey Academy senior Nehemiah Vaughn continued to energize the crowd. The outspoken and comedic speaker led the students in a chant that that summarized why everyone missed school or took a field trip to get to the summit: “Ain’t no power like the power of the youth, because the power of the youth don’t stop! Say what!”
Throughout the day, students participated in discussion groups, workshops, and surveys. During one workshop, students wrote on large sheets of paper hanging on the walls around the room, indicating the different levels of comfort they have when talking to members of their school’s administration. In a smaller subgroup, students held an important conversation about how to effectively and respectfully voice concerns to adults. Diamond Greer-Green, a senior at Street Academy, gave her three tips for engaging with adults: finding the appropriate time to have the conversation, being aware of where and in front of whom you chose to have the conversation, and being mindful of “code switch,” a term used to describe shifting your language to best express yourself.
“There are so many wrong ways to be heard,” Greer-Green said. “In my past experience, nothing I said was ever mentioned. It didn’t matter if it was good or not, because it was directed wrong.”
District 4 school board Director, Nina Senn, who observed the fishbowl discussions, agreed with Greer-Green’s tips. “I think that was very wise. You need to be authentic and candid, you need to be in that place where you can do that. [At the] same time you need to understand your audience—understand how they can hear what you have to say because if you say it in such a way that makes them feel attacked, makes them feel disrespected, then they aren’t going to hear you as well,” she said.
Another small sub-topic conversation included gauging how students feel about the “breakfast after the bell,” an initiative that some schools have started to offer a second breakfast time for students who may have been late and missed the earlier time. The students also talked about an update from the central office regarding a three-year plan for English learners and much more.
Coming all together again, the students discussed a survey that 560 other students in the district had completed. Ten students were selected to stand in the front of the room to represent the survey’s results. According to the results, 8 out of 10 students said better lunches would improve the learning environment in their schools, and so 8 students stepped forward in the line to represent this finding. Once each result was announced, students in the line step back. Among other results: 8 out of 10 students want to give teachers feedback and have their teacher be more accountable, and 7 out of 10 students would like better supplies in school.
Among the students representing the survey results was Oakland High School senior Khalyse Hudson. When discussing the need for schools to provide better supplies, she reminded her peers to acknowledge some of the great contributions teachers and schools provide, rather than focus on all negatives. “I feel in every situation there is always a good and bad,” she said in an interview. “Some teachers really do care for their students. They understand where their students are coming from when they can’t afford pencils, papers, and binders. Teachers will go out of their way to buy any equipment you need on a daily basis. I feel really appreciative of those types of teachers.”
While students led the day of events, many adults observed and engaged in the conversations as participants rather than facilitators. “It’s critical that as adults we support students in their leadership. Part of that means actually doing the work to provide space and structure for students who both are involved in formal ways on their campus but also for students are not part of any group or involved,” said Raquel Jimenez, the head of the ACCSU. She is also the director of the Latino/a Student Achievement, a program designed to help uplift and improve academics for the Latino and Latina population in the school district.
After a hot lunch, it was time to vote for next year’s board. If any student in the district wishes to hold a position on the board, they must attend the summit and give a one-minute speech to the audience explaining why they should be selected. All board positions reopen each year. If a current member of the board wishes to retain their position, they must reapply.
Among the positions available were the two student representatives’ seats on the OUSD school board. Current Life Academy Junior, Gema Quetzal Cardenas is vacating her seat because she is transitioning to her new position as the student director for the California State Board of Education. Her colleague Enasia McElvaine is also leaving, because she is a graduating senior from McClymonds High School who will be attending Xavier University in New Orleans this fall.
In an interview before the candidates were announced, McElvaine offered advice to the next pair of students to hold their beloved and demanding titles as student directors. “I think the person that does take my position should be very aware of their identity in this world. If you don’t have a grounding on that, I think they may have a hard time in the position,” said McElvaine.
“I’m excited because I know whoever is going to be there will be representing to the fullest, because all these students are strong leaders,” said Quetzal Cardenas.
One hopeful candidate for student representative seat was Oakland High School junior Yota Omosowho. Omosowho, who has attended many school board meetings, really admired the professionalism of both student directors. She said that watching them and hearing community stories inspired her to run for a seat. “The student directors actually bring the perspective of the student, which I feel is really important. They really do a good job at that,” she said.
Another student running for a student director position was Life Academy Freshman Josue Chavez. He and Omosowho were the only two students running for the two student director seats. But before being officially awarded the seats, the two must complete a few mandatory events this summer with the other ACCSU members. The newly elected ACCSU will use all the notes and responses from the day of events to create a new blueprint for the upcoming academic year. In the blueprint, they will identify the student needs to focus on in the future.
For graduating ACCSU members like Nehemiah Vaughn, being on the ACCSU board has been one of their best memories in high school. He said it has given him a family, and the support to lead workshops and activities. “A place that you might feel weak—one of your peers has already been in that spot and they have ways for you to get better or out of that. They can always help you and they never stop caring,” he said.