Occupy Your Imagination — Oakland Youth Speak Out

Last month, I had the joy of teaching in two of my favorite schools in the world: Metwest High School and Oakland School for the Arts. And no, they’re not two of my favorite schools just because they’re right down the block from me here in Oakland. Although that doesn’t hurt.

I love Metwest and OSA because they are more than schools; they are communities of passionate, progressive teachers and engaged, empowered youth who know that education is a process towards transformation, not a number on a state test. Case in point: my latest collaboration with the two schools, entitled “Occupy Your Imagination.”

In April and May, I led a series of spoken word workshops with over 50 students in both schools. Part-political education, part-creative writing, part-hilarious town halls, the workshops were a space for the students to give their take on the issues and tactics of the Occupy movement, from Wall Street to their streets. Both schools are just down the block from some of Occupy Oakland’s most celebrated (and despised) actions, so EVERYONE had something to say, something to write.

We talked about everything from Proposition 13’s noose on education in California to one student’s perspective that more “Occupy folks look like they live in condos than in the projects.” Most importantly, the young folks shared their own realities of what it’s like being broke or struggling or just getting by (not too many 1%ers in this crowd) — and their visions for what justice would look like in Oakland.

Oh, and they wrote some damn good poems.

The “Occupy Your Imagination” project was based on the idea that two of the most powerful resources for the Occupy movement (or any movement!) have largely been untapped: creativity and high school youth. Even when we mobilize thousands of people for marches and demonstrations, we can still get stuck in the same slogans (“Whose Streets? Our Streets!”), targets (the cops), and sites of activism (downtown areas of major cities).

On the other hand, youth, and especially urban youth of color, are dealing with issues that are usually considered outside Occupy’s general purview: the school-to-prison pipeline, 50% unemployment, deportation. But young people are also  responding and fighting back in creative ways — look at last week’s not-perfect-but-still-powerful youth-led, Obama-approved victory on immigration. In that case, undocumented DREAM activists  took over Obama campaign offices across the country.

In the high school workshops, I asked the students: “If you could occupy anything, what would it be?”

The young folks responded like young folks always do: with brilliant, unexpected answers. “I would occupy the school board.” “The Art Murmur.” “That OPD squad car in my nightmares.” “83rd and MacArthur.” “A job, any job.”

Want to hear more from the students? Check two of the full poems below. And enjoy some photos from the workshops along the way. 

Thank you to the Metwest and OSA teachers and most of all the students for having me in your classes. I love y’all. Point blank. 

And much love to the good folks at Art Is My Occupation for the grant to support this work. Artists, if you don’t know about AMO, check them out: they offers direct support to “artists and cultural workers dedicated to advancing the stories, struggles and ideas of the 99%.”

And speaking of Oakland youth and education issues, make sure to support the sit-in at Lakeview Elementary now in its 6th day. This is one of the five elementary schools (all, of course, in black and Latino communities) that OUSD voted to close down — but the parents and teachers have occupied Lakeview and turned it into a People’s Summer School for the kids. There’s a march and rally on Saturday (tomorrow!) at the school, so come on down — there might even be a performance by some of these Metwest and OSA poets!

In the meantime, here’s a visual recap of the “Occupy Your Imagination” series:

                         What are issues in the community?
Sex trafficking, racist police, education, college admissions, job rate, black on black crime, foreclosures, cocaine,  animal cruelty, immigration, 99% vs. 1%, gang violence, equality – for real.

                         When you hear about Occupy, what comes to mind?
Riots, wealth distribution, Wall Street, narrow-minded, hipsters, capital gains,
 First World problems, some people don’t know why they’re protesting, health care, bullshit, tear gas, trying to make history.

                         Students at Metwest occupying the page.


A freshman at Metwest shares a just-finished poem about violence, police, and who the real criminals are in Oakland.


With a poster of the Occupy Oakland general strike in the background (what a great teacher!), a junior from Oakland School of the Arts shares his hilarious piece on the tragic love story between a Wells Fargo bank and his wallet.

And last but the very opposite of least, here are two of the finished poems. First, dealing with gentrification, we have Kerby Lynch:

Harlem, Oakland

     by Kerby Lynch, 17, Oakland School for the Arts

Where kings and queens are now peasants
and a constant remembrance
that we were conceived to believe
that we were conquered to be
the rulers that succeed,
but not really

we bleed out of misconceptions
as we struggle to rise,
while you pass by on yo fixed bike
and ask
how much is that melanin in the window?

Let us not be the subject of your fairy tales
and enchanted places, exotics, you envy,
satirically with minstrel faces
I don’t really care about you
and how your inner population is counted by green faces,
all I care about is
that little girl and that little boy who wonder
why they see new faces in their neighborhoods,
but not in their schools,
hooptie Hondas to Subarus,
let their innocent minds think nothing but
maybe they just don’t wanna play with us

Let them be naive,
because I wish I was at seventeen.
Although most of my peers won’t realize in little years:
we’ll be out / casted like we were never meant to be
here in the first place,
but I won’t leave, I’ll continue to be.

And be better than you at your own game
remember me through my name
a legacy that will bring no shame,
let me set an example to these children who feel inside themselves is nothing but mistakes.

Let me occupy that concrete,
that base
that foundation,
let me be that light in the tunnel,
not the end,
because all tunnels are like the Caldecott,
there’s light, but it just doesn’t always show, but it will.

And that’s life
like the Caldecott,
caught between conspiracy and reality,
finding forever is everything,
to me and my people who be that liberation in every wild out street.

Let us not be peasants anymore, God.

Oakland can’t be Emeryville.

Not bad, right? And to close us out on a more personal note, we have Megan Torio, a poet so fierce I forget she’s still a freshman.   

Spare change

     by Megan Torio, 15, Metwest High School

My occupy movement starts right here

my place called home
papa’s sitting on the couch
eyes glued to the tv
i see a tear drop down
but his face remains the same

& i know in his mind his anger
comes from pain
pain in his pockets to having no more
checks to cash out
he’s got the world’s tragedies and issues
to blame
no doubt
he lost the remote control
but still he sits there on the couch
waiting for the channel to change
then momma comes home and takes a quick glance
while papa’s diluted eyes remain
she sees her husband
looking rather less than a man

i could feel her disappointment
and it’s reaching toward mine
she drops her uniform
puts some change in the jar
change my father has been impatiently waiting for
but momma’s jobs has her by the neck
time is wasting she needs another check
her boss is out to get her
so she’s up and out the door again

and as another tear falls
i grab my journal and a pen
a blueprint of a mission that starts right here
and brainstorms listing more jobs
right there
papa needs more than a choice
but more options
so momma can slowly become
less than someone else’s profit

laid off a job
it makes no cents
we live by money
to provide shelter and food
it makes no sense
how someone can take away
the help to live another day
it makes no cents
to take another’s job

being greedy will never help
no, not even for yourself
so why not share
then let your money sit on the shelf
to be truly happy
is to give more
and expect less
free your mind from hatred
and worries

because there’s no more space
for bags
under your eyes
we gotta
give love
give love
give love
because i’ve heard that good things come in threes
and it sure would help
if money grew on trees
so would jobs
because so many are beginning to leave
leave the branches
and fall
into grass

and in an instance there’s a change to your class
a change in a family’s lifestyle
a change in relationship and hope
we can’t lose jobs now
living without one
is like a song without notes

So my occupy movement starts right here
a voice and a story of a youth
whose words fall like tears