Community. It is all about community.
This was the common theme repeated at the Oakland Community School panel discussion with Ericka Huggins at the Black Panther Party’s 50th Anniversary Conference. This October the Black Panther Party for Self Defense celebrated it’s 50th anniversary. The four day anniversary conference was one of the many events that was held throughout the Bay in honor of the Party’s work and legacy. Founded in 1966 by Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale–two students at Merritt College at the time– the Black Panther Party was created to empower the Black community and to challenge the injustices going on globally. Known as the ‘Vanguard of the Movement’, the Black Panther Party put into practice a vision that has forever changed Oakland’s Black community and continues to inspire and politicize Black people throughout the nation.
From monitoring the excessive violence of police, to providing breakfast, lunch, and dinner to Black youth in need of food, the Black Panther Party was truly about the empowerment and upliftment of Black people. Furthermore, the importance of self-determination was present throughout everything the Black Panther Party touched. Yes, the Black Panther Party was about calling out white supremacy and the way in which it continues to exploit and oppress Black women and men for capital gain; But let’s be clear, the Party was rooted in community. That commitment to community can be seen in the 60 plus survival programs that emerged from the Black Panther Party–one of those being the Oakland Community School.
The longest standing program of all the survival programs, the Oakland Community School (OCS) was established in 1973 in East Oakland, with the underlying principle being, “We serve the people everyday. We serve the people, body and soul.” Directed by Ericka Huggins and Donna Howell, OCS provided youth with a culturally relevant education and challenged the public school system’s perceptions of what it meant to be Black and poor.1 Student enrollment at OCS reached 150 and had a daunting wait list that even included unborn children. Students were taught a wide variety of subjects from math to history by members of their community. But it wasn’t just about memorizing facts and dates; Former OCS students passionately stated during the panel discussion at the conference that, “they taught us how to think not what think.” At OCS, Black youth were not afraid to be themselves or to ask questions. Their self-esteem and confidence was constantly reaffirmed as a result of the staff and faculty members who were led by the heart and invested in their development. OCS empowered Black youth to find their voices and help liberate their spirits.
Point 5 of the Black Panther Party’s Ten Point Platform states:
“WE WANT DECENT EDUCATION FOR OUR PEOPLE THAT EXPOSES THE TRUE NATURE OF THIS DECADENT AMERICAN SOCIETY. WE WANT EDUCATION THAT TEACHES US OUR TRUE HISTORY AND OUR ROLE IN THE PRESENT-DAY SOCIETY. We believe in an educational system that will give to our people a knowledge of the self. If you do not have knowledge of yourself and your position in the society and in the world, then you will have little chance to know anything else.”
As described on the OCS website by Ericka Huggins, a typical day at OCS went as follows:
“The students remember starting the day with a ten minute exercise program. Breakfast, followed by a short, school wide interactive check-in preceded the morning classes. A nutritious lunch at midday and ten minutes of meditation in the early afternoon was followed by classes for the older children and rest for the smaller ones. Dinner concluded the day and the school vans transported the children who could not walk to their homes.”
It is important to note that it was the BPP’s Oakland Community School practice of providing breakfast for students that led to the nation’s requirement to provide breakfast for students in public schools. What’s even more interesting is that 50 years ago, the Black Panther Party knew that practicing meditation and mindfulness had a positive impact on student well-being. OCS students also participated in martial arts classes, helped support other survival programs, and had peer led justice committees for dealing with disputes and conflict which serves as further proof that the OCS was truly ahead of time. All of this was created to make up for what the public school system failed to provide for Black youth.
The parallels to our present day realities couldn’t be more similar.
Now in 2016, our public school system still leaves out the histories, experiences, and cultures of Black and brown people, pushing forth a narrative that is overwhelmingly white and European focused. In 2016, Black students continue to face assaults on their character as a result of zero tolerance policies that make using a cell phone, wearing one’s natural hair, or simply talking– a criminal offense. Rather than prioritize the hiring of quality educators and counselors, our country’s leaders believe that police officers should be trained as counselors and mentors– despite sweeping evidence that shows the negative and harmful interactions between police officers and Black youth. Our country’s leaders are clearly missing the point. We should be taking cues from those that have come before us and use BPP’s Oakland Community School as a model for what empowering and enriching academic environments look like.
What is incredible about the Black Panther Party and the creation of the Oakland Community School is that community rose up to take care of their own community. The Oakland Community School was created because there was a need. There was a need for a safe place for Black students to learn and grow. There was a need for Oakland youth to be educated by people who look like them, people who were from their community. There was a need to challenge the European frame of reference when talking about history. There was a need to liberate the minds of Oakland Black youth. If we educate, heal, protect, and liberate our youth, those teachings will be passed on to the generations to come. Taking care of each other is a model for liberation and for that we are forever grateful of the revolutionary insight of the Black Panther Party.
- “The Liberation Schools, the Children’s House, the Intercommunal Youth Institute and the Oakland Community School” Ericka Huggins, http://www.erickahuggins.com/OCS.html