In Room 201 at the Cleveland School of the Arts, students start each day with a ritual called the Community Candle. A student leads the class in a meditation. The lights are off, except for a few lamps lit in the room's corners. The students are quiet, their eyes are closed, and all that is heard is the voice of the student leader.
He or she asks the students to remember those who have fallen victim to gun violence but also to remember people who've helped the students get to where they are in their lives. It's a beautiful way to start the morning, and it reminds the students that they are connected to their communities.
Room 201 is my classroom. For many of my students, this is home.
I left Cleveland in 2008 to pursue a graduate degree in education. I chose the University of California, Berkeley, in part so I could become a student of Oakland's community activism, which gave rise to the Black Panther Party and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. Now I'm a creative writing teacher at the Cleveland School of the Arts, and I am trying to bring home some of what I learned.
I believe we can develop our youth here in Cleveland as a way of redeveloping our city. By that, I mean much more than preparing our students to pass high-stakes tests, succeed in college and enter the workforce. We should nurture our youth so they understand that their voice matters and that they can use it to transform their communities.
Cleveland can learn from Oakland how to help combat our brain drain and inspire our young people to be more engaged in our participatory democracy. We can inspire our youth to become agents of social change instead of thinking about them as problems to solve. To do that, we must listen to them.
In 2013, I received an email from Oakland's Youth Advisory Commission. The subject line read, "Reminder: Youth Input on the National Search for a Police Chief for the City of Oakland." The message was clear: Youth come into contact with punitive institutions in the same ways that adults do. So why shouldn't they have a voice in deciding the next leader of the police force?
I don't think I've ever received an email or phone call like this during my time in Cleveland. But after November's shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice at the hands of a Cleveland policeman, I spent much of one school day talking with my students, who were hurt, angry and confused. Two students considered staging a school walkout. Another student was on the brink of tears because of the racial hatred espoused on social media and in school after Rice's shooting and the protests in Ferguson, Missouri.
My students debated the effectiveness of protests. We talked about the role of a civilian police review board, which is to look into complaints of police misconduct. The students asked if youth could be part of the review board and whether the board could be restructured to have a say about new police hiring standards. It wasn't the first time that I wished more adults could hear the reforms our young people devise when they are asked.
This brand of community-minded education is rare in Cleveland but common in Oakland. Look at the mission of the Breakthrough Schools, considered our city's highest-rated free, nonprofit charter schools. Their mission is to "develop a growing network of distinctive school options that prepare Cleveland area students for success in life."
No small goal — but compare this to the mission of Oakland's Alternatives in Action, the nation's first youth-initiated charter high school, which aims to "serve youth from the Bay Area who are motivated to transform their lives and their communities."
Javier Martinez, 21, graduated from Arise High School in Oakland's Fruitvale District, an epicenter of gang territory. Arise's mission is to empower students to become "highly educated, humanizing, critically conscious, intellectual, and reflective leaders."
As a high school senior, Martinez became a student leader who opposed Oakland's proposed gang injunction, aimed at several members of the El Norte street gang. Martinez and others argued that the injunction would legalize racial profiling. Although a judge OK'd the injunction, Martinez says his work gave him confidence in his public speaking and leadership skills.
"There were a lot of people at Arise who taught me that I shouldn't conform just because things are the way that they are," explains Martinez, now a college sophomore. "They taught us that you have to have a point, and that you have to organize."
Cleveland's lack of commitment to this kind of education is not lost on its students. Cleveland School of the Arts senior Anthony Bennett says youth are rarely asked what is important for them to learn.
"The only grocery stores that we have in the 'hood is Save-A-Lot, corner stores and liquor stores," Bennett says. A health teacher's advice to eat healthy foods doesn't address that. "Real education isn't just about test scores. It's also about helping us take what we learn to change our circumstances."
Recent School of the Arts graduate Eva Barrett, now a freshman at Case Western Reserve University, says education disconnected from students' experiences contributes to Cleveland's brain drain.
"When you make education sterile, it becomes a pacifier," she says. "Then people just say, 'Well, I just want to graduate and get out of here.' "
One exception is local activist Basheer Jones, 30, who ran for Cleveland City Council in 2013. Jones' interest in social justice was inspired by an after-school group at Martin Luther King Jr. High School. Tim Roberts, the school security guard who ran the group, recognized Jones' passion and his talent as a spoken-word poet and introduced him to activists and political and business leaders.
Jones says Cleveland's leaders don't reach out to young people as much as leaders in other cities — but it is possible to get their attention. The elites Jones met consistently told him that if he remained committed, he would eventually be taken seriously at the highest levels of local government.
"Cleveland is not the city where young people are just invited to the table," Jones says. "This is a city of validation. They are only going to invite people to the table who have shown that they deserve to be at the table."
But perhaps it's time that we invite them. Developing the voices of our youth is not only good education, it's progressive, transformative urban planning. Our young people are future agents of change. They can help shape a vibrant course of our great city, at long last.