I’m walking alongside the mural called “Beautiful Struggle” in front of Oakland High School. Frida Kahlo, Che Guevara, and Malcolm X are just a few of many social activists portrayed here. This mural also reflects a student body made up predominantly of students of color. Oakland High is 51 percent Asian, 29 percent Black, 16 percent Latino, and one percent white.
After I’ve entered the schools gate, guarded by security officers, I’m free to roam the hallway in search of the Manhood Development Program’s office. That’s where I meet Mr. Tiago Robinson, who runs the program. He says he can relate to the students he works with.
“I dropped out in the ninth grade. I didn’t have me when I was going to school. I couldn’t relate to anyone,” says Robinson.
Robinson has been running the Manhood Development program at Oakland High since 2009. It’s his job is to teach boys at Oakland High how to become men – how to be accountable – but also how to learn life’s lessons.
"You are going to make mistakes, buts it how you make your mistakes, how you learn from your mistakes, getting up and striving to be the best that you can be,” says Robinson.
Being the best you can be is no easy task. According to recent reports, 20 percent of African-American males are chronically absent while suspension rates for African-American males are six times higher than that of whites. The Manhood Development Program is stressing the importance of education in the most realistic way possible.
Today, the class of 2014 is visited by Mr. Flagg, who is there to deliver a guest lecture. Flagg talks about his older brother, who dropped out of school in the ninth grade to become a “gangster rapper.” It’s a cautionary tale.
“My brother has been doing this for a long time, 22 years to be exact, and he don’t have a record deal…to make little ends meet now, he has an old pickup truck he drives around and he helps folks haul their stuff,” says Flagg.
Unlike his brother, Mr. Flagg is a college graduate, and currently represents Heald College. Later during this visit he will also discuss college programs the students may be interested in. But first, they’ll have to get college ready. That’s Jasmine Noble’s job, another Manhood Development mentor.
“We are preparing for them to take exams now so they know how to fill out the different CSU and UC applications and community colleges,” says Noble.
College readiness is just one phase of the program. Getting through to them is another matter entirely. Noble says she’s found that by sharing her background with the students, they respect her more. Like her students, Noble grew up in Oakland’s inner city and says she attended sub-par schools. Eventually she reached college. It took seven years to finish her undergraduate degree, but she stuck to her goal of graduating college.
She stuck to it, through hardship and grief. One of her brothers was murdered.
“I share that with my students sometimes and they respect that because unfortunately, the natural cause of a lot of African-American males in the inner city community is homicides, unfortunately that’s the topic of discussion, but I also feel that’s not normal, something is wrong and with that and I use that as my motivation,” explains Noble.
Utilizing motivation like that is one of the goals of the manhood development class. As I continue to sit in on the class session, Mr. Flagg tells the inspirational story of African-American male boxer, Andre Ward, who grew up in the East Bay, trained at a gym in Oakland and eventually fought his way to a gold medal at the 2004 Olympics. He asks the class, “If you’re in the gym and you prepare for a major title fight your gym might have one kind of speed bag and an old kind of worn out bag, but the fighter you’re training against has a state of the art facility, speed bags, and all the new equipment, all the extra stuff you don’t have – can you still out train that person?”
The students all agree that you can, but it takes a lot of hard work.
Fighting your way through obstacles is one the many themes of the Manhood Development Program. Jasmine Noble says hearing from successful black men is teaching them what it takes to be a man.
Robinson explains why he thinks the Manhood Development Program matters: “It matters because it’s important. I think it’s good to pass the torch on to the younger generation, to do what they want to do because I’m going to be an old man at one point and I want them to be able to take care of the country and to take care of the city and to run things the right way… and I think they can do it, I just think they just need to be taught.”
Although there is no easy way out of Oakland’s inner city, through hard work, initiative, dedication, and courage, these ninth and tenth have a fighting chance of making their dreams come true. Here are just a few of the dream jobs students shared with me: a chef, a fire chief and a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer, and the owner of Sony.
Robinson’s dream job?
“Doing what I’m doing,” he says.
Angela Hopkins reported this story as a student reporter at Mills College in Oakland. It originally aired on February 4, 2013.