Off the Cuff

Posted Aug 14 2007

Oakland teens share their thoughts on growing up in Oakland, including violence, peer pressure, and White people!

One thing that has stood out to me over the past three years of teaching at Oakland Unity High School in California is the high level of discussion that we have in class. I really wish that people, including policy makers and other teachers, could hear the students share their thoughts on topics ranging from the war in Iraq to universal health care. Just as important have been the numerous informal conversations that have taken place. During one particular violent weekend in Oakland it was obvious that many of the students I work with wanted to talk about what happened. We decided to get together one afternoon so I could interview them. Interestingly enough, while our school is pushing 80% Latino, the three students who showed up were all African American. They had worked all day and it was a blazing hot so they were a bit more reserved than usual. Yet it was an interesting conversation nonetheless. I was tempted to write an article but decided that it would be best to let them speak for themselves. While it doesn’t really come out in this conversation, these three are quite involved with activities such as Upward Bound, fashion shows, out of state college visits, and Tech Bridge, a science and engineering program for teenage girls. Next time we’ll have to focus on those accomplishments.

All three will be seniors for the 2007-2008 school year.

Describe life in Oakland for teens.

Jestin: It’s kinda dangerous and rocky. You don’t look for trouble. It comes to you.  You can’t have a lot of nice things. You get approached right away.
Mori: That’s not true. It depends on your clique or your rep.
J: That’s true, but you can get associated with a certain group of people and get shot up, just by who you’re with
M: I guess that’s true. I have seen a lot of random things happen to innocent people.

What’s most challenging thing about growing up in Oakland?

J: You have to learn right from wrong quicker. Your common sense needs to kick in earlier.
M: Learning who your true friends are. Being aware of your surroundings.
J: Make smart decisions. If a dude says, “let’s go somewhere,” but is not being specific, nine times out of ten it’ll be something bad. Another challenge is how fast it is. Everybody is out to get money and girls. Everyone is trying to outdo each other.
M: It’s like constant competition.
J: A big competition….
M: …where gangs and cliques come in, trying to defeat one another.
J: Another thing is that even if you don’t want to be part of it, the people around you force you into it. Everyone wants respect. Girls you want to talk to won’t talk to you, people won’t like you, etc.
M: Being street smart, especially if you’re new to Oakland.

Are you new to Oakland?

M: No, I’ve been here nine years. I was in San Francisco before that. I don’t visit there much, but I hear a lot about what’s happening in Oakdale, Hunter’s Point, and Fillmore. I still have family out there.
J: People swear up and down that you’re in a clique, even if you swear up and down you’re not. Like me, I’m from Broookfield (neighborhood in Oakland). They ask for how long and I say “my entire life.” They’re like “oh, so you’re a BJB (Brookfield Jungle Boy),” which I’m not. They say that just because I live in Brookfield.
M: For most people it’s about respect and power when it comes to groups.

So, can we turn the conversation in a more positive light?

J: What’s there to talk about? Oakland is mostly negative. Well, they are building up, like all the condos, but most Black people are gonna’ leave.
Wilneka: We’re already leaving….

On that note, what have been some of the more obvious changes in Oakland as you’ve been growing up?

M: They keep making more buildings and houses and the cost of everything is going up.
J: They’re making it for White people. You’re seeing more homes with “White traits.”
W: Yup, like those apartments near 90th and McArthur.

What does “White traits” mean? Like they keep their homes clean and we don’t?

J: Window shutters! When I see those, I think of White people.
M: Black people like those things too!
J: Yeah, but I guess there are just more moving in.
W: All the black people are moving out, like to Tracy.
J: Still, there are still neighborhoods that you don’t see White people
M: There are lots of teen mothers.
J: Why do we always come back to the negative?
W: Talking about White people isn’t necessarily negative.
J: I know, but it’s like we’re getting pushed out.
W: The cost of living is too high. It’s cheaper to move out.
M: And it’s safer
J: Homes out here start at $300,000, which is ridiculous.

Do you know a lot of people moving down south, like to Atlanta?

W: Exactly. When we were in Atlanta (for college visits), Taylor and I met dudes from Oakland. They said that there are lots of people from the Town out there.

What is there to do out here for teens?

J: Rec centers keep teens busy. There’s the boxing center on 98th.
M: That’s negative, beating people up.
J: Teens work there and they have tutoring.
M: There are teen clubs downtown.


M: Yup. Even some adults go.

I don’t think I’d party with you all.

M: They’re like 17 and 18 and up.

Thanks, but no thanks

J: There’s skateboarding and rollerblading.

Are a lot of teens in Oakland skating and rollerblading?

J: It’s trying to come up. There are a bunch of girls. They saw the videos-“Party Like a Rock Star,” Lupe Fiasco, The Pack’s song “Vans.” People are influenced by videos. They’ll say, “I’ve always dressed like this.” I ask them one question. “Who’s a member of ACDC?” Most black people only know about Linkin Park because they did that song with Jay-Z. People are followers. They would be gothic if they saw it in a video. There are too many fake people. They just copy Mac Dre, Keak, and E-40.
W: Mac Dre wasn’t even that big until he died. It was like, “who was that?”

But why is he so popular?

J: He died
M: He started the thizzin’
J: All the negatives aside, I like Oakland. It’s home. But we’re known for negative things. When we were in Atlanta, the first thing they ask about is hyphy.
W: What’s negative about hyphy? It’s just a dance…
J: It’s not negative necessarily, but if that’s all we’re known for….I mean sideshows, loud whistler pipes, speakers on the outside of your car…those speakers are stupid.
W: Who still has whistler pipes? It’s just people in Oakland having fun. You see Sweet 16 with Eazy E’s daughter? She was talking about getting hyphy. We don’t even say that anymore. We’re talking about “goin’ dumb.”
J: Why’s everything negative? Who wants to “go dumb?”

How does gender play out in Oakland?

M: Boys have more advantages, parent wise. We can’t go certain places or do certain things.
W: Out on the street, if a dude looks at another one, they have beef right away. When it comes to females, dudes come up to get your number, but you know what they really want.

How’s that a positive? Aren’t both negative?

M: None of it’s positive. Those dudes are always hollering at females wrong, just because females don’t want to talk to them. Some females do that too. Females are always getting treated like items. Girls get treated badly. Men think they can disrespect them and touch them any ole way. Like, if a female has shorts on they can go slap them on the butt.
W: They talk to them any ole way.
M: I think dudes are more likely to get killed. They don’t do it with fists or knives anymore. Girls mostly fight. Girls tend to think first. Dudes act first, then think about it later.


1. mori said at May 12, 2008 3:33 pm:


2. Mariana Torres said at June 12, 2008 11:28 am:

I agree on what jestin said about you cant really have something nice because you get approched rapidly. Thats something so unfair for teens like us because you cant even be wearing nice clothes or some color cause at the end of the day you end up beaten up or with no clothes. Also i think that most teens just look for help around their area they dont really go out to check out other places. I think that the enviroment we live in is not neccessarily that positive but its an influence for us to do something better.

3. mori said at June 13, 2008 5:12 pm:

Look at this now make think alot from when i did this and i learned a lot more now than what i knew from when i was in the 10th grade

4. Alejandra Ruiz said at June 13, 2008 6:05 pm:

Its really sad to see that when Oakland's own youth think of Oakland all they can think of us the negative, but the reality is that thats just how it is. i love Oakland i grew up- here but its just so ghetto and its hard to live in a place where someone will want to start a fight because of some small thing that isn't even worth your time. it get annoying an irritating at times. even through all of this i still love Oakland and there are many positives to growing up here.

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