by Charles Cole, III
I wrote this article in a few places. One of them being the old site where the Salvation Army used to reside in Old Oakland on Clay Street. The Salvation Army was one of the shelters I lived in when I was but a lad. I remember there being folks coming in pretty often to teach people how to bleach their needles so they wouldn’t contract HIV. I was ten years old, B! I remember sitting in a room where these simulations were happening. I slept in a room with bunk beds covering every square inch and every bed filled with families, disappointment and broken dreams. After attending more than ten elementary schools across the country, I ended up at Lafayette Elementary, right in the heart of West Oakland.
The second place I sat outside of as I wrote this article was the Henry Robinson Center in Downtown Oakland located on 16th street. Unlike the Salvation Army, it’s still up and kicking. Living at the HRC was a definite upgrade from the SalArmy because we had a full room to ourselves. No kitchen but dammit, we had doors and bathroom that we didn’t have to share with other people. We were winning out here, but this isn’t the crux of the story. The point is living the way I did led me to the decisions I’d make as an adult. I wanted to add value to a place where I saw a ton of potential and in that same vision, I saw the worst that human nature had to offer. I wanted to show through real results that an average person can have an incredible impact.
After college, I ended up being a social worker and serving kids and families like mine. As an SW, I was able to write my ticket because Black men don’t normally become SW’s. It’s like teaching, we are so in demand that there would always be work and potential to move up because there were so few of us, ya dig. During my time as a social worker, I worked with hundreds of families. I was in a position where I could request most of the Black families whether they were Foster Care cases or Special Needs. I remember meeting with white social workers as a child. I remember not liking one of them. I had a perfect example of the type of SW I wanted to be. Frankly, I wanted to be me. I showed up wearing Jordans and on my Suzuki GXR. I was empathetic but able to get results. I helped reunify some families; I failed with others. I was able to advocate for Black kids with special needs to get the mainstreaming they fought for. I attended every Individual Education Plan (IEP) meeting for all of my students across four different districts.
After focusing solely on strengthening the Black family unit, I went back to grad school and wanted to combine the skills of a social worker with one that had great managerial and programmatic systems experience. I wanted to impact youth directly. That passion led me to a youth program focused on getting poor students lacking resources in and through college. These students qualified for free lunch, had parents that did not complete college, and attended some of the most underserved schools in Oakland. We were able to get more than 95% of those students into college with more than 60% graduating in 5 years or less. We served hundreds of kids in my 4-year tenure.
Then it was on to supporting teachers. I was blessed to work with teachers both locally and nationally. I wanted to see more black teachers in the classroom and we wanted them to feel good about being there. As a Black social worker, I know how it feels to be in a profession where the majority of the folks struggling the most look like you. The teachers I worked with appreciated the understanding and the push they got from me. Flying more than 200 Black teachers to Atlanta each year to just discuss what it means to be Black and teaching Black kids was powerful. I am a better man for having that experience.
I now work in the Oakland Unified School District – a district in which I have a storied history. I did not love my educational experience, but I can work to be part of the solution. I get to help and struggle with an ambitious vision of what is possible for kids. In everything I do inside those walls, I picture what the potential impact would have been on my ten-year-old self. If it’s something that I feel would have helped my friends and me, then I fight for it with my entire self. If not, then I ask questions. I control the impact I have. I control whether I want just to stand outside of all of the institutions I mentioned and throw stones or if I work as hard as possible to be part of a positive change. You do too.
This is not collar popping. This is the story of a poor Black kid that came from a broken home, dealt with whack social workers while living in whack homeless shelters that had a whack education by going to a ton of whack schools across the country and constantly saw the whack ugliness this life can present to you. This is the story of a kid that has seen a pregnant woman put a crack pipe to her chapped gray lips in the middle of the street on San Pablo when I was walking to go play. This is the story of an average person representing Oakland and not as an athlete, or a rapper, or the mayor, or as a rich philanthropist. Nah, B! This is the story and the results of someone that works to embody the notion of converting negative energy and making something positive. A single person can have an impact. Stop making these kids feel like they are helpless. Even under the worst circumstances, you have to see the power potential that lives in these kids. Few people saw that in me. Stop making our people feel like someone needs to save us. No one is coming, B!
So the next time someone tells you how much they love this city ask them if they REALLY put on for The Town. Our people are out here dying. If we aren’t adding value, then we are part of the problem. These streets are a zero sum game. There is no sideline. We are all on the court, and we are either helping our team win or lose. The Black rage in me has not subsided; I just get to face it every single day.
This story is republished from One Oakland United.