There are more voices than I can count these days. And honestly, I’m sitting here thinking through this piece but heavily distracted by those voices. On the day I sent my son to his first day of kindergarten, parents concerned about mask requirements protested at the school board building – that is next to the county-wide preschool and kindergarten. Now, I don’t have a problem really with protesting, but I do when it’s on school property and it disrupts an environment meant to feel safe and welcoming, especially for young children going to school for the first time. And I do when someone says their intent is to be a voice for children, but they are simultaneously speaking over those children.
I’m not sharing that to start a conversation about a topic like masks or protesting, but I’m sharing it because later that day, I watched Hulu’s documentary Homeroom, a film that delved behind the scenes of graduating seniors in the Oakland Unified School District. How do these connect, you may ask? Because one aspect of this film was about voice, and the problems that arise when adults ignore the words of their youth.
Denilson Garibo and Mica Smith-Dahl are the spokespeople for the 36,000 students across the Oakland Unified School District. They are passionate, informed, and weary of the uphill battle. And rightfully so. Amidst budget cuts, the tragic murders specifically of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and an incoming pandemic, Garibo and Smith-Dahl work tirelessly to present a unified voice to the ones in power.
The largest initiative on their plate? Getting approval to dissolve the police presence at OUSD. Oakland is the only school system with its own police force, with a budget of over $2 million dollars. So while board members are looking for ways to cut funding, the students ask for one thing – give us our freedom, and cut the budget that goes to school district’s police force.
The poise that these two individuals maintained throughout a tumultuous year continues to astonish me. They knew their battles. They knew when to speak up and when to sit back, aware that their every word and move was under the microscope of the “leaders” who would either back them or reject them. They wore the burden of representation while worrying about SAT and ACT scores, filming TikTok videos, watching the news, and everything else that senior year entails – but with the added weight of protests, hope for reform, and a deadly virus upending all of our lives. Teenagers. Seventeen and eighteen years old. And they didn’t back down until they won.
From beginning to end, Garibo and Smith-Dahl had to fight to be heard. They sat and waited while adults screamed over each other, drowning out the voices of the youth whose future was the very question of the conversation. They grieved as leaders who had committed to work with them seemed to falter and back down at crucial times. They trudged through racism and disrespect. But they never lost sight of their purpose, and found ways to come together as a class to move the needle into a direction of hope.
I don’t think we give the younger generation enough credit. Our children have a voice that we need to hear. Too often adults claim to speak on behalf of younger people when in reality we’re mainly speaking over them. Or we use their “needs” to push our own agendas. We say “we hear you, but…” and with one word, dismiss their pleas. These younger generations will not be silenced. And they shouldn’t be. It’s up to us to amplify those voices and give them the platform to tell us what they need. We place so much expectation on our children. Homeroom shows us just how heavy those expectations are, and yet we don’t want to yield the microphone to the ones who are directly impacted by racism, who have a vision for their future, who don’t want to give up, who are supporting their families, who are sifting through endless information, who worry about a pandemic, and who are just trying to graduate. And then we want to tell them to be quiet when they speak up and out? I’m not tracking with that.
And so my question to anyone reading this is: are we really speaking for our children, or are we speaking over them? Because if I take away one thing from this film, it’s that there are times when I need to sit down, shut up, and let this generation take the stage.
Homeroom is available for streaming on August 11th, 2021.