UC Links Statewide Office on the Road - UC Berkeley Y-PLAN

September 4, 2019

On April 16th, Mara visited the Y-PLAN (YOUTH-PLAN LEARN ACT NOW!) in action at McClymonds High School in West Oakland. Y-PLAN partners with multiple high schools and elementary schools in the San Francisco Bay Area and collaborates with a number of clients. My visit was to a computer-science class that is partnering with the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), a regional planning agency for all nine Bay Area counties. MTC is mandated to develop a 2050 plan for all nine Bay Area counties that includes housing, transportation, land use, and resilience in response to fires, earthquakes, sea level rise etc. MTC is seeking input from throughout the region to inform this plan and is particularly interested in hearing from communities that it doesn’t usually hear from; incorporating young people’s voices from McClymonds is part of that effort.

On April 25th, Mara and Charles visited the Y-PLAN Policy Summit: Planning a More Inclusive and Resilient Region, where Y-PLAN K-12 students met with officials from various participating clients such as MTC, San Francisco Planning Department, the City of Oakland's Sustainability Department, and the City of Richmond's City Manager's Office. Y-PLAN students presented fresh solutions to some of the San Francisco Bay Area region’s biggest challenges, including affordable housing, gentrification, homelessness, transportation, education, jobs and climate change. A few days later (April 29, 2019), Mara and Charles visited the final day of the undergraduate course, taught by Y-PLAN founder, Deborah McKoy and witnessed undergrad’s final presentations and reflections.

Photos are available in a Google Photo album and on the Y-PLAN blog. Deb already shared some powerful reflections from one of the undergraduates working with McClymonds’ students on the UC Links listserv; those reflections can also be found on the Y-PLAN blog.

UC Berkeley: Y-PLAN at McClymonds High School, West Oakland

General Observations

McClymonds High School is locked down during the school day and students and visitors must get buzzed in if entering after the school day has started. It’s a large traditional school building and enrolls approximately 400 students from all over Oakland (students may attend any school in Oakland, however school bussing is not provided). The computer science class was large with lots of windows, tables, and chairs, but no computers. There are apparently Chromebook carts but they must have been elsewhere in the school at that time. 

On the day I visited, there were three undergrads from the Y-PLAN undergraduate course, the Y-PLAN program manager, Myrna Ortiz Villar, approximately 17 high school students, and Anup Tapase an associate planner with MTC. I noticed during roll call that 10 students were absent, which I learned from other McClymonds’ students, is typical. Ed-data.org indicates that more than a third of McClymonds students are chronically absent (36%). I was surprised to find that among the 17 students present one was wearing headphones throughout class and a number of other students had in earbuds or were on their phones. Clearly, it’s been a while since I’ve been in a high school classroom.

Students were working in four groups to develop a poster that they would present at the Y-PLAN Policy Summit the following week. Topic areas for the two groups I spent the most time with included improved transportation and the intersection of housing, schooling, and commerce (including access to grocery stores- a crucial issue for the food desert of West Oakland). The class had already engaged in a neighborhood walk, looking for community assets and challenges, and brainstormed with mentors in preparation for their first meeting with the client, MTC, and further identifying and developing their group projects representing their perspective and input to share with MTC.

Focused Observations

The teacher, Myrna (Y-PLAN), and Anup (from MTC) spent about the first 45 minutes of class talking with the students, answering questions to set the larger context for the project and pose the question, how can your city and community thrive in the year 2050? Cassandra (all names are pseudonyms) asked "Why are we focusing on 2050 if there are problems that need to be addressed now?” Anup, Myrna, and the teacher were also explaining the process of engagement, which at times felt like trying to convince McClymonds students to participate. Amanda asked, “What do we get out of this?” The teacher responded and asked the class, “How many people think they’ll be living in Oakland in 2050? You’ll be 49 years old.” One person raised his hand. “How many of your parents grew up in Oakland or have grandparents from Oakland?” The majority of hands went up. “Well then,” the teacher went on, “there’s a good chance your children might grow up here and you could point to something for the rest of your life and say, I helped make that happen. You have a chance to make a difference by doing something different.” The teacher’s explanations were met with more skepticism. Angela asked, “Are we going to get paid?"

When it came time to break into groups, it still wasn’t clear that the students were on board with the activity, but the work proceeded. Myrna and the undergraduates were skilled at engaging the students in small groups. One undergraduate came to the group that I was working with and was able to completely redirect them and help focus their work. The group was able to voice very clearly the issues that they struggle with in their own community - difficulties getting to school on public transportation (not enough busses, too crowded, too slow etc.), no access to fresh food and overabundance of liquor stores, crime, lack of college access... Myrna offered students different scenarios and allowed them to take their thinking to the next level in terms of opportunities. She prompted them by asking, “What could a grocery store look like? Would it have local farmers there? Could there be a garden nearby? Would there be individual businesses like Swan's Market? Could it be part of their school or near the school campus?” Slowly the group poster began taking shape. 

UC Berkeley: Y-PLAN Policy Summit: Planning a More Inclusive and Resilient Region

Focused Observations

As noted briefly above, the summit offered a forum in which K-12 student groups displayed posters and made oral presentations of their ideas for solving practical problems in their own neighborhoods. MTC and other client representatives as well as other invited guests visited the many displays and offered feedback on their presentations. General observations in the form of a summary blog post is available on the Y-PLAN blog and more photos are here.

I was surprised and excited to see the grocery store team that I worked with at McClymonds at the summit. One of the most skeptical students, Angela, was part of this group and by the end of the class period I wasn’t sure that they would finish their poster or come to Cal to present their work. I ran into their teacher before I saw the group from McClymonds and he shared that not only did the group finish their poster and come to the summit, but they expressed interest in creating an advisory group to MTC to ensure that their voices are heard and included in the planning process. When I talked with the students, Jamal explained, “We want a seat at the table, because we live in this neighborhood. We live in West Oakland. Nobody can tell us where need a grocery store at or where the problems because we actually live here. That’s like me going somewhere where I don’t live and saying, ‘This look like a bad neighborhood. We need a grocery store here.’ Nah, you can’t just say it like that. You have to live there and see it and experience it to actually know where grocery stores would be better placed.”

Reflections

There was a lot of work that needed to be done to set the context for the group activity, to enable students to believe that their input would actually be valued and potentially implemented, and to convince the students about what they might get out of participating. It seemed to me like a legitimate concern, for a group of students who very likely have never had their observations and insights solicited or have had their views ignored or discounted. During the class, a number of students were not engaged at all and seemed unwilling to be engaged, despite repeated attempts. Several students were either asleep, wearing their headphones or earbuds during class, or playing games on their phones. When I asked one student to use his phone to do some internet research on transportation, he frankly told me no, he couldn't and continued playing his game. 

I see these overt expressions of indifference to the activity as legitimate responses to the context of indifference that these students may regularly experience in school (outside of the Y-PLAN program). I share these observations as evidence of the difficulty of doing this work, especially with high school age young people, especially in the digital age, and especially in educational settings where students feel powerless.  

Given this context, I was especially surprised to see the transformation among the McClymonds students at the Summit. At the summit, they presented their views and talked with adult professionals who listened to them and discussed with them how they might together put their ideas into practice. I had the opportunity to talk with the McClymonds students and wanted to learn more about this transformation from their perspective. I asked them why it was hard to believe that people were coming into your class wanting your opinion and wanting your input? Angela offered, “Nobody comes to Oakland and be like, ‘Do you want help?’ We have to bring things to the mayor or the school board. It’s kind of surprising to have someone come up to us and ask us, ‘What do you want?’ Jamal chimed in, “We’ve heard a lot of lies. We would talk about this stuff and stuff actually wouldn’t change. So the way we gotta change things is by us doing it. We gotta make the change because nobody else is gonna do it for us. They just gonna keep looking over us.” 


I asked the group what changed their minds and Jamal said,  “I got some answers and what helped me a lot is that I had fun working with my group members. They had a lot to do with it. I was having a good time with them, so I actually wanted to actually try it; try something different.”  Angela added, “What helped change all of our minds is that it was something that we needed for this community.” Another member of the group chimed in, “I just want Oakland to thrive and be the best it can be.”