About a month ago, Leon Sykes woke up thinking about the November election—and his students at Fremont High School. Since 2020, Sykes has been teaching 10th-graders at the East Oakland campus about media production through the school’s College and Technical Education program. But for Sykes, a former Oakland Tech student, the job is about a lot more than teaching kids how to craft stories or produce a podcast. It’s about mentoring and empowering young people from some of Oakland’s most challenged neighborhoods to find and assert their voice.
“Literally, I woke up about three weeks ago and I thought to myself, ‘How do we further amplify these student voices?’” said Sykes. “I wanted to give my students an opportunity to say what they wanted to incumbents and new electeds.”
Over the ensuing weeks, Sykes led his students—none of whom are old enough to vote—on an assignment: Write a letter to the incoming mayor, City Council, and school board members letting them know who you are, what you experience every day, and what you’d like to see them working to change.
The students’ responses were, initially, lukewarm.
“A lot of students asked, ‘Why are we writing about something that nobody wants to hear?’ The feeling of being voiceless is something that’s prevalent in the students I’ve worked with over the years in Oakland,” said Sykes. “In my position, I try to dispel that notion as much as I can.”
At the beginning of the school year, he said, most of the students didn’t know what district they lived in. By the end of the assignment, he saw a more confident group with a deeper understanding of local government and why it matters.
“They worked tirelessly for a month and made themselves vulnerable,” said Sykes. A number of students entered the writing assignment afraid, he said. “But once they did write, it was a relief. A relief that their words are being shown and heard. These are students who never thought they’d be published, now they’re seeing it as a reality.”
Sykes shared six of the student letters with The Oaklandside, which we’re publishing here in full and only slightly edited.
Hi, my name is Yizel Ceja-Martinez. I am a sophomore at Fremont High School and I am also in the Media Academy. I have lived in Oakland for a very long time and I live in District 6.
As a young person, I would like Oakland to have a Teen Center that is accessible to all teenagers in Oakland. The reason why is that they can help provide many things like academic support, mental health support, social interactions, games, and activities to play, and just a spot to relax or have fun while getting to know your community or just new people. If teenagers were to go to these centers there would be very little to no teenagers messing around on the streets of Oakland.
I consider Oakland to be a bit dangerous. For example in the Fremont community, there are a lot of threats of gun violence and a lot of fights. Just living around that type of environment can be very scary at times, and most of the time it comes from teenagers thinking it’s cool and funny. To improve safety I would like our new mayor or councilmember to help better track down and find out the people who are imposing fake gun threats. If they were to do that, it would be easier to find the culprits and stop others from scaring people with empty threats or possible threats.
If the school board could help make classes or clubs that actually teach essential adult life tips that we can take with us for the rest of our life, it would make school a lot more exciting and helpful. Also, if they could provide classes, electives, or clubs that are actually fun and that most youth would enjoy—things to do with social media or video games—then there would be people actually having a fun time and wanting to go to school every day.
Something that I wish for my mayor, school board member, and councilmember to prioritize is just the well-being and mental health of students. If they were to focus more on ways to help students rather than their studies and performance in school, it would help students feel comfortable and just make school a better place.
Yizel Ceja-Martinez from District 6
Living in Oakland generally isn’t so bad for me, but I do see major problems in this town we call home. From homelessness to affordable housing to schooling, there’s a lot that Oakland needs to work on.
According to the official website for the City of Oakland, officials see the problem with homelessness. Over the last five years, homelessness has nearly doubled in the city, skyrocketing from 2,761 in 2017 to over 5,000 people in 2022, according to The Oaklandside. At the same time, many sources show that the cost of living in Oakland for things like food, transportation, and housing, is increasing.
Crime in Oakland is something else you can’t be blind to, it just happens too often. According to one analysis of FBI crime data from 2020, you’re more than three times as likely to be a victim of violent crime in Oakland than in other areas of California, on average. Oakland had a total of 28,668 crimes that year (both violent and property) and the crime rate per 1000 residents was 65, according to the same analysis. The number of crimes reported by Oakland police did decrease between 2012 and 2021, according to the FBI’s Crime Data Explorer website, but overall crime in California has risen over the past few years. This is a major problem for California and generally for Oakland.
As a teen in Oakland, I feel like the city isn’t a place where my peers and I can enjoy ourselves. Usually, when I’m with friends or cousins, we find ourselves planning to go outside of Oakland to figure out something to do, instead of sitting in the house. There should be more entertainment for the locals in this city—whether that’s arcades, more county fairs, escape rooms, or newer and bigger parks. We should have the chance to be able to enjoy ourselves. Many other people around my age would agree that going to the same old places we’ve been going to since childhood isn’t as fun as before. Although we make the best out of what we already have, more variety would bring out more enjoyment of being out in Oakland.
I love Oakland, this is my home, and that’s why I’m writing to Oakland’s mayoral candidates, so my voice can be heard. So the people of Oakland’s voices can be heard.
Hello, my name is Joshua Watan and I live in District 5. I am writing this letter to tell you the things I am looking for to improve my community and the rest of Oakland.
First of all, I want to talk about the amount of public spaces we have to just hang out and not worry about anything happening to us. I would like to see new parks, arcades, and public sports fields. Without these places, people in Oakland, especially kids, have nowhere else to go and just hang out. This might lead them to stay at home all day or even turn to the streets. I’d like to see more parades, fairs, and other community events catered to young people. I feel like having a place where we can all come together will help us get closer.
Gun violence should be taken more seriously in my neighborhood and we should have stricter rules when owning or purchasing a gun. Every day, I get a notification on my phone saying that there were robberies, shots fired, and people getting shot just a couple of feet away, and that just makes me worried for my family and friends. We also need safer crosswalks and intersections because whenever I cross the street, cars are zooming past and almost hitting me.
To the school board, I’d like more security on my school’s campus (Fremont High School). We’ve had multiple lock-ins and five fights this week alone. I want everyone at my school to feel safe. We also have had two school threats of shootings, which led to a lot of people becoming afraid of going to school. School safety looks like all students are respecting each other and being responsible. School safety also means that adults or upperclassmen are being role models and great examples for everyone else on campus.
I would also like to see more opportunities for teens to get jobs—good paying jobs—and maybe more after-school programs or summer jobs. Teens might also need higher-paying jobs because they might be living by themselves or even taking care of their younger siblings or parents. Something else I want in the community is more money being funded into schools allowing students to use better equipment, have more field trips, and better and safer sports supplies. Another thing I want to see is teachers getting higher pay because they sometimes have to spend their own money just for their classroom supplies.
Joshua Watan, District 5
I live in District 6. Some things I would like to have as a young person are more safe but fun places to go, and higher-paying jobs. Most teens have or want to work and make money, but it’s not enough jobs that pay what we think they do. And the jobs that are around for teens are sometimes not the safest options, such as Mcdonald’s, Burger King, etc. It’s really a problem because we face harassment and sometimes being robbed at gunpoint, which makes young people change their minds about working at fast-food restaurants.
I feel that Oakland is not always the safest place to live if you don’t live in a more wealthy area. The ways I would like City Council to improve safety in my community is by more police, and by holding people accountable for their crimes and for doing things that are harmful to the community. This is important to me, because how am I gonna live here with all these safety issues and be expected to live a normal life, with all the killings and unsafe things that are happening?
I think the school board should help schools focus on not tolerating bullying or harassment from anyone. I see this behavior on social media with people getting talked about around the school. This can affect the way people view themselves because getting talked about can lower a person’s self-esteem, and make them feel less than everyone else.
There have been many issues with kids bringing guns to school or kids getting shot, when they are supposed to feel and be protected at all times when they are sent to places other than their homes, with parents. Kids shouldn’t feel so unsafe that they feel they should have to carry weapons to protect themselves.
One change I would like to see is more security because I shouldn’t have to walk out of the house thinking, “Will I even be able to walk back to my family?” because people are going missing and innocent people are getting killed for things that aren’t their fault.
I really hope that things will change, because it’s a lot of young kids growing up here thinking that killing innocent people is ok, and it’s really wrong. There should be more influences in our community to show younger kids the best way to live their life without having to have weapons, in fear of dying at a young age.
I believe that these things can be changed because I know some people have good hearts and could make changes without the law changing at all. Some ways I’ve seen this in my community are students and teachers protesting for higher pay, and just to feel accepted and safe with where they live in this place.
Cherish Boyd, District 6
Citlali Sanchez Udovic
As a citizen of Oakland for the last 12 years, and a young person who has grown up in this city, my ask for the new mayor and the new City Council members is that they think about people: women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, people who distrust elected officials, the victims of violence brought upon by the Oakland Police Department, immigrants, and people living at and under the poverty line.
The new mayor needs to think about the native residents who still exist in Oakland, the underserved community. The new mayor’s priority should be improving the city for them and making sure it is still a place they can stay, grow, raise families, and live their lives. Oakland needs to be for the people. That should be the number one priority.
Every day, I and 400,000 other people get ready for another day living in Oakland. Growing up in Oakland is difficult. I have always had a love/hate relationship with Oakland. Sometimes I love it, I feel so lucky to have grown up here and be a part of this community. Other times I hate it here, I can’t wait for when I go to college and leave. I often feel guilty for how often I feel this negativity towards Oakland, but it’s hard. All of the shootings, poverty, gentrification, corruption from cops, and problematic elected officials make Oakland a hard place to love.
I feel there’s a certain privilege that comes when white people specifically say they love Oakland. Yes, I love Oakland. I love the people, the community in East Oakland where I live, I love the community at my school and many aspects of the city itself. But I see in the people around me that many of them don’t love Oakland. They feel Oakland has wronged them, which makes sense. If the city you live in doesn’t love you, you probably don’t love it back. When white gentrifiers say, “I love the Town,” well, yeah, of course you do. You get to love the perfect Oakland. You’ve never had to deal with the many issues this city has. You get to love from afar.
The new mayor and City Council members need to understand that where we live is a complicated place and we need to focus on improving the communities that have built Oakland and stop catering to the gentrifiers destroying the city.
Thinking about people can be implemented in many ways. At the school board, the underserved and underfunded schools should be the priority, and improving programs for immigrant newcomer students should also be a main focus.
For the mayor, building a budget revolving around funding community programs, defunding the police department, and putting more money into building affordable housing are all examples of thinking of the people. City Council members can focus on strategic thinking and how to take care of neighborhoods on a deeper level than just monthly cleanups. The city can also raise the minimum wage so people are making a livable amount of money.
Since I have zero trust that these asks will be met, since it’s seen as not feasible to help people, I at least hope the new mayor, City Council, and school board members will try to think about what is best for the real people of Oakland and not prioritizing the new people of the city that are only making it worse.
My name is Jessica Flores, I am a 16-year-old high school student at Fremont High School. I pretty much have lived in District 5 my whole life and there are a lot of problems in our community. For example, dirty streets, gun violence, and a homeless problem.
As a young person, I would like Oakland to have cleaner streets. Almost every street in my area has illegal trash dumping, and the people in charge of Oakland have yet to do something about it. Another thing is fixing the streets. There are a lot of streets that have potholes or cracks, lifting the sidewalks of these streets and making it difficult to drive and walk. A lot of the potholes and sidewalk problems have been there since I was a toddler or longer, which says a lot about the city. And obviously, we don’t want our city to be represented by these problems that could be fixed. Homelessness is a big problem that we have, there are tons of people who live on the streets who have not gotten the support that they need.
I think Oakland isn’t that safe based on all the problems that we have. Gun violence happens all the time. It has become normal. It’s sad to see it become normalized in our community. Hundreds of people have lost their lives, yet the mayor hasn’t tried to make a stop to this. How many people have to lose their lives to make a difference? No matter the age, we’re all affected by the trauma that comes with these experiences. I’m not the only one that feels this way; a lot of people my age feel the same way. We should feel safe and not like our lives are at risk every time we get out of our houses at a certain hour.
What the school board can do to make everybody’s experience better is improving safety when we go to school. We trust you to make us feel safe and make us feel like our lives aren’t at risk because someone had a bad day. We feel like there’s not enough security to make us feel safe in our schools here in Oakland. We also feel like there is not enough mental health help here in our schools—like, they don’t take our mental health history because we are young and we apparently don’t have problems, which is not true. We need more counseling. We live in a city where a lot of violence takes place and we start to see that at a very young age and sometimes things can influence us in a negative way. That’s why we need more help in our schools.
I would like to see a change in pretty much every category in Oakland because if change doesn’t start now, then when will it change? How many lives have to be taken away? When will everybody have had enough?