It’s a hectic late-January morning at Madison Park Academy for Nelda Kerr, Mario Capitelli, and Richie Nuñez. The trio is scattered around the school’s gym, putting the final touches on what is going to be the first live-audience taping of The Town Talks, a show on KDOL-TV (Oakland Unified School District’s public access television station) where middle and high school students from across OUSD talk to notable Oakland icons about culture, creativity, and community.
This taping is special, not only because it’s being filmed in front of 250 students from Madison Park Academy and MetWest High School, but because the show’s guest is award-winning author Tommy Orange, whose 2018 debut novel There, There, portrays the multi-generational experience of urban Native Americans living in Oakland. All of the students, those leading the interview and in the audience, have read Orange’s book.
Although this will be the first time the show is taped in front of a large audience, The Town Talks crew has plenty of experience. Since launching last year, the team has produced five shows, with guests that include Ay’Anna Moody, the Golden State Warriors director of social impact programs; Elisa Greenwell, founder and CEO of The Black Joy Parade; actor, director, and poet Rafael Casal; and Jeopardy! champ Amy Schneider.
The Town Talks didn’t start out as a full-blown live production, but as an idea thought up by Kerr during the early months of the pandemic. At the time, she was teaching at Edna Brewer Middle School and looking for ways to keep her students engaged during distance learning.
“COVID school was mundane. I wanted my students to have something interesting and exciting to do,” Kerr said. “So I started to email local people from Oakland because I was doing a unit all about Oakland history.”
Among the people she emailed were Orange (who has now spoken to Oakland students twice, once on Zoom and again at the live taping) and Emory Douglas, a graphic artist known for his work as a member of the Black Panther Party. The Zoom conversation that ensued with Douglas marked the unofficial launch of The Town Talks.
“I felt that the questions my students were asking were profound. I thought that my students could ask questions that maybe reporters couldn’t or wouldn’t,” she said. “It was a different kind of conversation [than what] I would see with these figures in other settings.”
During the most recent taping with Orange at Madison Park Academy, both the student moderators on stage and those in the audience asked the author questions—beginning with introductory ones (What kind of music do you listen to?) before going deeper with questions about racial identity, the lack of Native American cultural representation and subject matter in schools, the author’s writing process, and how he developed the characters in his book.
Kerr knew early on that the interview series had the potential to be more. So she reached out to her friends Nuñez, founder of the podcast label La Segunda and host of Roots Radio, and Capitelli, the station manager at KDOL-TV.
The two didn’t need much convincing to get on board.
“We essentially hopped on a call with Mario [Capitelli], and we said, ‘Now that it has this format going on in the classroom, we just want to blow it up,’” Nuñez recalled. “We want as many folks to have access to it as possible.”
Capitelli now works the production side of the show, while Nuñez plays the role of talent booker and host. Kerr works with the students on their interviewing skills and helps them prepare by researching the guests’ backgrounds.
What started out as a classroom project during remote learning is now a well-produced live show that can be watched online.
Each episode is filmed at a different location, depending on the guest. The show with Orange was filmed at Madison Park Academy because the students from that class had read his book in class. For the episode with the film actor and director Casal, the crew filmed at KDOL-TV studio.
Capitelli said he chose to get involved because he saw the show’s potential to engage with people and topics they care about, but in a way that’s thoughtful and fosters critical thinking. “Also, Nelda and Richie showed their energy and commitment to the project,” said Capitelli. “This, to me, felt like a high leverage point—to do something good that engages our students directly.”
Capitelli’s post-production work includes editing the footage, sometimes with the help of students. From pre-production to publishing the video online, the trio estimates that each episode takes about 20-30 hours to complete.
Since launching the show, Kerr has transitioned from being an educator at Edna Brewer to a larger role at the school district’s enrollment office, where her job is to promote the good work that’s happening at OUSD schools. She also runs the Instagram account Oakland in the Middle, focused on highlighting successes at district middle schools and posting information resources for those students and families.
“The district noticed that I was creating a lot of media with my students, and they wanted innovation and creativity in this role,” she said. “The Town Talks is very much the reason I have this job now.”
Kerr now juggles her new full-time job with her role in producing The Town Talks. As the show’s name implies, her goal remains to showcase Oakland icons doing great work in the community in different professional fields and from all walks of life, who can bring a unique perspective on Oakland culture and inspire students.
When Casal appeared on the show, Kerr made a point of recruiting young people to participate who were curious about filmmaking. “The students were interested in his rise within the film industry,” Kerr said of the students who interviewed Casal. “My aim is that students can see in these successful people that they, too, can succeed coming out of Oakland. And it’s pretty easy to do because we have so many amazing people.”
The trio hopes that as more people learn about the show and tune in, they’ll be able to attract more prominent Oakland celebrities. Some of the luminaries on Kerr’s wishlist include Zendaya, Tom Hanks, Boots Riley, Ryan Coogler, Rep. Barbara Lee, and Vice President Kamala Harris.
Along the way, Kerr has become savvier with reaching out to potential guests. She approached Casal at a local coffee shop and sent a message to Amy Scheider through Instagram. “It’s a pretty easy pitch to say: ‘Would you come to speak to our students for an hour or so?’ And as we gain credibility with our guests, I think we’re getting more access,” she said.
As the host of the Roots Radio podcast, Nuñez has used his platform to pitch The Town Talks to different guests. “It’s been nothing but ‘yes,’” he said. “Folks have been gracious with their time.”
Nuñez realizes the importance of young people seeing themselves reflected in different professional fields, and wishes that a show like The Town Talks had existed when he was young.
“That’s sort of always been the goal, to provide access to these different types of folks—these are just regular people that do extraordinary things—so that the students can see themselves in that same light.”
The team already has prominent names lined up for episodes that will air later this year, including Grammy-award-winning singer-songwriter Fantastic Negrito, founder of Urban Cowgirl Ranch Brianna Noble, and others. Their aim is to produce five episodes per school year.
“We’ve gotten good at making the show,” Kerr said. “We think it’s special; other people might too if they get a chance to check it out.”