Among all of the protests undertaken by students, parents, teachers, staff, and other community members against school closures in Oakland in the past year, the most prominent was arguably the hunger strike by two educators at Westlake Middle School. For 18 days, Andre San-Chez and Moses Omolade stopped eating food to protest a district plan to permanently close, merge, or shrink 11 of its nearly 80 schools.
The protest was immensely difficult on their bodies: They lost weight, Omolade was taken to the hospital for medical attention, and at times the pair used wheelchairs because they were too weak to stand or walk. There was also an emotional toll: By the time Omolade and San-Chez ended their strike, Westlake and several other schools had been removed from the district’s closure list. But school board directors showed no indication of backing off their plan to close the remaining schools—leaving Omolade and San-Chez to wonder in the immediate aftermath whether their effort had been worth it.
“After the strike, I was struggling,” Omolade told The Oaklandside earlier this month. “I just wanted to hide, stay in my house, and not deal with any of it anymore.”
Beyond their physical recovery, San-Chez and Omolade have spent the past year channeling their activism in other ways, including their work at Westlake. As the community schools manager there, Omolade, 36, works with community organizations and other partners to bring resources to students. San-Chez, 34, remains the school’s choir director and teaches beginning, intermediate, and advanced chorus to the middle schoolers.
The Oaklandside spoke with San-Chez and Omolade about how they view their protest a year later, whether they feel it was successful, and where they’re focusing their energies now.
Expectations shifted over the course of the hunger strike
The school district’s initial closure plan would have consolidated Westlake and West Oakland Middle School—about a mile away—and relocated two alternative schools, Dewey Academy and Ralph J. Bunche Academy, to the Westlake campus. When the plan was announced, San-Chez and Omolade each came to the idea of a hunger strike separately. After talking about it with one other, they decided to follow through on it together.
“My big message for my kids is that you always have a voice. And the voice isn’t necessarily just this voice box in your throat,” San-Chez said. “It’s your actions and how you carry yourself in the world.”
Their initial goal for the hunger strike was simple: force the board to reject the closure plan and keep all schools—not just Westlake—open. In the days leading up to the board’s Feb. 8 vote, school board directors Sam Davis and Aimee Eng announced an amendment to the plan that removed Westlake and several other schools from the list. But the bulk of the closure plan—seven closures, one merger, and two K-8 downsizings—remained unchanged.
Despite the removal of Westlake from the closure list, Omolade and San-Chez continued their strike. And as the days passed, their demands changed. The pair requested meetings with the school board and superintendent, and said a meeting with Gov. Gavin Newsom would bring an immediate end to the strike. But as the strike wore on with their demands unmet, their expectations changed too.
“We started to be more informed and more clear about the bigger fight. And that became the motivation,” said Omolade. “[I realized] you don’t have to actually die for this cause. You can live for the cause. The expectation started to change about what a win was.”
On Feb. 18, facing mounting pressure from community members, the school board held a meeting to vote once again on the school closure plan. Viewing the meeting as a compromise, Omolade and San-Chez agreed to end their strike. But in the end, the board didn’t vote any differently. In the days and weeks that followed, they felt dejected, as if they had put their lives on the line for nothing, they said. But with support and praise from community members, they came to view their action as part of a larger campaign against school closures, and their actions sparked other protests.
Throughout the spring and summer, protest actions against school closures continued across the city. They included marches, a one-day strike by the Oakland Education Association, a complaint from the Northern California ACLU chapter urging California Attorney General Rob Bonta to investigate the racially disparate impacts of the closures, and an occupation of Parker K-8 led by two moms who stayed in the building and organized an unsanctioned summer program after the school had been officially closed.
“There are certain wins there. It’s like a breadcrumb trail, and once you get one you move on to the next one,” said San-Chez. “There’s a reason it’s called a movement instead of a moment. Because movements are composed of multiple pieces.”
Omolade, San-Chez, and others began shifting their attention to the fall election, when three seats on the school board would be up. Of the nine candidates who ran, six centered their platform on stopping the closures. Two of those candidates, Jennifer Brouhard and Valarie Bachelor, won their races. In District 4, Nick Resnick, who wasn’t staunchly opposed to the closures, was initially declared the winner and sworn in, but recently resigned after the registrar announced that a tallying error led to the wrong outcome in that race. Director Mike Hutchinson, who currently represents District 5 and has been a vocal opponent of closures, received more votes than Resnick after the ballots were re-tabulated, and he could soon be declared the winner by a Superior Court judge.
Last month, the board voted to reverse the remaining closures of five schools, seemingly bringing an end to this most recent battle over school closures in Oakland. But schools and students are still struggling, said Omolade.
“Our city’s hurting. Our schools are hurting. Teachers are hurting. Departments are being gutted left and right in the district,” he said. “There’s so many reminders everywhere as to why we’re in the condition we’re in.”
The hunger strikers’ next moves
Reminders of the strike are all around the Westlake campus. Letters and cards to Omolade and San-Chez hang in the school’s office, and a collage of student posters are stapled to the walls in the school’s Great Hall, marking the days of the hunger strike, and urging the district to keep Westlake open. A photo of students and staff walking out to protest closures hangs juxtaposed with a photo of Ruby Bridges, a Black woman who as a 6-year-old integrated her elementary school in New Orleans in 1960.
So, after a year, do the pair consider their strike a success? In the immediate aftermath, it seemed like they had failed, they said. But a year later, only five of the schools on the district’s original consolidation list were impacted, including two schools that completely closed.
“I’m grateful that I participated and I do think our efforts did not go in vain,” said Omolade recently. “For school closures to be done at this point, it’s a good feeling. It just mirrors the fact that it was a community effort, because it definitely wasn’t just San-Chez and I. We just did our part.”
Today, San-Chez is focusing their activism in the teachers union, the Oakland Education Association. As part of the bargaining team, San-Chez is helping to negotiate a new contract with OUSD, and one of the team’s priorities is making sure the district has a more deliberate plan for closing schools—one that involved input from families, teachers, and local leaders—if it needs to do so in the future.
“Kids were being affected because their support systems were being torn apart from them—whether it’s their friends at school, their teachers at school, or whether it’s the school itself as a safe haven away from home,” San-Chez. “Everyone has a voice. Everybody has their own power.”
Omolade is focusing inward, working out regularly and enjoying time with his kids as a father, as well as being available to his students’ and families’ needs whenever they need him.
“In the dark place post-strike, I made some really beautiful commitments to myself. What would it look like if you committed to yourself for a couple of years? No one else’s big project, not solving anyone else’s problems, let’s commit to yourself and see what that looks like,” he said.
He’s also prioritizing his creative side. Omolade is part of the Afro Urban Society, an organization for people of African descent to focus on the arts. Last year, he performed with the group in San Francisco.
Omolade said he’ll also soon be transitioning out of education, in part because he felt that district leadership showed indifference towards him and San-Chez during the strike, he said. His next move?
“I’m going to a beach to practice yoga. And I’ll just see what comes after that. It’s a very scary choice of a person that has been supporting my family on the financial side for so long. So to step away is a hard choice and simultaneously the best choice.”