A letter board in the lobby of the Homies Empowerment Freedom School displays the school's phone number and website.
The Homies Empowerment team is preparing to welcome an inaugural class of ninth graders next month to the Freedom School in East Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

With a month to go before the Homies Empowerment Freedom School welcomes its inaugural class of ninth graders, the team is putting the finishing touches on the school, filling shelves with books about social justice and freedom movements and hanging pictures of freedom fighters along the walls.

In the wake of a break-in and burglary last weekend, which resulted in the loss of laptops, projectors, a power saw, and microphones, Homies Empowerment has received an outpouring of community support. Only a few days after launching a fundraiser to replace the stolen items and pay for additional security measures, the organization has received more than $13,000 in donations.

The Freedom School by Homies Empowerment
Cesar Cruz, the co-founder of Homies Empowerment, points to the weekly agenda for the Freedom School on Thursday, Aug. 3, 2023. Credit: Amir Aziz

On Thursday, Homies Empowerment co-founder Cesar Cruz delivered 10 3-D printers that had been donated by a San Leandro company after news of the burglary got out. 

Despite the setback, the school is set to open its doors on Sept. 11. 

“You think a little robbery’s going to stop us? That’s crazy,” Cruz told The Oaklandside this week. “We’ve got to stay faithful to what we’re trying to do and not get so discouraged.”

Homies Empowerment, an East Oakland community organization, has been planning the Freedom School for several years, but during the pandemic the team pivoted to providing food and supplies to East Oakland residents. 

The Freedom School by Homies Empowerment
Portraits of artists and civil rights leaders like Huey P. Newton and Frida Kahlo hang in the hallways of newly formed Freedom School in Oakland, Calif. on Aug 3rd, 2023. Credit: Amir Aziz

The Freedom School is independent, not affiliated with Oakland Unified School District or any charter organization, and is free to families. It aims to be a small alternative school for students who aren’t being served well by large comprehensive high schools, and youth who have been involved in gangs or the criminal justice system. The school is also filling a gap left by the closure of Community Day, an expulsion school that OUSD closed in 2022.

Homies Empowerment has replaced the locks on the school’s doors, which will cost the organization about $3,600. The group also plans to add cameras and bulletproof parts of the building’s exterior. 

While the security upgrades give some comfort, Cruz said the burglary has left the school’s community with a feeling of vulnerability. The burglary comes a couple of months after the group’s van was stolen. It has since been recovered, but the uneasiness lingers.

“I don’t like to talk about it but what is lingering is fear. None of us want this violence,” Cruz said. “We want folks to feel safe. We’ve got to do what we’ve got to do to protect our kids.”

The Freedom School by Homies Empowerment
Cruz shares with Reverend Harry “OG Rev” Williams, a Homies Empowerment board member, the 3-D computers donated by a local organization in support of their recent challenges on Thursday, Aug 3rd, 2023. The Freedom School by Homies Empowerment was burglarized earlier this week and robbed of laptops and other equipment. Credit: Amir Aziz

The team has hired seven teachers and is still looking for a math teacher. The curriculum is centered around social justice and freedom movements, and students will also take classes at Chabot Space and Science Center and Merritt College. 

On Saturday, the school is hosting a spoken-word event and fundraiser for the school called “Dream Fest: Rhythms of the Town/Barrio,” featuring performances from youth in the organization’s “dream arts and activism” program. 

“When you walk in here, there’s hope,” Cruz said. “We still have to be able to have some joy because if we just get hella scared, nothing’s going to be able to grow.”

Ashley McBride writes about education equity for The Oaklandside. Her work covers Oakland’s public district and charter schools. Before joining The Oaklandside in 2020, Ashley was a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News and the San Francisco Chronicle as a Hearst Journalism Fellow, and has held positions at the Poynter Institute and the Palm Beach Post. Ashley earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University.