Parents Shefali Shah and Saleem Shakir-Gilmore with son Amari Shah-Shakir stand in front their home in Oakland, California.
Saleem Shakir-Gilmore (right), Shefali Shah (left), Amari Shah-Shakir (bottom) pose for a photo outside of their home on Sep 15, 2023 in Oakland, Calif. Saleem co-chairs the diversity, equity, and inclusion committee at Hillcrest K-8. Credit: Amir Aziz

When Saleem Gilmore’s son started kindergarten at Hillcrest K-8, he was one of a few Black boys in his class. There weren’t many Black or male educators who could be a positive role model for him either.

At a school with only a handful of Black students in each grade, Gilmore said he and his wife had to work to build up their son’s self-confidence in an environment where there weren’t many others who looked like him. 

“We had to do a lot of self-affirmations and racial identity development so he could be comfortable and confident in who he was,” said Gilmore.

Gilmore, a former public school teacher, joined the school’s PTA last year and this year is the co-chair of the group’s diversity, equity, and inclusion committee. The purpose of Hillcrest’s DEI committee and others like it—which are often parent-led through a school’s PTA—is to provide a sense of community and belonging for students and families at schools where there are fewer students of color compared to other campuses. Some groups also provide opportunities for people to connect over traits beyond race and cultural background, like organizing events for LGBTQ families, or students who are neurodiverse.

In a school district with vast inequalities like Oakland Unified, where some school PTA’s raise hundreds of thousands of dollars per year while other schools almost exclusively serve low-income families and sometimes have no PTA at all, diversity and equity groups also provide a space for more privileged families to talk about how they can use their resources to help others. 

Two weeks ago, the diversity and inclusion group at Chabot Elementary in Oakland’s Rockridge neighborhood was sent racist and threatening emails after it had organized a playdate for students of color at the school. The threats culminated with a bomb threat that forced the school to be evacuated and closed for a day. 

Parents involved in diversity and equity groups who spoke to The Oaklandside said the backlash hasn’t discouraged them. In fact, it only further highlighted the value of these groups.

“It really galvanizes us and reinforces the importance of this work,” said Adriane Armstrong, one of the parent co-chairs of the equity and anti-racism committee at Crocker Highlands Elementary. “No part of it led anyone to think that we should not continue on with our goals and what we’ve been planning.”

Following the incident at Chabot, the Hillcrest PTA sent a supportive letter to the school community highlighting the work of its equity group. 

“Our school leadership and families started our formal diversity, equity, and inclusion work in 2019, engaging parents in dialogue and working with staff and families to build a community where everyone feels welcome and can thrive,” the letter said. “We will continue to hold more of these events centered on different groups in the future, because the actions of a few hate-filled individuals will not hinder our DEI work at Hillcrest.”

The PTA encouraged families to get involved with the diversity committee, which also hosts playdates for families of color and LGBTQ families, and can sometimes be seen offering bagels and conversation at the morning drop-off line.

When it comes to critics of school-based diversity and equity initiatives, Gilmore said he welcomes people with different perspectives to have a conversation. When something insensitive does occur, he said, DEI groups can provide an outlet where it can be discussed.

“It’s a way to keep that conversation front and center so that there is a foundation to address any disrespectful, racist incidents,” he said. “I’m of the mindset that the more voices in the room, the better.”

At Crocker Highlands Elementary, “Mosaic Night” is the equity committee’s biggest event each year. Families come together for a potluck and bring in platters of food from their own culture or a culture they admire.

“There’s probably six or 700 people on the playground, sharing food, music, and art for the kids,” Armstrong said. “It’s known as one of the most fun nights on campus for the entire school community.”

Similar to the group at Hillcrest, the equity group at Crocker Highlands runs affinity groups for Black families, LGBTQ families, and neurodiverse families. Angela Liu, the other co-chair, also facilitates an accountability group for white families to talk about racism and privilege, which can sometimes be challenging. 

“There’s been some pushback on that. I think a lot of folks just don’t understand what that means and why white folks would have to get together and talk about race,” she said. 

The Crocker Highlands PTA often raises hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to support teaching positions, the library, and art and music programs. Recognizing that privilege, the PTA recently began reserving 5% of its funds each year to be distributed to Oakland schools that don’t raise much money. In the past, the school community has been generous in collecting coats and books or other items to share with other schools, but persuading parents to commit some of the funds they raise to other school communities has been more difficult, said Genie Gratto, a fourth grade parent also involved in Crocker’s equity committee.

Parent-Led Equity Groups
Genie Gratto (left) and Angela Liu are each involved with the equity and anti-racism committee of the Crocker Highlands Elementary PTA. Credit: Amir Aziz

“Making that shift has happened over time,” she said, “but it has been slow and sometimes really challenging.”

In light of the threats levied at the Chabot community—which happened after a parent at the school shared an event flyer on social media and it was reposted by Libs of TikTok, a widely followed social media handle that publishes far-right, racist, and anti-LGBTQ content—parents who spoke to The Oaklandside cautioned other parents against sharing specific information online about school events where students are gathering. At a recent school board meeting, Director Sam Davis, who represents Chabot, suggested crafting a policy around parents’ posting on social media about school events, and encouraged community members to reach out to him with ideas.

Rachel Latta, a parent at West Oakland Middle School and Prescott Elementary, said that having conversations about power, privilege, and money can be difficult. She’s part of Equity Allies for OUSD, a districtwide group that mostly involves parents at some of OUSD’s most sought-after schools, like Chabot, Crocker Highlands, and Edna Brewer Middle School.

The group’s aim is to promote equity across the district, rather than within one school community. Among its initiatives is the equity fund, where school PTAs like the one at Crocker donate a portion of their budget to other schools. This year, the goal is to raise $200,000 to distribute over the next three years. The group also organizes workshops to help inform parents on the implications of their school choice decisions, and Latta represented Equity Allies on the district’s equitable enrollment group in 2020 that established pilots at three OUSD schools to increase diversity

One of the major challenges with diversity and equity programs, noted Latta, is that they’re often run by parent volunteers who also have full-time jobs and other commitments. But one of the biggest hurdles remains figuring out how to have difficult conversations about inequality without turning people away, she said, particularly after the Chabot incident. And conversations about children can be especially fraught. 

“Certainly the bomb threat doesn’t help,” she said. “I think a bigger question is, how to talk about things in such a way that is honest but does help people change their minds. Stay true to the principles of equity, and make sure that there’s a place, in whatever process of development you’re at, that you’re always welcome and we can have a conversation.”

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.