With a Palestinian keffiyeh draped around her shoulders, student director Vida Mendoza reads a statement acknowledging the loss of life in Palestine. Credit: Carla Hernández Ramírez

Youth leaders are calling for the Oakland Unified School District to take a public stand in support of Palestinian people and for peace in the ongoing conflict, and asking for more opportunities to have informed discussions about the war in class. 

At the OUSD board meeting Wednesday, student directors Anevay Cruz and Vida Mendoza read statements acknowledging the loss of life in Palestine and Israel, offering support to families and students in Oakland who may be impacted, and requesting that school leaders offer resources and education on the topic.

“I believe that OUSD should continue to take into consideration that our community and students may be affected by this tragedy, especially as we see youth our age and younger being caught in the midst of extreme violence involving Israel and Palestine,” said Cruz, a senior at Oakland High School. “It is important that OUSD connect with families directly affected by this and find a way to give support or resources due to an increase of threats and targeted attacks across the U.S. It is our job to ensure that our community feels protected and safe during this time, especially while in school.”

After her comments, Cruz asked for a moment of silence in honor of those who have died in Palestine and Israel. Ahead of the meeting, the student directors placed copies of “The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine” by Rashid Khalidi, a professor of history at Columbia University, on each board members’ seat. Families and community members stood in solidarity, with many wearing red, green, and black, or holding the flag of Palestine. 

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Families and community members stand and applaud the students’ remarks during Wednesday’s school board meeting. Credit: Carla Hernández Ramírez

Hamas, a Palestinian political and military organization that governs the Gaza Strip, attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing more than 1,400 Israelis and taking more than 200 people hostage. 

Israel has retaliated with airstrikes in the weeks since, and the reported death toll in Gaza has risen above 7,000, according to Palestinian authorities. News outlets and international agencies have been unable to independently verify the death toll in Gaza, due to the ongoing conflict there. While the Oct. 7 attack prompted the latest escalation, Israel and Palestine have been in conflict for decades.

In recent weeks, youth in the East Bay have joined protests and rallies in support of Palestine. Last week, high schoolers from Oakland and Berkeley joined students in San Francisco during a walkout to protest Israeli attacks on the territory, while some Oakland students also marched around Lake Merritt. A gathering in support of Israel in San Francisco also attracted hundreds of people the day after the Oct. 7 attack.

Areli Chavez, a student at Life Academy in Oakland, said she helped organize the walkout among students at her school last week. Cruz, a senior, said she has a friend who has known victims of the war. 

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School board director Jennifer Brouhard holds up the book “The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine” that student directors provided to the rest of the board. Credit: Carla Hernández Ramírez

“I just think it’s really heartbreaking how a lot of kids and teenagers are there. And they’re not living a normal life as teenagers. They’re scared for their lives, and they’re scared to lose family members,” Chavez told The Oaklandside. “I couldn’t imagine myself being in that position. We just want to support them. Even though we’re not close to them, we’re just trying to feel for them.”

On Wednesday, hundreds of UC Berkeley students gathered at Sproul Plaza for a pro-Palestine rally, along with college students around the country. And late Tuesday, during a heated meeting, the Richmond City Council passed a resolution in support of Palestine and accusing Israel of ethnic cleansing.

A desire among young people to learn more about Palestine and Israel

Among their requests to school district leaders, Oakland students are asking for more education on the topic and a chance to talk about the war in class. Ashley Tchanyoum, a student at Oakland Technical High School, said she was surprised to learn that nearly half of the people living in Gaza are younger than 18.

“None of my teachers have really said anything or brought it up, which is really surprising because when Ukraine was invaded, all of my teachers were talking about that,” she told The Oaklandside. “Thousands of people are being harmed that don’t deserve it. It’s more than a war; it’s a humanitarian crisis.”

Tchanyoum added that many of her classmates don’t know about the conflict, and she thinks adults should be educating more young people about international relations. 

The student directors are asking OUSD to provide resources so students can understand the history of the region, and create environments for students to have well-informed discussions.

“We must engage in inspiring conversations and work against the oppression of Palestinians, Arab, and Muslim communities. No person, religion, race, or nation is above the other,” said student director Mendoza, a senior at Life Academy. “As someone who has three generations of family members who have the firsthand experience of living during a war that has affected their lives and community, I feel obligated to speak up and say something. I do not speak against any person, religion, or nation, I speak in the name of humanity.”

Mendoza, whose family came to the United States as refugees of the Salvadoran Civil War, said the requests were formed in collaboration with the Arab community in Oakland. 

Sophie Mehoulley, also a student at Oakland Tech, said she talks with her dad about current events and feels that speaking up, even across the world from where the conflict is happening, can help. She also thinks it’s important for teachers to have these conversations in the classroom since students are up-and-coming leaders. 

“You look at other historical conflicts and genocides and you think about the people, the civilians, and what their reaction was to it,” she said. “I don’t want my reaction to ever be, ‘I have no reaction or I have no opinion.’ I never want to be the person that is silent.”

Last week, OUSD Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell issued a statement condemning the violence and hate rhetoric. She also provided some online resources about talking to children about war.

“Most of us are seeing the conflict unfold from a distance. But for some members of our community, it is intensely personal, emotional, and heartbreaking,” Johnson-Trammell said. “It’s critical that we see our shared humanity in these conflicts and acknowledge the pain and loss some of our students, staff, and families are experiencing. Jewish people and Palestinian people are feeling the anguish of losing loved ones to this violence.”

The adult school board directors signaled their support for the students’ requests. Towards the end of Wednesday’s meeting, Board President Mike Hutchinson said he expects the board to bring forward a resolution related to the conflict at the next regular meeting, which will be Nov. 8. 

“The issues of the world impact all of us, and we all care very very deeply. I really appreciate how everyone showed up today to express themselves. This is always a safe place to do that,” he said. 

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.