Oakland's new generation of educators is too cool for school but wound up there anyway. They came up reading Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed and wrote master's theses on the inequities of traditional school systems. Now they use E-40 lyrics to talk about iambic pentameter, and link the history of Imperial Rome to current events in the Middle East. They know how to take a long-ass, complicated phrase and break it down to colloquial English. And, said San Francisco State graduate student Jayeesha Dutta — whose non-profit organization, Mind Power Collective, connects educators in Oakland with cultural resources — they're being driven out en masse. Scripted curricula and an "oppressive policy environment" cause a significant number of teachers to jump ship within the first three to five years, Dutta said, adding that a pervasive "anti-teacher sentiment" sure doesn't help: "I graduated from an Ivy League university and my friends are always like, 'You're an educator? God Jayeesha, what are you doing with your life?'"
Dutta formed Mind Power Collective three years ago with fellow SF State grad student Aaron Nakai. Working on their off-hours (i.e., 8 p.m. to 1 a.m.), and using "the most shoe-string of shoe-string budgets," they found ways of transplanting school curricula to non-traditional spaces like Epic Arts Center and the El Cerrito Speakeasy Theater. They launched a Sunday Salon Series to put teenagers in dialogue with scholars, about issues that would seem topical to a younger audience. (June 8's salon, featuring Jeff Chang, Antwi Akom, and Dawn-Elissa Fischer, is called "Problemetizing Hip-Hop Pedagogy in a Post-Hip-Hop World".) Most recently, they joined forces with Oakland Museum, another local institution that is trying to move away from the traditional mold.
Ergo, Saturday's Art Saves Lives event, presented in conjunction with the Oakland Museum's Cool Remixed exhibit (which represents a contemporary aesthetic of "cool" in the form of skateboards, graffiti art, turf dancing, zines, and eco-fashion). Sponsored by a whole bevy of schools and organizations — among them Rock Paper Scissors, Youth Radio, and the Crucible — this youth arts festival features poetry slams, exhibitions, student films, jazz bands, and freestyle battles. Dutta said the impetus for Art Saves Lives — which actually began last year, on a much smaller scale — was her observation that "Oakland is one of the only major cities in the country that doesn't have a youth arts festival that's an all-city kind of event." She admits that coming up with the idea was a lot easier than the execution. Still, Dutta's been amazed at the amount of enthusiasm they've generated thus far. Evidently there's hope for the new school, after all.
Art Saves Lives happens Sat., May 31, 12 p.m. at Oakland Museum (1000 Oak St.). Free.
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