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Finding the Power to
Do What Is In Your Heart

by Nabila Lester
Berkeley, California

The following is an extract from Unfinished Business: Closing The Achievement Gap In Our Schools, edited by Pedro A. Noguera and Jean Yonemura Wing, published by Jossey-Bass. Unfinished Business can be purchased at Jossey-Bass and

Being a student at Berkeley High School was the craziest decision I’ve ever made in my life. And when I say decision, I truly mean a decision, the kind that required little or no thought but felt right just the same. I had been raised in Harlem, New York, and later in Long Island, where I continually suffered from lack of self-knowledge. There was always a craving in me to exist in a place where I could truly be myself, even though I didn’t know who "I" was. Yet there was also a resistance in me manifesting in my overenthusiasm for world philosophy and my love for argumentation. In the mix of that, I found myself one random evening flipping the pages of a Berkeley High catalogue while the snow fell on my Bay Shore lawn. Convinced immediately of my calling, I became overwhelmed with visions of a Japanese boyfriend and happier life. Upon assumption, I thought this place to be a heaven, some strange island where my blackness would no longer have to be mentioned in the sea of diversity.

My mother and I arrived in Cali having left a whole life behind. My first day of class finally came, and still my subconscious yelled, “Multiculturalism, Yeah -- and what a load of crap. Things proved to be the same as in Bay Shore as I walked into my calculus class and the same white faces gazed at me in confusion -- motivated this time by surprise rather than irritation. And as the day continued, I began to understand Berkeley High in a course of classes -- my Advanced Placement classes being all white and Asian and my core classes being thoroughly mixed. I guess this day could be renamed “the moment of clarity,” for it became clear to me that there was no place on the planet that didn’t suffer in one way or another from racism. From this moment on, I began to speak out at functions, and within a few weeks became the president of the African American Studies Department. Social resistance came to my doorstep and never went away.

Attempting change at Berkeley High is like trying to be a teacher in it. You are faced with all the problems of an urban center, made fully aware of the issues to the point of overarticulation, but provided with little or no support to change anything. In fact, you spend so much time discussing the problem that there was little time left to fix them.

So in light of the situation, I made an attempt from day one to hear things and change things. It first began with being the president of the African American Studies Department, a situation that warranted more expectations than given. We as a collective attempted to make students and faculty aware of the D and F rate, declining enrollment in the department, community issues, and black love. If you could name it, we had a forum about it. The level of involvement was astounding. Students mobilized enrollment and black knowledge days and supported faculty members within the classroom. However, people began to be weighed down with the complexities of issues, from the legacy of slavery to the D and F rate.

It was difficult trying to be young, do well in school, live life, and be a freedom fighter at the same time. Mostly it was the magnitude of issues that we attempted to understand and solve that made things seem so unattainable. We were in our small community trying to combat problems that have existed for hundreds of years, and only those who committed could not see these hopes were unrealistic. Furthermore, we did not possess the power to make large school changes. For instance, forums would happen to discuss the problem, but only twenty to fifty would be representing a school of over three thousand. Anything created in a bubble is bound to stay in a bubble.

If I could go back in time, I would realize that what we heard and said at forums in room H102 (the college-style African American Studies lecture hall) needed to be said in front of the entire school. Organization can work only if everyone affected is on the same page. Also I would realize that there isn’t one way to do something. Finding people’s strengths and appealing to their needs is very important so that everyone feels they have a part in change. Most important, student mobilization needs mentorship and leadership from teachers and parents. As brilliant and mature as students might be, they still need the direct leadership of elders who have tried to do the same thing. First, they need a person to help them set realistic goals and find resources. Then they need someone to help mediate and facilitate and help to keep everyone positive and hard working. After the leadership crew has developed those skills, the elder leadership can step back and allow students to regulate themselves. Having a center for such groups is also very important so that the student leaders feel connected to something, someone, and somewhere larger than themselves.

As far as my own experience at Berkeley High, I regret nothing. I think having the drive to see things for what they are and to take on the burden of social change requires courage and wisdom. I am personally very proud of what we accomplished as Diversity Project members and as activists. A lot has changed and will continue to change as a result. If I were to speak to a freshman today before they start on a similar journey, I would tell them that they have the power to do whatever is in their heart. They should know that it is not the result of change that they should focus on, but the process of change that is so amazing. What is today is never what will be tomorrow. That change is always possible if you choose to make it happen.

Published in In Motion Magazine November 19, 2006.

Also read:

  • Unfinished Business:
    Closing The Achievement Gap At Berkeley High School
    by Pedro A. Noguera and Jean Yonemura Wing
    Berkeley, California

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