(photos: SarahJayn Kemp)

The schools in Oakland have been virtually empty this past week as the majority of the teachers exercise their right to strike, and some big names have joined them in support. Bambu and Boots Riley both performed a rally held at slated-to-be-closed public school Roots International Academy last week. A viral video has been circulating with endorsements in support of the striking teachers from the cast of Daveed Diggs, W. Kamau Bell, Raphael Saadiq, Chinaka Hodge, Fantastic Negrito, and others. Even “2 legit 2 quit” Oaklander MC Hammer voiced his support.

However, not all of the talent lies on the outside. Picket lines, rallies, and marches during the strike have been showcases for the talent within the striking teachers. Following in the tradition of labor movements before them, teachers are producing artwork for the cause. Just as handmade signs and costumes color the crowds, the uplifting of voices had permeated all public labor actions.

I was fortunate to talk to two OUSD music teachers on strike to get their take on how music has impacted the movement.

The Bay Bridged: Thank you both for talking with me. Can you tell me a little about your teaching career?

Zach Pitts-Smith: Sure, I’ve been at Edna Brewer for 12 years. I built the program up there. We now have two full-time music teachers. Before that, I taught one year in South San Francisco and before that I was freelance and working as an artist-in-residence in Richmond Schools.

Ted Allen: Teaching is a second career for me. I started teaching at 40. I spent nine years at Skyline High here in Oakland, and then I taught at Sacred Heart, a private school, for seven. I came back to Oakland, and I’ve been at Oakland Tech for two years.

TBB: Why’d you come back?

TA: I missed the kids! I mean, there were great kids at Sacred Heart, but Oakland kids have families that know the traditions of music. They know the histories; where the music is coming from.

TBB: Why are you striking?

Z P-S: Most strongly I care about conditions for students.

TA: Probably the same reasons as everyone else. I want to stop school closures and end privatization of our public schools.

TBB: What do you think of the state of music education in OUSD?

Z P-S: That’s another huge piece of inequity. If you look at our 86 schools, we have some schools with flourishing music programs. And some schools have nothing. It’s like the water in Flint. Everyone gets a different quality. Music enriches the lives of the kids who take it. This inequity is hurting our poor communities in Oakland. I’d say it’s in a woeful state. It’s not right. That’s why I am happy to fight this fight.

TBB: Can you tell me about how music has been present during the strike?

TA: Music teachers have been working really closely together for about 15 years, collaborating. Out of this collaboration, we started a big band, The Big O. We’d perform once a year at Yoshi’s to fundraise. We took the energy from that collaboration to the strike.

Z P-S: Yeah, jobs were being assigned at sites. There’s a food captain and an attendance captain. I’m the music captain. It was a no-brainer that’s what I’d contribute.

TA: We formed kind of a New Orleans second line. I wrote some arrangements, and we practiced them. Honestly, when we are out there, though, it just becomes a giant freeform jam session. We respond to what people are chanting.

TBB: I’d argue that the chanting also responds to the music. I was at the rally that shut down the school board meeting. Picketers really seemed to respond to the music. It invigorated them.

Z P-S: Oh, yeah. I mean rhythm and energy are definitely components, but at risk of waxing poetic, music harmony building community harmony is part of a real thing. You see you’re important, you see your voice matters and makes the collective stronger - better.

TBB: Is there any particular music that is really effective at the rallies?

Z P-S: The music that has always resonated with me has come from the African diaspora - music from a place of struggle. Jazz, improvisational.

TA: People are coming up with their own ideas to contribute, and I think that’s great.

TBB: Thank you both for talking with me. I just have one more question. What do you love about teaching music in Oakland?

TA: What I love — the most interesting thing to me and this has emerged over time is that each class develops its own personality. It doesn’t matter if it is a beginning guitar class or college-ready band. I love thinking, 'What is the coolest thing we can do with this particular group of people? What performances can we do that are most important for them? What is going to bring them together the most and combine them together in the most interesting way?' That’s what I really love about music.

Z P-S: I think it taps into a certain part of a kid, a student, a person of any age. I work in middle school. These kids are discovering themselves. Plato was one of the first philosophers to really develop this idea of different types of intelligences. Musicality was one of those intelligences, and it’s lost in our modern-day school. We need to bring it back. There’s something that music taps into that allows a kid to develop a sense of who they are an develops a sense of community. Plus, it’s hilarious. I love my job. It’s noisy all the time. I love it when kids are honking away and experimenting. I love teaching Oakland kids.

For more information about the OEA Oakland teachers’ strike, check out the OEA union page.