Voices of future first-generation college students

Cal in Color

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At the age of 15 and 16, I hated children. Well, hate is a strong word. I just didn’t enjoy their company. … whatsoever. But all of this changed in the summer of 2016 when I decided to be a crew leader for fifth and sixth graders at Oakland Peace Camp, a summer program for elementary and middle school students that focuses on teaching students about the existing oppression and gentrification in the Bay Area, which often directly impacts their lives and their families. OPC introduces children to the importance of community and love in predominantly Black and brown low-income communities, such as Oakland, through games, classes and community-building projects. 

I taught a class of 18 fifth and sixth graders who seemed to be really shy at first before completely opening up to us and one another. We became each other’s personal diaries by constantly checking in with one another and joking around, so before we knew it, we had a small community in our classroom. The trust that we built enabled us to have an honest classroom community. When we began our lessons on deeper content, it was easy to be honest about how these topics made us feel. While discussing policing, police brutality and racism, the students opened up about how hearing police sirens near their homes on a daily basis was normal and how they don’t trust the police because of what they had seen them do to people who looked like them in their neighborhoods and, sometimes, in their own homes. The kids and I were on the same boat; I understood that they felt unsafe with the presence of an authority who is supposed to make them feel safe. I was disappointed that they were so young yet already aware of how they are being let down by the police in their neighborhoods.

My sixth graders opened up to me about how they felt as though they aren’t listened to by many people. No one really asked about their opinions and feelings toward social justice, oppression and police brutality, even though these were things that they witnessed on a daily basis. Young students have tremendous knowledge and wisdom that is often underestimated or dismissed by adults because of their age, but it was very clear that these fifth and sixth graders understood the injustices and oppression that people went through due to the institutionalized racism that exists in the Bay Area and the rest of the country. 

One day, I planned out a lesson to show the kids what the racial hierarchy in the United States looked and felt like. I had them sit in the shape of a triangle, and I put a trash bin in front of the person sitting in the front. Then, I gave them all pieces of paper to crumple up and throw in the trash bin. Depending on how close they were sitting, they’d receive more or less paper to throw: more for the one in front and less for the ones in the back. 

Obviously, the person in the front successfully threw their crumpled papers in the bin, while the ones in the back mostly missed all of theirs. The kids sitting in the back ended up getting out of their seats to look for any other pieces of paper that they could find on the floor or around the classroom. They were mad that they kept missing, but they wouldn’t give up until they all made one into the bin.

We all talked about how this hierarchy was unfair to the people in the back, especially since they received fewer pieces of paper in the first place. They said the people in the back needed all of the pieces of paper that the one person in the front had, that the one person with all the papers clearly did not need all of those resources and should’ve shared with the people in the back.

I explained that this hierarchy mirrored social relations in the real world between rich white people and low-income Black and brown people. After the lesson, I realized that the students implicitly understood the racial hierarchy, police brutality and structural disadvantages that they went through, but they also had a lot of opinions and feelings toward these topics that they didn’t express too much because no one asked them to.

 The kids genuinely cared about these issues because of how closely affected their families were by them. At 12 years old, they talked about one day going to college to graduate and eventually get their families out of the working class. They spoke about their ambitions to become first-generation college students, and some of them aspired to be college athletes. They had a deep responsibility to their families and felt like it was on them to help them out. I deeply resonated with them, as they reminded me of my younger self.

 Although we don’t want to talk to young students about the injustices that people of color go through in this country because we want to keep some of their innocence alive, they still see, hear and feel all of these dilemmas. Growing up in a low-income community, children witness these injustices, and though they may not understand why people of color are put through them, they understand that there is a racial hierarchy. Children are more intelligent than a lot of people make them out to be. They’re aware of their surroundings and have strong, unique ideas and opinions that need and deserve to be heard.

Today, I love kids and genuinely want to hear what they have to say about anything and everything. I am more aware of them, listen to them and communicate with them. After Oakland Peace Camp, I learned to be inspired by children. I learned how much power and knowledge the youth holds and was both inspired and motivated in multiple areas of my life, especially my education. This is the summer that I learned how the youth are the future.

Genesis Alejo writes the Friday column on being a first-generation student. Contact her at [email protected]