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Waiting for Superman: Education as a Justice Issue

Jesus Portillo, member, Lakeshore Ave Baptist Church

Part of our Mission Statement at Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church in Oakland, Calif., is "to do justice, love, kindness and walk humbly with God." One of the ways we strive to reach out to our community is through our Lakeshore Local Organizing Committee (LOC), which works hand in hand with Oakland Community Organizations – a congregation and school based community organizing effort representing over 10,000 families.

Through a combination of surveys and 1:1s (one-on-one conversations with the members of our church) our LOC determined that our congregation had the highest interest in improving education in Oakland. And it’s no wonder.

Education is at the core of the problems for both the Oakland youth and the Oakland community as a whole. In the 2008-2009 academic school year both African-American and Latinos high school students had a graduation rate of about 55%. According to statistics from OCO, 5 out of 10 African-American males in Oakland will spend part of their life in jail.

As our LOC began its second year we began preparing to begin work at Oakland Technical High School. It is close to our church and we have a number of students attending there. But when we took a look at the problems and challenges ahead we felt we had to re-energize the congregation. So for September we had an all out LOC blitz of events. First we had a high school student panel talk about their school experience. There were only two students but the experience was vastly different yet both were inspiring as they sought their own solutions to make the best of a too often bad environment.

Second we held a forum after a Sunday service and had Brandon Sturdivant, our organizer from OCO, explain about OCO and the work they do to improve the community in Oakland and how they work with us to discover the power of people working together and how to use it to help the community.

Third we had a screening of the movie, Waiting for Superman, an eye-opening documentary about our nation’s failure in education. “The American Public School System is in crisis, failing millions of students, producing almost as many drop-outs as graduates, and threatening our economic future. By 2020, the United States will have 123 million high-skill jobs to fill and fewer than 50 million Americans qualified to fill them.”

We put the screening on our weekly bulletin and made a special announcement from the pulpit the Sunday before the film. On Friday night, September 30, we served pizza and popcorn and had a great turnout when 33 of our congregation adults showed up and participated in a lively discussion afterwards.

The consensus was that the documentary, while far from perfect, really highlighted the dire state of American Public Education in the United States and that plight of education in Oakland is so severe that it has become a civil rights issue. Equal education, equal opportunities and equal rights are being called into question. We believe that it is a basic matter of faith, a basic responsibility of faith to be an advocate for those in need of a voice. We need to answer “Yes!” to God’s basic question: Are you your brother’s keeper?

As a LOC member, I ended the evening by saying I had become the person I never wanted to be. In college I helped pay for tuition by working at a neighborhood social center. The people who worked there said, "You have a good heart, why don’t you become a social worker?" My response was quick. "No way! Social workers are so pushy." But here I am today asking us to be pushy. We need to plant seeds in good soil by being a burr to those in power”. We must work with other organizations of like minded people and work for change from the bottom up. People united in faith and committed to doing justice, love, happiness and walking humbly with God can help change happen.

—Jesus Portillo is a member of Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church, Oakland, Calif., a BPFNA Partner Congregation.

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