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Inspired by the Past, Looking Toward the Future: Amplifying Young Activists’ Voices

By: Maria Pirner & Tania Hughes Martinez

Written by Maria Pirner
June 17, 2021

Finding ways to amplify student voices authentically in the age of black screens and chat boxes has been challenging, yet our goal was to do just that. At Korematsu Discovery Academy, we have been working to celebrate the many beautiful and diverse forms of literacy.  For our family literacy event, we wanted to put a special emphasis on storytelling and oration. This is the story of how KDA’s 1st Annual MLK Oratorical became a shining light in a year that seemed so dark. 

Oakland is, historically, a place of activism and progress. It is, after all, the birthplace of The Black Panther Party. At Korematsu Discovery Academy, we foster students to become leaders, questioners, and critical thinkers by providing a nurturing environment where students will be both celebrated and challenged to reach their maximum potential. Our hope is that this foundation will empower each student to grow both academic and emotional intelligences and become agents of change in modern society. We believe we have activists in every classroom and that these voices must be heard by the greater community.

Our goal was to help our students share their own ideas, voices, and stories with the larger community through participation in a long-standing tradition in Oakland Unified School District – the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Oratorical Festival. Forty-two years ago its founder, Donald Oliver had a vision.  He wanted to showcase student’s oratorical skills while also honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Oliver felt that the standardized testing data did not truly lift up students’ comprehension, fluency skills, and abilities. However, he knew that delivering an oration was an academic exercise that required students to read and comprehend complex text in order to analyze, synthesize, interpret, critique, and perform that text in a public speaking competition. The theme of the 42nd Annual Oakland event was Where Do We Go From Here: “A Threat to Justice Anywhere Is a Threat to Justice Everywhere.”

In preparation for the competition, students learned about Black History beginning with their forced arrival in North America in the 1400s to current events. Students learned about activists and major events centering narratives on both challenges and joy. They studied, discussed, learned from, and memorized poems and speeches from different events in history. Some students even wrote their own speeches and poetry to join in the fight for equality. Eighteen students participated in our school-wide oratorical competition which was held during our school’s weekly assembly. All families were invited; there were over 100 people who witnessed and celebrated our students showcase their strong leadership and activism.

We are so proud of all of our students. Our four finalists advanced to the Citywide Virtual Showcase in OUSD! To see and hear these four storytellers and poets in action, please take a moment to watch the video on our school website.