News for the East Bay's diverse, working-class majority.
Brought to you by the Democratic Socialists of America, East Bay chapter.
June 07, 2019
By Florence Rosenberg
On March 1, at the culmination of the Oakland teachers’ strike, kindergarten teacher Darnisha Wright found herself outside an Oakland school board meeting with the school board director’s hand around her throat.
Before the incident with Jumoke Hinton Hodge, Wright was peacefully protesting outside the school board meeting along with hundreds of teachers, parents, students, and community members. The protestors were trying to prevent school board members from going inside the building to vote on a devastating $21.75 million cut to Oakland Unified’s 2019-20 budget.
This spring, Wright, who lives and teaches in East Oakland, was selected for the US State Department’s Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching, a program that sends expert US teachers to other countries to learn and consult.
When she returns from her Fulbright trip to Ghana, veteran teacher Wright will no longer have a job with the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD).
After the district learned Wright would be suing the school board for the March attack, her principal at Markham Elementary informed Wright her district contract would not be renewed – just weeks after a glowing conversation about her job performance, she says. Wright taught for five years at local private school Ile Omode, but since this is only her second year in OUSD, her contract was still provisional.
We spoke to Wright as she was packing for her Fulbright trip to Ghana, her first trip abroad, where she will study local literacy and language practices and share her expertise with educators there.
Majority: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us. I can’t believe you’re packing for a Fulbright trip while all this is going on.
Darnisha Wright: I would not have accepted this Fulbright if I’d known this would happen. It’s extremely stressful to be leaving the country knowing what I’ll have to deal with when I get back.
Can you explain what’s happening with your job?
OUSD knows I have an intention to bring a suit against the school board. They made a decision to not renew my contract, and to remove a good teacher from her classroom and her students. Two weeks before I was notified of my termination, I had an informal meeting with my principal where she praised my work and thanked me for being one of the few teachers who responded early to confirm I would be returning in the fall. Two weeks later, when I saw she was calling, I thought it was because I had won the Black History Month bulletin board contest at our school and she was calling because she had forgotten to give me the prize. But it was actually a call to let me know I was not welcome to return.
How are you feeling the impact of losing your job?
It makes me feel terrible. It makes me angry and sad. It reminds me of the embeddedness of these systems that continue to work against our children, especially our brown children. The real victims here are the children, not me — I’m a certified, credentialed teacher, and I can go work in any district. But I’m concerned about this arbitrary decision to make it difficult for me to work in my own neighborhood, and to remove the children’s connection to a person from their neighborhood who loves and supports them. I’m concerned about the effect this will have on my students. I am also concerned with the impact on me. This has been one of the most stressful experiences of my life. In addition to the potential financial hardship I may be facing, I am still dealing with the post traumatic trauma of this whole awful experience
Tell me about your students at Markham.
They’re very bright and inquisitive, and they love to learn. My kids are great. They love learning and being in school. My motto with them is “every day you must learn something new and you must have fun.” My favorite thing about kindergartners is watching the change that happens in them during the year — watching readers emerge, seeing them break the code of letters and see words emerge for the first time.
You took a leadership role at Markham during the strike this year, what was that like?
The strike was a stressful time. I wasn’t a very active union member before the strike, but I stepped up to be a strike captain at my site because I live in the community and I care about the well-being of the community. From that experience as a strike captain I got more interested in the strike and the process [that lead to it]. I wasn’t very astute in the politics of the strike at the beginning, but I saw it was in my best interest to support the union and to fight not just for better wages for teachers, but for a better education for our students.
What was the community support like during the strike?
The community was really supportive. It was really heartwarming. It was stormy and cold during the strike and I was calling Home Depot and they were giving us tarps. Local businesses like Gazalli’s Market sent us food and water; people came from San Francisco to bring us breakfast burritos and hot drinks. It was like liquid gold when they showed up with coffee! People really showed us the love, and put their time, money, and energy into supporting us.
What message is OUSD sending to the community by not renewing your contract?
It sends the message that teachers aren’t valued and that teachers of color are particularly not valued. Everyone knows teaching is a difficult job to start with and that most people don’t have that crazy bug to be a teacher. I hope we can encourage good teachers to stay. When you find a good teacher you should value them! The district should be sending out a picture and bio on me and my kindergarteners!
How can we support you around the retaliation from OUSD and in your suit against the school board?
Come to the June 12 school board meeting and make a presence in my absence and let them know it’s not right, and that people are watching their action. I also need eyewitnesses to the assault to come forward.
If you were at the March 1 Oakland school board meeting and witnessed the incident between Darnisha Wright and Jumoke Hinton Hodge, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. Additionally, OEA is organizing a contingent to the June 12 school board meeting to protest the district’s retaliation against Darnisha; all are welcome.