At Change Consulting, we have the honor of working with leaders and organizations affecting radical change in our communities. This summer, Oakland made history when the Oakland Unified School District Board passed the George Floyd Resolution for Police Free Schools. The Resolution, which removed the entire Oakland School Police Department, was the culmination of nearly a decade of fierce advocacy and community organizing by Black Organizing Project (BOP). The Oakland School Board also voted this month in favor of a reasonable compliance safety plan, the next step for the George Floyd Resolution.
Founded in 2009 in response to the death of Raheim Brown, who was killed by a police officer outside of Skyline campus, Black Organizing Project worked to organize OUSD students, their families and the surrounding communities to transform Oakland Schools for Black and Brown youth.
Change Consulting recently spoke with Jasmine Williams, member and development and communications manager with BOP, to talk about how the organization has leveraged community voice and applied strategic communications to achieve meaningful impact for Oakland.
Change Consulting: Tell us about your community in Oakland. How are you and the members of BOP’s network holding up in this difficult moment?
Jasmine Williams: Even in the pandemic, Black people continue to be the most negatively impacted by the health, education, housing, and the larger socio-economic systems and the pandemic has only exacerbated this. And we saw the data indicate early on that areas like East Oakland were impacted disproportionately by COVIID. Some of the members of our network are essential workers who are worrying about exposing themselves while at the same time trying to figure out how to get to work across town or neighboring cities. Others may be people who are formerly incarcerated and trying to get jobs, a greater challenge than ever given the impacts of COVID on our local economy. This just means we just have to find a way to continue creating safe spaces for Black youth and their families even within the pandemic.
Emotionally, the shift to virtual has been a real challenge. We love in-person interactions and connecting through food and direct conversation, which of course just isn’t possible right now. Plus, BOP is intergenerational and our members and staff are impacted by a wide range of challenges. We have kids as young as nine who are trying to figure out distance learning, and elders who need additional support with navigating technology, which is our primary mode of communications right now.
But on the flip side of all that, the mood overall in Oakland is energized and excited about the George Floyd Resolution win and the momentum around the country. Our people are hopeful and excited about what’s possible. They want to be there and be engaged for the next phase of the work. There’s some nervousness as well because this will be a road not taken but a good nervousness.
CC: I can imagine that the pandemic may have shifted some of BOP’s priorities for the Black youth and their families that you work with in Oakland, in response to the added challenges they now face.
JW: Right now, our priority is getting and keeping our kids engaged, and reminding them that they have a voice and they can help make changes with the opportunity that has opened up because of the George Floyd Resolution. Youth have a critical role in this community process of reimagining what their schools look like, what school safety feels like — they should be at the table and have a voice. We work on giving them the tools they need to be at the table.
They also have lost a lot of their autonomy because of the conditions of the pandemic and are navigating a tough time like us all. We have prioritized supporting members and community with unpredicted necessities by distributing direct funds to those directly impacted by the ongoing pandemic. We are continuing to be creative about engagement spaces for all our members, and have supplied core members including the youth committee and staff with tech needed to stay engaged virtually with the organization and navigate this new space.
But they are trying to unlearn that policing is something that has always existed and must exist. They are being challenged to dig deep, think critically and push back on the systems they know to imagine new things. When we ask them to reimagine and create something really new, we are asking them to go inside themselves to see: what you would need if you got in a fight? Would you like for the school to call your parent, or is there someone else who could calm you down? And that’s hard for a lot of us because we haven’t done it before. We haven’t been challenged to do that before.
CC: Rising out of the chaos of an actually really traumatic summer, I think the George Floyd Resolution gave a lot of people in Oakland and across the country hope that change is possible. How did BOP conceive of the George Floyd Resolution, and how did you get the Resolution to its final form?
JW: It’s because of the years of community work that we were able to win with the George Floyd resolution. As early as 2016, BOP decided to go hard on the message of police free schools publicly. It really was a strategic communications effort. We decided that, wherever we go, whoever we talk to, we are going to say “police free schools”: to funders, to educators, to the Board – to everyone. That year, we publicized our long- term goal of abolition of school police by 2020.
There were many steps along the way to the George Floy Resolution. In 2018, we realized that teachers and school staff were calling police on students for primarily behavioral issues. We created the Black Sanctuary Pledge to build solidarity and demand a stop to the calling of cops on our kids and pushed us to have real conversations about the support they needed to make that demand a new reality. We gained solidarity from our local teachers union who ultimately supported the push to win, and will be key stakeholders in the implementation phase.
In November 2019, we released the People’s Plan for Police Free Schools which formed the basis of the George Floyd Resolution. The Plan is a comprehensive guide on how to eliminate the school police department and address other school climate issues. We then partnered with Board Director Roseann Torres to develop and present a resolution based on the People’s Plan on March 4 of this year to eliminate half of the Oakland Police Department. But even though we had over 30 speakers at the meeting, and a packed room of the Oakland community who stood with us on the issue of getting police off of school campuses, the resolution failed by one vote.
When George Floyd was murdered on May 25, the international uprisings for racial justice and to protect Black lives energized our base of supporters and the community in general and we saw an opportunity to use that momentum to take a swing at our ultimate goal of police free schools in Oakland–again. We worked with Directors Torres, Gonzales, and Harris to develop the Resolution but this time, demanded that the Oakland School Board eliminate the entire police department.
It was so important to our network, and for the success of the Resolution, to communicate how it reflected the needs of the Black youth and families in Oakland that are disproportionately impacted by police, on and off campus. We created 10 Days of Action leading up to the Board vote to engage all of Oakland and get as many eyes on the Resolution as possible. The 10 Days of Action campaign was integral to our success: we were able to keep up the intensity, keep up the pressure, and keep the community engaged.
On June 24, the Board voted unanimously to pass the resolution. It was an overwhelming and emotional moment for BOP and our community.
CC: The 10 Days of Action leading up to the Board vote was a beautiful show of force from the community in support of the Resolution. How did you use strategic communications to increase the impact of your organizing, and what role did it play for the Resolution?
JW: Internally at BOP, we say that communications is an organizing tool in part because of how much we relied on communications strategy rooted in an organizing philosophy these last four years, and really from the beginning, to get us to this moment of heightened visibility of our police abolition by 2020 campaign.
One of our pillars is storytelling; we believe that we have to tell our own stories, talk about our own ways of thinking, and share our own experiences if we want to see change and shift hearts and minds. So, we created our own media to lift up our stories, launching social media campaigns and updating the website and creating reports on some of the issues that arise from having police on school campuses. We wanted the public to understand what Black organizing was — something that cannot be translated on paper necessarily but can be brought to life through different communications platforms.
We use communications as an intentional organizing strategy – it’s not your typical marketing plan – but we also used some traditional tactics to support the grassroots communications happening. We participated in and hosted panels to get an opportunity to present the People’s Plan and get buy-in from key stakeholders. We produced a docuseries in 2019 lifting up our members and their hopes and dreams for their communities. But everything, our e-newsletters and mailings, our reports, content on social media, reflected what we were saying in the streets to folks in person. We made sure to remain authentic to our mission and our membership.
For the George Floyd Resolution in particular, on top of social media, word of mouth and digital organizing communications, we used several media relations tactics to reach a wider audience with messaging around how the time is now for police free schools in Oakland. In addition to a press release to announce the presentation of the Resolution, we updated media daily through the 10 Days of Action to let the press know the community was still involved and where to be to cover the story.
We used our social media channels to direct the community on how to intentionally support and be a part of making history. This digital organizing space created during the 10 Days of Action was a way for the community to push a district to stand for something bigger than just a budget and a policy fight. We united Oakland across race, issue area and gender to stand for Sanctuary for ALL students.
We scheduled interviews for immediately following the vote so that BOP’s voice – and the voice of our members – was centered in any narrative around the Resolution. And we hosted a press call the day after the vote which gave us the opportunity to talk about how critical community organizing was to our success, and what comes next for BOP, and for Black youth and families in Oakland. Strategic Communications will continue to propel our work forward.
CC: What is next for BOP? How do you see using this communications toolbox to continue to serve your community?
JW: We are shifting to an entirely new phase of this work, focused on cracking down on the school safety plan, which will consist of multiple phases over the next few years. As we plan for the rest of 2020 and beyond, we are realizing that communications is an absolutely necessary tool in this new virtual zone. We need to be diligent in engaging the new audiences of supporters that come to BOP because of the George Floyd Resolution and are interested in supporting true transformation beyond this moment.
Developing those relationships will be critical to ensuring that we are all part of the community process. We will also use communications to develop Black leadership and ensure that our voice is centered in creating alternatives to policing in schools. In addition, BOP is leaning into our leadership role locally, statewide, and nationally and looking to support other groups looking to do police free schools work across the nation through webinars and other online opportunities and content. Given COVID and the current climate, communications will be a primary tool used to continue to do this work safely , and across geographical barriers.