Tongo Eisen-Martin, a poet, educator and organizer, sits in a classroom at Parker Elementary School in Oakland on July 27, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
These days you can find Tongo Eisen-Martin, San Francisco’s Eighth Poet Laureate, spending much of his time not in the city but over in East Oakland.
He hasn’t abandoned his post. In fact, volunteering at Parker Community School, a self-governed space occupied by local activists, is exactly in line with his priorities as poet laureate.
In February, the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) Board of Education voted to close, merge or reduce eleven schools over the next two years, including what was then known as Parker K-8 School. The school district said insufficient enrollment made the changes necessary, but the plan met intense opposition from local families, who pointed out that many of the schools slated for closure disproportionately served high numbers of Black and Brown students, often in neighborhoods that had already become victim to disinvestment by the City of Oakland.
Of the eleven schools, Parker K-8 was one set to close before the start of the 2022-2023 school year. But the community wasn’t having it. The occupation began on May 25, the last day of instruction. That’s when, at least in the occupiers’ eyes, Parker K-8 became the Parker Community School. The movement is now entering its third month.
Since then, Eisen-Martin has spent much of his time behind a folding table and a laptop with posters that say “Don’t Talk To The Police” and “Community not Closures” behind him. He checks students and visitors in, helps out with programming and keeps an eye on the door.
This is still an occupied school, and people could be removed at any time.
“In a society like this, I think about police at the door all the time,” Eisen-Martin says.
Eisen-Martin is both an activist fighting against structural racism in America and a poet. In one of his poems he writes, “I’m not creative, I’m just the silliest of the revolutionaries.” Participating in a grassroots movement like this is actually part of his creative process.
“By the time you pick up the pen, it’s sort of too late. So much of craft begins with the life you live before you pick up the pen,” he says.
That mindset also informs the kind of curriculum that’s being taught at Parker K-8 now.
“Before we even get to the classroom, we start with the energy of resistance and in that way, a poem or any type of writing takes care of itself,” Eisen-Martin says.
In his poetry, Eisen-Martin writes about “the neo-confederate tendency that’s been sweeping the nation.”
For him and his fellow activists, this occupation represents an important stand for the right of Black and Brown people to exist and thrive in rapidly gentrifying Oakland.
“The moves they’re making to close these schools is really part of a plan of ethnic cleansing of Oakland,” he says. “If you take a neighborhood and you take out all of its centers of gathering, we’re easier to move to the next reservation.”
A Summer School for the Community, by the Community
The schedule for students on Wednesday, July 6, included breakfast, community circle, jewelry, reading, P.E., political education, lunch, math/STEM, free time and history.
Political education is one of the main things that sets occupied Parker and OUSD Parker apart for 13-year-old Jasionna Landry, one of the students at the school.
“[Before], they would only teach us about simple Black history,” she says. “They didn’t really teach us about anything beyond that.”
Another student, 15-year-old Jayvien Bolden, says he is working on a play—admittedly, it’s a little autobiographical—about “a kid whose childhood school is getting shut down and he’s not gonna let it go so easily,” he says. “He’s gonna do everything he can to try to save it. And it’s about him bringing the community together.”
Although Eisen-Martin is one of the more high-profile activists in the occupation, “I’m not the main protagonist here,” he says.
That credit goes to Rochelle Jenkins, who began protesting with her four children, including Bolden and her two younger daughters who were still enrolled at the school. That was back in February, when Parker K-8 families found out about the proposed shutdown.
“They was like, ‘Well, mom, we need to go protest.’ And I was like, ‘You guys are absolutely right,’” Jenkins says.
So Jenkins, her kids and a few friends walked down to the corner of MacArthur Boulevard and Ritchie Street with homemade signs and started raising awareness. That snowballed into the current occupation, which Jenkins says can host around 25 to 30 students, teachers and volunteers on any given day.
Christina Beach co-taught a Black history lesson on the day that KQED visited. A former activist, she began to cry when she discussed her reasons for volunteering at Parker.
“The best thing you can do as an activist is create future leaders, and develop them and give them the confidence, skills, knowledge, to carry it on to future generations,” she says. “I feel like I’m part of it, and that’s exciting.”
There’s a lot going on at Parker among the volunteers, the teachers, the students and the spontaneous roller skate parties in the wood-floored gymnasium. But Jenkins says Eisen-Martin is “the glue that holds this whole thing together.”
“We actually all share a similar passion, and that’s a passion for people in the community,” she explains.
“He is truly a revolutionary poet in the sense that his words and his art are revolutionary, and his actions are also revolutionary,” says Anthony Walters, another school volunteer. “He has integrity as a Black man standing up for his community, and that is the strongest message that he can convey.”
‘A Fly In The Ointment for the Powers That Be’
With all the talk of revolution and the fight against fascism, things feel pretty mellow at Parker Community School on a recent Wednesday afternoon. A group of about eight children play piano and run around in a large gymnasium. About four volunteers filter in and out. An older man comes in to get some free food and coffee.
This leaves Eisen-Martin some time to focus on his other projects. His publishing company, Black Freighter Press, put out two new poetry books this month and has one more slated for August. Eisen-Martin’s duties as Poet Laureate include authoring a new collection of poetry for San Francisco’s iconic City Lights Booksellers & Publishers, co-founded in 1953 by beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. It’s “a beautiful obligation” that’s “coming along,” Eisen-Martin says.
“Poetry is not going to change the world by itself, but poetry changes people,” says Elaine Katzenberger, publisher and executive director of City Lights. “Poetry opens people’s minds and their hearts and stimulates their brains. All of that is what stimulates social change and a sense of community. So poetry used for that purpose is ultimately more powerful than reading some revolutionary tract.”
Katzenberger says that previous San Francisco Poet Laureates have also used their role for activism. “You’re supposed to be in the community stimulating minds and bringing poetry to the people somehow, and different laureates have done that in different ways.”
But at 42 years old, “Tongo is a great deal younger than previous laureates, and he’s also more politically active than I think anyone has been so far,” she explains.
Katzenberger says that Eisen-Martin is a perfect representation of the idea that a poet should be a “fly in the ointment for the powers that be.”
She first heard Eisen-Martin at a poetry reading in 2019, and thought hearing him perform was more like listening to a musician.
“It sounds improvisatory. He’s not reading, he’s actually reciting,” says Katzenberger. “Each time there is a performance it’s a little bit different from whatever else you might have experienced.”
Eisen-Martin’s 6-foot-8 frame commands its own gravity. His voice rumbles, at times lethargic, offering his deliberate, pensive view of the world.
That all changes when he gets on the stage. His pacing can vary between sedated and frenetic, humorous and chaotic, morose and furious. He enters a sort of trance, bobbing his head, in the same poem he can sound like a rapper freestyling and a grandfather recalling a fading memory.
‘The Steph Curry of Poetry’
That style was on display at the June 18 record release party for Eisen-Martin’s debut album at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. The album is a collection of his poems read aloud, with no musical accompaniment. It’s called I follow the railroad tracks to the station of my enemies, put out by local record label Rocks In Your Head Records. The record’s title is the first line of one of the poems featured in the collection, called “I do not know the spelling of money.”
“I think the idea was a kind of a throwback effort as far as, you know, a nod to a Langston Hughes recording, or an Audre Lorde recording that you would come across,” says Eisen-Martin. “Rocks In Your Head wanted to do something like that for the contemporary era.”
The performance at Great American Music Hall featured Eisen-Martin reciting the collection of poems with the backing of a jazz band and vocalist. A fog machine diffused light behind Eisen-Martin as his words tip-toed and danced over stanzas. The mostly full crowd either sat or stood, making the scene feel like a cross between an old-school North Beach poetry reading and a modern-day poetry slam.
Seated among the audience was a longtime San Francisco poet, Mike the Monolyth Stewart. He says watching Eisen-Martin perform is like watching “the Steph Curry of poetry.” Like Eisen-Martin, Stewart spends his time both writing his own poetry and working with youth to help them write their own.
“As a counselor with kids for 20-plus years, I see how all that artistry gleans into the kids. When you bring artistry to them and help them recognize a better life, that’s where the revolution is,” says Stewart.
Eisen-Martin himself credits his artistic awakening to the experiences he had as a youth. “I learned poetry all over the village that raised me,” Eisen-Martin says. “I got lucky that way, being born to a more radical family, both immediate and cosmically constructed.”
His upbringing was kind of like a community school.
The Occupation Continues
On the day that KQED visited Parker Community School, the occupation was celebrating its 50th day. But the future of it is tenuous at best. While the atmosphere is relaxed, it has to be occupied 24/7, and volunteers regularly patrol the premises. It seems that there is an expectation that it could be shut down at any moment.
Rochelle Jenkins, the main organizer behind the occupation, said she and another activist have been meeting with OUSD Board leadership, but said she couldn’t disclose what’s been discussed. Jenkins and others fear OUSD will sell the school to the highest bidder, possibly turning it into a housing development or a charter school. Whatever happens, Jenkins says her priority is to make sure any replacement of Parker will serve the community that lives in the neighborhood now.
“If you don’t want to keep it open as a school, can you at least keep it open as a community recreation center or something that’s going to continue to educate the kids in this community?” says Jenkins.
Proposals to the OUSD school board to either delay or stop the closure of Parker have so far been denied. In a statement, the district said that Parker was now closed and the individuals who remained there were trespassing.
At its May 25 board meeting, the OUSD superintendent proposed to open an Adult Education Community Service Center that would “serve adults in East Oakland and provide a variety of services based on the needs of that specific community,” an OUSD spokesperson told KQED via email. A board vote on the future use of Parker is expected by the end of September 2022.
That doesn’t seem to satisfy the occupiers. “The deeper declaration is that none of you matter and all of you will be gone soon,” says Eisen-Martin. “It really doesn’t make any sense for the school board to deny the will of the people.”
There’s a sense among Parker activists that this summer is a sort of calm before the storm. As the beginning of a new school year looms, OUSD may try to escalate their tactics to end the occupation, they fear. But among the volunteers, teachers and students, there is a dogged sense of optimism.
“It feels like this is a little bit of history in the making and that’s exciting,” says volunteer teacher Christina Beach.
Jenkins says whatever OUSD has in store, they’re ready. “I’m so thankful for the team that we have built here, because we’re able to just roll with the punches and take it on. Whatever it is that y’all have up y’all’s sleeve, believe me, we have a response for it.”
In the meantime, the school will continue with its educational programs but also with grocery giveaways to the community, poetry nights led by Eisen-Martin and community events on weekends.
While the closure of Parker has caused pain for its community, the ensuing occupation has spawned something meaningful, life-changing and, yes, maybe even revolutionary, in a way that harkens back to Oakland’s activist roots. That’s a piece of this story that Eisen-Martin can take solace in.
“I think it’s an inevitability that at a certain point, the system’s aggression is going to lead to a little piece of its downfall, right?” he muses.
That’s an ending that some might even call poetic.
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