Self-Love and Inner Work Help Oakland Students Make It to Graduation

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A right-profile view of a young Black woman, with no makeup and long thick black braids, wearing a beige long-sleeved shirt unbuttoned at the front. She has a black-ink tattoo of a rose over her right breast. She stands close to a tree; behind her are two trunks and green leaves. Beyond the tree is a cement path bordered by green and yellow grass, and below the path is a lake, with a border of trees in the distance. Her demeanor is casual and alert, and she smiles slightly.
Nya Owens poses for a portrait at Lake Merritt in Oakland on June 10, 2022. (Amaya Nicole Edwards/KQED)


nside a borrowed studio apartment in a two-story courtyard building in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood, Nya Owens is preparing for her afternoon client, a woman named Yummy Jones who has driven all the way from Richmond, despite heavy traffic and the high cost of gas these days, just to see her.

Owens, who just turned 18, goes over styles as they watch TikTok videos of different looks. Then Owens asks Yummy to part her hair, and the work begins.

Braiding is Owens' business, and it's why she was so focused on graduating this year. She sees that high school diploma as the ticket to college and a degree in business administration, all part of her plan to start her own fashion company.

"I’ve loved fashion since I was a little kid. I’ve had experience with customer service, I’m a people person and I used to model," she says.

Her future plan?

"Phase one would be to go to pop-up shops and sell clothes, promote on social media," she says. "Phase two would be to grow my online store out of state, do raffles and also gain more and more ambassador events."

A woman stands over another woman doing her hair.
Nya Owens at work in her salon space at a friend's apartment with client Yummy Jones. Owens wants to get a degree in business administration, but this year she had to focus first on showing up to finish high school. (Julia McEvoy/KQED)

But just last January, Owens saw those plans evaporating. Her school, McClymonds High in West Oakland, told her that unless she started showing up for school on time, she wouldn't get to graduate. “I was falling behind because I was too busy trying to make my money and also trying to focus on school,” she says.

Owens was also behind because of a series of academic setbacks junior year: Pandemic-related distance learning had been impossible for her.

"COVID really took me away from school, where I got the majority of my help from. Like, I'm the type of person that needs hands on. I got to be hands on. I cannot do it on my own," she says. "I used to fall asleep during class."

Then there was a devastating personal blow: Owens' 25-year-old brother was shot and killed in East Oakland. At that point, with her mother grieving, Owens says she ended up living with different relatives. Getting to school at all was a challenge.

But she kept going, and she says her late brother has played a big part in that.

"I feel like my brother has been pushing me," Owens says. "Since he's gone, he's been pushing me on. I've been catching a whole lot of angel numbers."

Also pushing her was the team from Oakland Natives Give Back.

A woman stands in a school hallway next to graduation balloons. She is holding up a diploma and is smiling at someone off-camera.
Nya Owens poses for a portrait during graduation. Owens was a participant with Oakland Natives Give Back and says the program helped her achieve her goal of getting a high school diploma. (Courtesy of Nya Owens)

The organization launched a pilot program at McClymonds in January involving 10 students who were chronically absent but also were considered "influencers" — students others took their cues from. The goal was not only to get the 10 to graduate, but to get them to send a larger message to the student body that attendance matters.

Chronic absenteeism among Black students like Owens is a critical problem for the district. District statistics through May show that 58% of OUSD’s Black students missed at least 18 school days during this past school year; nearly half of those students were absent 36 days or more.

Kids not getting to school could cost OUSD millions of dollars a year in state funding, which is allotted on the basis of the district's average daily attendance. And more important, chronic absences are devastating for the growth and progress of students like Owens.

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The pilot program that Oakland Natives Give Back deployed at McClymonds this year was designed to provide intensive wraparound support for the 10 students who were invited to participate and see them through to graduation. The pilot also aimed to help each student plan for the future and teach them the skills they'd need to turn that plan into reality.

"We're not here to chastise you. We're here to support you. You know — even with love, with a different angle," says Brian McGee, McClymonds' head of programs, who helped bring in Oakland Natives Give Back. "Yes, your attendance is bad, but we don't think you're bad people. You're here because we want to correct some things and get you ready for the real world. And the way we're going to do that is to give you some skill sets for a toolbox that you can take with you along your journey."

Stefon Dent, an achievement coordinator with Oakland Natives Give Back, was part of a two-person team that worked with the 10 McClymonds students.

The students would participate in a 90-minute class once a week to learn skills they could use both in and outside of school: a lot of focus on accountability and what it means to show up on time. In return, they would be paid a monthly stipend of $500, paid for by Oakland Natives Give Back.

Dent says the classes were anchored in deep, emotional work that Dent says is key to Black students surviving and thriving in a systemically racist society.

"You really have to have a strong foundation within yourself and love yourself in order for you to manifest your desires," Dent says.

 Stefon Dent sports a beard and wears his Proud Oakland Native shirt as he stars into the distance on a street in downtown Oakland. Behind him is a yellow wall with artist's tags in black paint on it.
Stefon Dent, achievement coordinator with Oakland Natives Give Back, poses for a portrait in downtown Oakland on June 6, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

"Education itself needs to implement teachings for individuals to learn themselves. We don't have that in school," he says. "All we're teaching them is science, math, accounting. The school system was designed to teach people to work for other people."

The day Owens meets Yummy Jones to braid her hair shows the importance of this emotional dimension of learning.

Owens says the day had been a stressful one. It was finals week.

"Finals actually had me crying at school, crying," she says, explaining that she got into a disagreement with a teacher.

"I was supposed to present, but I didn’t know," she says. "I didn’t get the email. And I almost punched a wall. I was very upset. Grabbing at my hair and everything."

Dent calls this kind of reaction getting emotionally hijacked, saying of Owens, "She fell victim to her own negative programming."

Dent says in that split second, Owens had a choice: to act on impulse or to be her higher self. He says he works on this himself every day.

"If you're driving and somebody cuts you off, you have the option to get around them, flip them off, curse them out or whatever," he says. "Or you have the choice to be like, 'OK, well, maybe they need to get to someplace. So I'm going to allow them to, you know, have that.' Then I send them love and light. You know, 'I hope you make it to your destination safely.' And those are some of the tools I teach my clients."

Dent calls this operating on a higher frequency. And he shares this wisdom in his classes.

"A lot of professionals have trouble relating to students because all they have is book smarts. And that can only lead you so far, especially going into the belly of the beast," Dent says.

Dent says his own experience in public schools forced him onto his path of self-discovery. In third grade, he says, a teacher placed him in special education — where he remained until 12th grade.

"She asked me to play quietly, but what 6-year-old, you know, plays quietly?" he says. "So she influenced my mom to keep me in these classes due to my mom being on drugs at the time, saying, like, 'If your child is on SSI, you have an extra income.' So saying that to a person that's hooked on something — that's volumes."

Dent is adamant he stopped growing psychologically at 6 when this teacher imprinted that negative view on him. He graduated 12th grade reading at a third-grade level "because all we did was sing songs and [eat] snacks and color."

Today he has a master's degree in behavioral psychology from Cal State East Bay. But first he had to go to Laney College for seven years to catch up on all the learning he missed in his earlier years.

"So it's possible for you to accomplish anything," Dent says. As he likes to tell the students, "The only thing in the way of you, is you."

When Owens became frustrated with her teacher during finals week, instead of just walking out of school and not returning — as she says she normally would have done — she took steps to recover.

"I just kept having to breathe, and breathe, and breathe as much as I can. Anger like that, you really have to be careful," she says.

In that moment, a McClymonds staffer who works closely with Dent also helped her with some advice: "Go ahead, cry yourself out of it. Do as much crying as you gotta do and then we gotta get right back to this essay."

At the end of the year, when Owens learned one of her teachers had flunked her, she immediately signed up for adult school to take the class again.

"It took me a while, but I built myself up. I listen to gospel music and I listen to old school music, 'Good Morning Beautiful.' And then that type of music gives me some motivation into myself: 'OK, Nya, you got this. You’re pretty. You’re beautiful.' I tell myself that every day, every morning, every time I wake up, every time I go to sleep and wake back up."

Owens didn’t graduate with her class at McClymonds in May. But she redid the course online and graduated with an adult school class this month.

She says the accountability lessons from her internship at McClymonds are grounding her for her next steps.

"This program has actually helped me with getting to work on time," she says. "I get to clients on time. I used to be at least 10 to 15 minutes behind. Now, I leave early. If you're not going to be on time, you're just not going to be knowing what's going on."

Owens' graduation, albeit slightly delayed, meant that all 10 of the McClymonds seniors who were part of the Oakland Natives Give Back pilot project got their diplomas.

The organization is hoping to expand to seven other Oakland high schools this fall to reach as many as 100 students in the coming academic year.