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Angela Davis and Black Student Leaders Talk Social Justice at Alameda High School Event

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Political activist Angela Davis speaks at Alameda High School on April 19, 2024, during an event organized by students from Alameda High School and Castro Valley High School. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Black student leaders and social justice icon Angela Y. Davis took the stage of a mostly full 1,800-seat auditorium at Alameda High School Friday night for a conversation on everything from joy in social movements and hair to reparations and racism. The Black Student Unions at Alameda High School and Castro Valley High School hosted the author and former UC Santa Cruz professor for a free, two-hour event.

“I’m so happy to be here,” Davis told the multigenerational crowd. Davis recalled how she used to ride past Alameda High School often when she was part of the Oakland Yellow Jackets Bicycle Club, but it was her first time being inside the building. “Thank you so much for inviting me,” she added.

A packed theater listens to Angela Davis speak at Alameda High School on April 19, 2024, during an event organized by students from Alameda High School and Castro Valley High School. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Davis was invited to speak after Naomi Melak, a junior at Castro Valley High School and vice president of the school’s BSU, was inspired by seeing Davis’ appearance in the documentary 13th. She thought: “What if the BSU could put on an event with Davis?” Encouraged by her English teacher to pursue the idea seriously, Melak and her classmate, Diego De La Rosa Laday, president of the BSU, started a GoFundMe in November to raise $10,000 for Davis’ speaking fee through an agency.

They sent it around to other East Bay high school BSUs, and students at Alameda High School’s BSU joined the effort to organize an event. The fundraising effort moved slowly, though. When the request eventually made its way to Davis in January, her scheduler relayed that she would do the event for free, and they could invest any funds they’d raised so far back into their BSUs.

Naomi Melak (left) and Diego De La Rosa Laday, both students at Castro Valley High School, ask a question to Angela Davis. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Speaking to KQED prior to the event, student organizers said that they wanted to host Davis to help inspire change in their school communities, where hate speech and racist microaggressions towards Black students are an ongoing issue.

“It affects people mentally. It’s a continuous problem and a lack of response from teachers, as well,” said De La Rosa Laday. “We want someone [like Davis] who can inspire the community and who people can look up to, to build that courage to overcome these challenges and make change.”

For Naomi Abraham, a senior at Alameda High School and co-president of the BSU there, the event was a way to say that Black students on campus have a voice despite the racist incidents they’ve faced. “I want to leave a legacy at our school and show that it’s a place where Black students are just as much a part of the community as any other student,” Abraham said.

When the event got underway, Davis was introduced by Abraham and Melak. The two-part program with intermission saw a panel of four students, including Melak and De La Rosa Laday, take turns asking Davis questions on a range of topics.

Political activist Angela Davis speaks at Alameda High School. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Among the topics were Davis’ thoughts on her prison abolition activism, reparations, “I can’t think about reparations for Black people without thinking about reparations for Indigenous people” and reparations “should involve the transformation of the entire society”; the relationship between racism and capitalism; and education, “there is no liberation without education.”

Students also asked a pre-submitted audience question inquiring about her thoughts on the war in Gaza. “Don’t let anyone tell you that to be for the freedom of people in Palestine is equivalent to anti-Semitism. It is not,” Davis said.

The students mixed in some lighter points of conversation, as well — like when Alameda High School senior Heran Girma, who has curly hair, asked about Davis’ hair care routine. After an answer lasting a few minutes (that focused mainly on discussing the social mission behind her product of choice), Davis said, “This is the longest hair conversation I’ve had in public,” to laughter from the crowd.

Jeannette Brantley (center) listens to her granddaughter Bronwyn Brantley ask a question to Angela Davis. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

One of the most rousing and poignant parts of the evening came when Alameda High School sophomore Bronwyn Brantley asked Davis about a pivotal moment in her early life that influenced her commitment to fighting for equality. Davis told the story of growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, living on the street that divided the Black neighborhood from the white neighborhood, which Black people were not allowed to cross unless they were going to work.

Davis recounted how she and other kids developed a game daring each other to run across the street and sometimes even ringing the doorbell of the house of a Ku Klux Klan leader who lived on the block and running away.

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“Now our parents did not know we were doing this,” Davis emphasized. “But that was so much fun. That was our favorite game. And it taught me something that I’ve carried with me all of these years: that resistance and engaging in struggle can be fun.” She added that it’s because she finds joy in the struggle — through art and music and play — that she’s still so involved at 80 years old.

Angela Davis speaks with high school students after the event. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

At intermission, attendee Sheila SatheWarner, who brought her two sons to the event, commented that she was proud of the BSU students. “It’s super well-run, it’s super-organized, and there’s a lot of folks out here,” she said. SatheWarner is the principal of Lincoln Middle School in Alameda and says they also have a lot of Black students who are organizing. “I’m happy for our future kids coming up from Lincoln. To know they’re coming into this BSU with these leaders is really exciting.”

During the second half of the program, the panel sought Davis’ advice for themselves and other young activists who hope to make a difference in society. Davis advised them to focus on building community. “Remember that we accomplish nothing alone,” Davis said.

A t-shirt is for sale at a speaking event with Angela Davis at Alameda High School. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

To close, Melak gave a speech about Davis’ impact on her and her fellow students. “Her words have not only resonated deeply but have also sparked a flame within each of us, igniting a passion for change and a commitment to justice,” Melak said.

She also acknowledged what the two BSUs achieved with the event. “To think that a group of high schoolers can plan, organize and execute an event this big shows you that virtually anything is possible as long as you stay dedicated,” Melak said to roaring applause — and a big smile from Davis.

BJ Victor puts his arm around his son Jaiden, 5 while listening to Angela Davis speak. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

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