On May 15, 2021, Oakland Summer School organizers Grant Kerber, Laura Nelson, Melissa Mack, Chika Okoye, and Scott Ortega-Nanos met on Zoom for a conversation to reflect on the project of the Oakland Summer School.
The following is an edited and consolidated version of our conversation.
people, feel, thinking, summer, school, gatherings, Oakland, space, meeting, care, study, question, pandemic, learning, energy, reading
Say, say what? Just suggesting that we maybe take a deep breath together.
I remember after the first summer calling into question all aspects of our name: do we want to have the word school in there? Do we want to have summer there, or Oakland even. But I remember feeling like the name had started to take on a meaning of its own just in that very first summer, 2017 or 2018. I think it was around that time that through research I also came to the history of summer schools, radical summer schools, specifically in the Bay Area, like the California Labor school and other projects that in as early as the 40s and 50s were organizing these summer schools. So I was kind of against using the word school for a while but then discovering, oh, people have been using this term in all kinds of ways. And always thinking about a different kind of study that's possible. In these more ephemeral and collectively created schools.
You know, it is like a retaking of that word, school, instead of trying to make a different one. This is actually what school means. It's not something for social conformity, perhaps as the most major feature now, but for more freeing work. And then last year we were all sitting at the estuary at Lake Merritt by Laney College [in Oakland] and we talked about how, in our dream world, our ideal world, it's always summer, or something like that.
The feeling of sitting in a circle with folks in a study group, when we were meeting in person. Somebody could wander in hella late, or like, leave early, there's food, and you can just get up and walk to the middle and get the food or just make an offhand comment. People were joking around, and it had this feeling of what school could be or used to be like. I think that school for very little kids can be a really sweet, beautiful experience when it's more about play, exploration and learning how to be social with each other. So I guess there is the reclaiming element that you spoke of, Scott. There's something very real about that.
The idea of it being a container feels important to me. It's a thing that exists that holds people in collectivity, that is oriented around the shared pursuit of shared learning, you know, whatever the subject is. It can take different forms, the weekend gatherings with all the different events, the study groups. Chika, you mentioned how, in some of the events or groups there's been a real focus on physical movement, in others on eating, and in others on reading.
I love that you mentioned the container because I’ve been thinking about this term that Manolo Callahan uses to talk about some Zapatista educational projects. He talks about creating social architectures for gathering. And as soon as I heard that, it made me think a lot about the Oakland Summer School. How the Oakland Summer School creates these social architectures for people to come together and study together and that those architectures are ever shifting. The school can inhabit a lot of different configurations and kinds of space. And also this idea of hosting, that feels closely tied to creating these social architectures. One thing I always loved was the intention we all put into thinking about how to host and how to create space.
I think the name, nondescript, unassuming, it made it enticing to me. And I think to other people too, who are leaning towards more radical and left tendencies. It just always felt like a front or that subversive stuff was being generated. Covert operations going on in the Summer School, even further back in the Bay Area Public School.
I don't know if it necessarily inverts the hierarchy of what we're taught that education is supposed to be about, but it approaches it in a different way. There’s such a stigma around community-organized learning, education needing to be authoritative, with some higher body approving it. And everything here, it removes so much of the barrier because you can learn what you want, you can study, you don't need some certificate program telling you what is and isn't valid.
I do really like the term social architecture, Laura, especially when trying to think through what that means in all the different kinds of offerings we've had with Oakland Summer School, that each of them does involve a kind of social, whether that's hosting a weekend full of talks and workshops or multi-week study groups, whether that's online or in person, but always there's a social architecture. I'm curious if we want to think a little bit about what the elements of that are. I think that the hosting piece is a big one. And I remember, Laura, Melissa, and I talking a lot about that some time ago, of wanting to have a certain feeling of welcome. And in everything that we were doing, including our organizing meetings, a big part of that was bringing food and sharing food. And that's not possible online. So is something essential lost? Are there other ways we've been able to make that up?
I don't want to be too reductive but I do feel in some ways something is lost, because what I really loved about the Oakland Summer School gatherings, these in-person gatherings, was that nothing is fixed, nothing is absolute. There's not really any normative form. Depending on who is stewarding that architecture, that container, it can look so different, and there's that potential for things to happen that, having it in this way, online, we can mold the content but there are serious limitations.
There's something even just so simple that's lost when you're not in a physical space, because in a room you have an arrangement of chairs, and each person who's going to facilitate can decide, oh, should these chairs be like this or like this? Should we push all the chairs to the side and just walk, circulate? I'm thinking about the session that my Alexander Technique teacher did where he had people move through the room and meet each other and do these exercises with each other. We can't do that when we’re virtual.
[With in-person gathering,] there’s also outside space and inside/outside, there's a porousness. I have memories of all the Oakland Summer School gatherings of people just hanging out outside on the sidewalks or in Oscar Grant Plaza, there was a sense that you could pop out and pop in, always these moments of people meeting one another. And the energies shifting and changing throughout a day, people leaving and going on walks and coming back. It felt really electric, dynamic.
I think of the porousness of the beginnings and endings, even reading group sessions. There's something very fixed about doing it in this pandemic way, it's one virtual way, where when it ends, it ends. I'm in my house. Whereas before, if people showed up early, there's so much meta content. All these things being generated in between, or maybe it'll just go on longer, because people want to hang out or folks will go to a bar or a park. I mean, moving everything online during the pandemic didn't really affect the turnout. Maybe people being cooped up made it even more so that people were hungry for this, but there's something magical that I really miss.
Of the porousness of beginnings and endings, that's also been true over time. One of Syd’s questions was about side projects or other projects or spin offs. One of the early events of summer school was Tongo [Eisen-Martin]’s talk on Lenin’s What is To Be Done. It became a “political education” reading group that went through lots of iterations of people meeting in different locations and is still meeting. So I'm also thinking not just porosity but evolution. Configurations of people, configurations around a particular form… initially the big cornucopia of weekend events was the primary format and then we started doing these month-long study groups that had a facilitator and people signed up for them.
And then the pandemic was its own form. I will definitely say that meeting online is not my thing, but I appreciate what went forward during the pandemic, that some study groups happened last spring. As a facilitator, doing the massive block of scheduling and logistics when it’s virtual becomes a lot more laborious. But we did have this month of events this fall. A huge highlight was the conversation with Fred [Moten] and Stefano [Harney], who are such inspirations for what we were doing. Being able to have that conversation with them online, with people from all over the country was so exciting. And to have you, Chika, and Akande [X] moderate that conversation with them was a big highlight. On the facilitation side, though, energy levels can take a hit. Planning is a lot of work.
But then when we participate in the study groups, that fills things back up. I remember participating in Justin [Carder] and Helen [Ip]’s virtual graphic design for radical politics study group this past November, and just seeing the amount of work they put into their reader and the care they put into that gave me so much. The directions people take things in and the different ideas people come up with, it's fantastic. So unexpected and heartwarming. I don't know where I was going with that.
I've been thinking about the social architecture part. One of the elements is the curiosity and the energy that the participants are bringing, right? So it's not all the facilitators doing everything. We do get fed off of each other's energy, it's synergistic, it builds. You were talking about evolution, Melissa. I think there's something especially powerful about the study groups because maybe there's more space for people's different inputs. The study group as one of the forms of the Oakland Summer School seems like one of the most generative and capacious spaces.
I just read this passage from Alexis Pauline Gumbs, from her book Undrowned [: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals], and it made me think of the Oakland Summer School, but I was just curious to hear how others were thinking about it. She's writing here about schools of dolphins. She asks,
“What if school as we use it on a daily basis signals not the name of a process or institution through which we could be indoctrinated, not a structure through which social capital was grasped and policed, but something more organic, like a scale of care? What if school was the scale at which we could care for each other and move together?”
I was curious, taken by this idea of school at the scale of care. And was wondering if that resonated with anyone and the ways that they see the Oakland Summer School practicing or moving at a kind of small scale of care or maybe in other ways.
I really like that quote so much. I love Alexis Pauline Gumbs, and, oh my gosh, I also love dolphins. I was watching this nature documentary with Naima. And we were also watching these blue whales. And it's just, oh my god. But for me, if I had my ideal school or my ideal learning social architecture, container, I want it to be two things. I want it to have equal parts care in the collective sense, and then I want militancy. I really want both. Oftentimes it can go too much one way or the other. I want both. I think they're related. I think they feed each other. I think the kind of militancy we want is rooted in care, you know, it's rooted out of care for people that we love, people we maybe don’t even know, folks in other countries that we feel love and care for. The militancy should come from care. And we should care for each other militantly.
Chika, the way that you talked about coming together around what we care about feels relevant to Pauline Gumbs’s quote, you know? I think some of it is about what draws people to the ‘school’ – now I can't stop thinking about schools of dolphins – is, ‘oh, there's going to be this event, there's going to be this study group’. But what happens once we are gathered is that when I show up I feel cared for. I mean, Scott, like you were saying about militancy, what draws us into the formation, and then the incidents within it, ideally it's a social movement, building a way out of the hellscape that we currently reside in.
I maybe a little begrudgingly bring Marx into this but I wonder about alienation. How much of our self- care needs could be satisfied by capital-C Collectivity, collective participation. I think a lot. I think what also draws people to Summer School, whether it be the reading groups or the gatherings or anything, are self-care needs that, even if it seems that they need to be satisfied in isolation, are actually feelings that come from a lack of collectivity and collective participation. That is a magnetism that draws people. It draws me to Oakland Summer School and these beautiful constellations.
Grant, something you said about sharing what we care about is helpful here. There's something about the Oakland Summer School that's also about sharing the questions that are on our minds, the texts, the ideas, the concepts. Sharing the things that were lodged in us but we need a space to open them up. Care then becomes this active offering and then dwelling with one another too. That's a nice way of thinking about what collective care could be.
To also pick up on what you were sharing, Scott, about alienation, there is a part of the Oakland Summer School that has been this platform for the flowering of various individuals to show up and share an offering, share learning, share whatever it is that they are doing. Helping folks do that sharing is also a kind of caring, even a self-caring, right, what you were saying about how much of our alienation could be eradicated by being part of a collectivity.
I think that's right. To stay with the water metaphor since we were talking about dolphins, a ripple effect. You know, any one person can organize a study group and just put it out to the people they know, but there's some kind of ripple effect or magnitude that comes from being a school, a collectivity.
Helping people we know, our friends, our peers, chosen family, whatever, to share their own knowledge, their ideas. That simple act of generosity. It doesn't actually take that much of our time and energy and labor to help lift each other up. One of the things I'm most struck about with Oakland Summer School is how many folks say, ‘I want to do this.’ Yes, you can! I think we made an impact with very little funding because all it really takes is two steps. Once you have a power to share, the community shows up.
I know, I think about the donated food. 500 muffins, five gallons of black bean soup!
Yeah. So beautiful, so joyful.
And also, I remember when we thought about applying for grants a couple years ago, having conversations about do we even want that much money? We thought about what that would mean to have even a few thousand dollars. [We did apply for and receive a Southern Exposure grant of about $4,000, which has been the school’s only budget, and which we parceled out over a few years paying for food, locations, supplies, and small stipends for some presenters/facilitators.] Those conversations were important because it got us to think a lot about our process and how everything felt possible through relationships. All the spaces where we hosted things, and the food, the labor of the graphic design, the posters – Companion-Platform, Wolfman Books, Café Sama, Alley Cat Books, Nomadic Press, Ashara Ekundayo Gallery, ProArts, The Bookmark, The Starline, Hasta Muerte Coffee, Peet’s, Arizmendi, Tamarack, CTRLSHFT Collective – everything was through friendship and relationships and we all have different communities that were showing up with people who wanted to contribute. People were so generous knowing this is not some high budget opera.
Yeah, I think about that too, deep in the pandemic. Everything had to be online. We put out a call for volunteers and got an outpouring, most of whom we didn't know. In light of the question, what would you do differently? I want to take better care of that beautiful group of volunteers and to springboard into the next iteration of Oakland Summer School. Who wants to do what? Do you want to do groups? Who wants to stay involved? There was a bit of a collapse after the fall program.
Not that that can't happen even now, because that's one thing that's been beautiful about this project is … when we wrote together on the lawn at the estuary, we wrote that Oakland Summer School takes different forms based on who is around at any given moment, who has energy when the local zeitgeist pulls us together.
I think we talked about this, how much these meetings mean to us. We get together and solve problems and it teaches you so much about trusting each other and learning that it'll be okay. There have been things that haven't worked out in the way that we wanted them to but that also has taught us a lot.
Part of the reason why this is such a vital project is that it's so much about how I want to live. I want to be in a thick texture of people who are working to, like, dismantle the white supremacist heteronormative patriarchal capitalist patriarchy, you know.
Okay, I think that's a good note to leave it on.
Okay, cool. All right. Okay, love you all, everybody.