On the first Saturday of every month, a group of about 30-plus men meet to discuss efforts to better Oakland, and the world beyond.
Ron Bridgeforth is one of the participants in this collective of three generations of African American men, known as the Brotherhood of Elders Network.
On a recent Saturday, Bridgeforth waited for a pause in the meeting to address the room. Stoic and reserved per usual, he calmly asked the gentlemen about the whereabouts of a Marvel comic book he had circulated around the room in effort to show the guys the type of books that provoke the interest of young people at Frick Middle School in East Oakland. His book was spotted, passed around, and eventually ended up in Bridgeforth’s possession.
During a sit-down interview the week prior, Bridgeforth shared with me an email from Oakland Unified School District Library Manager Amy Cheney:
“Out of 86 schools in the Oakland Unified School District, 27 provide no library services at all including 6 of our 7 high schools,” read the email. “Only 13 school libraries are open 4-5 days a week, and most of the open libraries are funded by the PTA in wealthier areas of town.”
The retired Bridgeforth took this challenge on last school year, and has instantly made an impact. With the assistance of funds from the Brotherhood Of Elders Network, Bridgeforth helped secure over 80 up-to-date books for the Frick Middle School library. The titles of the books range from Between The World and Me to Kindred, as well as graphic novels.
“The most popular books are Manga,” said Andrea Kneeland, the first year librarian at Frick. Kneeland had an overwhelming amount of excitement around getting more graphic novels, like the new Ta-Nehisi Coates Black Panther, Jason Reynolds’ Spider Man and America Chavez.
She explained, “There are new superheroes now, who represent the community we’re in. And that’s what we’re really excited about.”
Although Kneeland has only been in her position since the start of this school year, she knows that getting new books into the schools in the flatlands isn’t easy. Lolade Gbadebo, who worked in the Frick Library prior to Kneeland, says a lot of the schools don’t have employees that are dedicated to the library, often using a staff member as a “library technician.”
“A lot of schools that do have a librarian are in the hills or in North Oakland, but the new district library manager has targeted schools in the flats,” says Gbadebo, noting that United for Success Academy, Green Leaf Elementary and Bret Harte Middle all reportedly have dedicated librarians.
Measure G, passed in 2009, is a parcel tax that funds educational resources in Oakland Public Schools. A quick look at the map on the
Measure G’s tracking website, TrackG.org, will show you that schools in wealthier areas receive more funds, allowing them to keep their libraries open and up-to-date. And even with outside support, getting new books in functional libraries isn’t an easy task in Oakland, where educational financial woes are seemingly constant headline news.
Last year, OUSD planned on spending $20.1 million on books and supplies, but spent only $6.8 million, while tremendously overspending on administrators and consultants, as this publication has previously reported. And yet, the District is still looking to make over 15 million dollars in cuts this year in effort to be fiscally responsible.
The mismanagement of funds and lack of resources for students is why the efforts of Ron Bridgeforth, The Brotherhood of Elders Netowrk and the librarians at Frick Middle School are to be recognized and applauded.
When asked how he feels about this work, Bridgeforth said, “Throughout my life, education has been a powerful tool for securing both freedom and success. Making this tool available to our children is my purpose and my reward.”
Putting freedom and success in the hands of the youth, that’s what superheroes do.