Samuel Getachew is a noted student activist and writer who attended Oakland Technical High School. He most recently served as the 2019 Oakland Youth Poet Laureate, and his writing has been featured in publications including The Washington Post, KQED, and The New York Times. He will be attending Yale University next year.
Thanks for coming today! Can you start by telling us a little about yourself?
My name is Samuel Getachew, and I’m a recent Tech graduate and lifetime OUSD student. I was class president during my freshman year, which was my first time doing student government. I wasn’t that involved in clubs in middle school, but freshman year I kind of went hard. I was sophomore class president the year after that, and after sophomore year I stopped doing student government. Freshman and Sophomore year, I ran track and cross country for the Tech team — I also quit that after my sophomore year. I was in Mock Trial in my Sophomore, Junior, and Senior year, where I was team captain in Junior and Senior year. I also wrote for The Scribe all four years, editing starting in my sophomore year. I served as Features Editor for all three years because it was the perfect time commitment for me. I was constantly busy during [my time at] Tech.
Can you tell me what you were passionate about at Oakland Tech?
Freshman year, I had no idea what Student Government would look like when I ran. I walked into Student Government expecting there to be a laid out way of doing things, and I didn’t think it would be as abstract and unclear as it was. I think part of the problem was that elected officers literally wouldn’t show up, putting it on their resumes and college applications but never showing up after that. I get why upperclassmen would do that — when I became an upperclassman, I was like, “Yeah I have a workload and I would not want to be doing Student Government right now,” but it still sucks to not follow through with something you committed to. Overall, it was a lot of me feeling like the one person holding up the entire project, where a few of us worked hard and no one else participated. Our biggest project was most likely the Winter Ball — it was kind of a struggle because we all know Tech students don’t like to attend dances. A lot of people had gone to Homecoming but hadn’t liked it, so we tried to distance ourselves from Homecoming and pull out all of the stops; we pretty much transformed the gym, brought lots of food, and worked hard to achieve the fundraising goal. After that event, I realized that there wasn’t necessarily a structure for the role of class president and so I just took what I wanted to do and ran with it. That year, I brought five-sixths of the freshman English classes to an assembly, right around the 2016 election. I remember in freshman year Spanish I overheard someone making horrible comments to a Muslim girl in class, and so I brought speakers from an Islamic civil rights nonprofit to do an islamophobia awareness event for all of the students. Even though I didn’t have a real position of power in Oakland Tech, I tried to do things that would be good for our grade.
Can you share about your term as the Youth Poet Laureate, what that was and what you’ve worked on?
I’ve done poetry outside of school through high school. In freshman year, I entered an event called the Teen Poetry Slam, which is an annual event hosted by YouthSpeaks. It was my first-ever poetry event, but I ended up winning, leading to me constantly perform in different venues across the Bay Area. I ended up winning that competition two more times in the years after, and sophomore year, I heard about the Oakland Youth Poet Laureate program. In the first year, I applied and was the runner up — so I was the 2018 Vice Youth Poet Laureate. I still had some roles and opportunities through that, but I decided to apply again the year after. In 2019, I was named the Oakland Youth Poet Laureate. I worked for an organization called Chapter 510 in West Oakland, where I hosted monthly open mics. I was also a teacher’s assistant for an eight-week writing workshop for young Black writers. I’ve also done occasional poetry workshops in Oakland Tech, mostly in Ms. Bailey’s class, as well as organizing the Oakland walkout against gun violence in solidarity with the Parkland students. Up to that point, I did poetry a lot outside of school but didn’t talk about any of it in school, but a month before the walkout one of my poems related to gun violence went kind of viral, leading to some event organizers inviting me to present. That was the first time that I let Tech kids into that world. It was mortifying (and still is), but it led to all of my workshops and poetry work at Tech.
As a student leader in Oakland, how can the issue of youth engagement be reformed?
Tech is incredibly diverse — one of the most diverse schools in the country — but it’s also extremely segregated. I think that institutionally, that’s one of the biggest problems facing OUSD. If you look at the educational outcomes from Tech which are far better than other high schools and compare them with the demographics of students, you see a stark disparity. I did Paideia and the Engineering Academy, and I was tracked into that section of Tech. It’s surreal to be at a school diverse as Tech and be the only Black person or one of two Black people in the room. For a school that prides itself so much on being socially aware and liberal, I think we need to do a better job in the way that we communicate and treat access to these classes. This is not a problem of resources; the resources are there but only a certain amount of people are accessing them. I know that wall-to-wall academies are the system the districts and the administrators have been pushing, but in terms of segregation, I feel that this is the worst thing for them to do. The messaging that we got in my freshman year, purposeful or unintentional, was that Health was for the Black kids if they wanted an academy, and Paideia and Engineering were for the white kids. That was the implicit messaging — whether we heard this as rumors from peers or support from teachers, we have aggressive enthusiasm for pathways, the block schedule, and other inane programs. I think of Oakland Tech and the district as a whole, we have a habit of doing things for the sake of doing them and not for the impacts they may pose; that needs to be addressed.
Do you have anything else that you’d like to share with Oakland students?
Just as a final message, I want to say that school is not supposed to be like this. I’m not telling you to give up on school, but now that I’m about to attend a private university that costs thousands and thousands of dollars a year, that has boundless resources, I’m going to have to reorient myself for the first time in my life to expect something from my school. When I get to college, there’s not the whole thing of like, “Well I tried to change my schedule but the office was just being uncooperative, so oh well.” That only slides at Tech because it’s a public school with no accountability and a ridiculous bureaucracy. When you get to the point where you’re paying for your education, you cannot accept the things OUSD has trained you to accept as normal.