The Challenges Faced by Oakland’s Youth: (Q&A with Margena Wade-Green, Part 1)
Margena Wade-Green, has been a part of Catalyst Youth Network even before its inception and is one of our founding board members. She has over two decades of service to the community of Oakland. Margena and our founder Robert Rickett have worked together for nearly 5 years through partnership with Children Rising making a difference in the lives of Oakland’s youth.
This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
CYN: It’s such a pleasure to speak with you today Margena. Let’s start with the basics. Could you tell us about your path and how you ended up here with Catalyst and with Robert?
MWG: I’ve always been involved with volunteering and starting some sort of youth organization in every city or little town I’ve lived in, just wanting to get the youth together and do something. When I lived in Jasper, Texas, there wasn’t anything for youth to do, so I started a Christian’s professional organization and we took discovery tours. Some kids had never been exposed to life outside their community. We would take them 2-3 hours outside of Jasper, and when you come from a small town where no buildings are more than 2 stories, even something like the escalator inside the mall was something new. Those kinds of experiences really touched my heart, being able to expose kids to a whole other world outside of their ZIP code.
You don’t know your passion when you’re born; it has to be cultivated and fertilized with your experiences. It comes to a realization that this is who I am, this is what I’m passionate about, and this is how I can help. That has been my driving force: showing kids opportunities. Even if man closes the door, God will crack his window and you will have such an opportunity there that you won’t even miss that closed door, and not only that, you will make other doors for other people.
Years ago, I started with Caltrans working to open the new Bay Bridge back in 2013. At Caltrans I started a STEM-focused internship for high school students and elementary school kids. After the bridge opened, I was offered a job at Faith Network (now Children Rising) to continue their high school internship program. Eventually I became their Director of “Path to Math” which mobilizes tutors who are trained and placed into schools, and they tutor second graders. That’s when Robert introduced himself to me, and ever since our first meetup, we have seen eye to eye. Over the years we have pulled each other into opportunities that I have known he would be interested in, and vice versa, and through these types of activities that is basically how we got Catalyst off the ground.
CYN: That is such a wonderful story of how you found that connection with Robert and have ultimately been able to follow your passion to help Oakland’s youth. In the time that you have been here in the Bay Area, it has changed in so many different ways. Given your background having grown up here and now living here as an adult, what is the most pressing challenge the youth of Oakland are facing?
MWG: The challenges that the youth face today are so complex, nothing like when I was a kid. Just one simple example--families are so busy that we are finding that some of our kids have never had a conversation that wasn’t telling them to do this, or do that. Just the common type of conversation when you sit down and talk about “how is your day”, or keeping it mellow. There is so much stress in many households, that when our kids get with a mentor or tutor, they just want to pour out. Whatever their family dynamics, no one is taking that time, there isn’t that discussion at the dinner table; those things are missing. Now, I can’t replace a parent, nor do I want to. We can’t really do what parents do, but what we can do is when we see a need, try to fill it, and if you can’t fill it then tell somebody who can, but don’t walk away. When we think about the kids in the Bay Area, there are so many needs; it might not be food, it might not be housing. It might be a conversation, a pat on the back, homework.
When my kids were growing up there were so many kids who didn’t have a parent who would go to the school and argue for them, go to bat for them. And these kids end up getting suspended over things for which there is no mediation, no explanation, no understanding — it’s just cut and dry. It might be that the system knows, and they know that the system is against them. The system is designed to quickly cut them off and not give them opportunities to figure out how to express themselves. When they get to high school or when they become adults, they don’t know how to speak for themselves because they have been shut up and shut down by systems in the school. We haven’t had the experience of speaking for ourselves, we have been shut down all these years. Those things cause the whole ripple effect of “Well they’re not going to listen to me so I’m going to go over here and do this”. Everything is internal, which causes trauma. It’s just this snowball, but the snowball has nails in it, there is so much pain.
But going back to the schools, I know that the teachers are doing every single thing they can, and the parents have some accountability in this as well. But, we’re not here to put the blame on anybody, we are here to help. That is an area where me and Robert see eye to eye, on where we help. Sometimes it’s just with the kid, sitting across the table from them, or now on Zoom. Sometimes it’s something the family needs help with — it could be that they need extra food, or they need a babysitter, or a job or job training. We were giving computer classes, basic Excel classes to our high school kids and we had parents say, “Can I take that class”? And we’re like, sure, you can show up too. A lot of the parents are unhappy that life has gone by so quickly and they’re not where they wish they were, and so it’s really hard.
A lot of kids experience something traumatic even before they get to school. Teachers don’t have time to take out and say, “OK, Johnny you tell me your problem, Mary you tell me your problem”, they don’t have time for that. But, they come to school traumatized, by 8am something has happened. And we expect them to sit quiet, be still, do your work, concentrate, learn this, learn that, go to this class, go to that, and the first kid that bumps them in the hallway, they are ready to fight. Why? Because nobody is listening. And this is the beauty of the tutoring program. We say, “You’re not here to rush them through math, you’re here to first of all, build a relationship. And if they want to talk about that, you give them a moment, and then you get on with your math, and then you give them a moment at the end, so they know you remembered what they cared about, you remembered their pain, you remember that their dog died. The tutors are supposed to make little notes so they can remember what is important with the kids. The next time you meet that kid, you can recall something that they said last time and it means alot to the kid that is involved. It brings them closer in.
Stay tuned for the next issue, when we dig deeper about how Catalyst will be solving these challenges!
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