From the Field: Oakland Educators Speak Up

Eventbrite Banner (1).jpeg

“Teachers are the innovators education has been waiting for.” -The Teachers Guild

In Oakland and across the country, it is essential that we listen to the voices of teachers and celebrate their stories—now more than ever. With a likely local teacher’s strike, the prospect of shutting down two dozen district schools over the next few years, and our continued budget crisis, teachers experience undo stress that pulls them away from the classroom. But teachers are also exceptionally innovative and creative in meeting our most vulnerable learners’ needs. We must learn from their experiences, hear their stories, and invite them to the table to design solutions for education’s most pressing challenges.   

On January 24, in a joint event hosted by Agency by Design Oakland and The Teachers Guild, five Oakland educators shared their personal stories of becoming teachers. Exploring themes of creativity, courage, and curiosity, the speakers brought to life their classrooms, schools, and communities. It was an inspirational evening of community building and celebration of educators in Oakland.  

Photo by Paloma Nikolic

Photo by Paloma Nikolic

Photo by Paloma Nikolic

Photo by Paloma Nikolic

Monica Yupa

Computer Science Teacher, Urban Promise Academy Middle School, OUSD

Monica, a current Agency by Design Oakland teacher fellow, is a relatively new teacher with a visionary curriculum. In her talk Monica discussed how she’s using real world issues in the classroom to cultivate the next generation of thinkers.

"Education should help students cultivate their innate creativity and employ it in ways that are relevant to their community contexts."

“Algorithms carry the bias of their designers. We think they’re objective but humans aren’t objective and we/they HAVE designed the algorithms. We need to think about this during the full design process.”

“I asked my students to take an implicit bias test...and we’re looking at how Google Translate turns non-gendered language into biased gendered language...I want my students to have an impact on how algorithms are designed.”


Reina Cabezas

Career & Technical Education Coach, OUSD

Reina, a former Agency by Design Oakland teacher fellow, shared her and her family’s forced asylum story from Nicaragua to Miami. A story of transformation and healing, Reina now works with Oakland students in public schools and understands deeply their lived experiences.

“As a Bay Area adopted native it is an honor to share the migration story of my family seeking political exile like many of my students and their families today.”

“My family and I were benefactors of the privilege afforded us by close ties to neo-liberal US foreign policies that cause the poverty my students suffer from today. Sharing that complicated experience of privilege then struggle and resistance motivates me to co-design learning experiences that empower us, teacher and students, to shape and re-shape our own counter-narratives as an act of resistance.”


Samia Karimi

Program Manager, Danceversity, Oakland International High School, OUSD

Born in Afghanistan, Samia shed light on what it's like growing up as an immigrant in California.  She shared her journey in becoming a dance artist and youth arts education advocate.

“Context Matters. Connection Matters. What I offer you today is a peek at the experience of growing up an immigrant in the United States. My parents left Afghanistan in the 80s when the Soviets invaded.”

“The earliest memories I have from living in the US are from kindergarten, and they weren’t pleasant ones. My teacher slapped me in front of the whole class because of how I drew the ocean. They called me mute.”

“More than ever we need arts integration because we all learn differently, because we need joy and we need to connect to each other culturally.”  


Brandy Varnado

English & Entrepreneurship Teacher, Arise High School

Brandy shared her journey as a would-be-writer turned teacher, who then left education to become an entrepreneur. She now teaches Entrepreneurship and English at Arise High School, a charter school in Oakland.

“When I became a teacher I knew I needed a side hustle so I started selling cosmetics.”

“I realized I wasn’t being creative in the classroom. I was given a curriculum and it didn’t connect to me or to my students.  So I left teaching.”

“Students, especially black and brown boys need opportunities to be creative. As an entrepreneur I’ve learned a lot about myself, how to collaborate, how to be resourceful…Now in Oakland, in my business classes I teach students to harness the power of their innate creativity to create something.”


Hari Vasu-Devan, Math Teacher, East Bay Innovation Academy

“I’ve learned that my job is not to bank knowledge on kids but to create the opportunity for students to explore math and discover themselves”  


Collaboration is critical: Props to the amazing organizers of this event!

Paula Mitchell and Nico Chen from Agency by Design Oakland & Alysha English and Adha Mengis from the Teacher’s Guild