Our Voices Matter:
a conversation at school
Ali Alhabil, Bashar Allataifih, Heaven Berhe, Ricardo Jaramillo,
and Lauren Markham
Heaven (age 17, born in Asmara, Eritrea):
HAVE ALWAYS been hiding from history: I never found the topic interesting, and I did not think the events of history related to my own life. Until my government class. My teacher created a weekly Socratic seminar schedule where students facilitate academic discussions about the history of the United States, various forms of government, and what it means to actually learn. For the first time I was asked to lead the discussion with two of my peers: Should people turn on their cameras for credit? How much airtime should each student get? If we were stranded on a deserted island as a group of high school seniors, how would we organize ourselves? What is human nature?
Lauren (age 37, born in San Diego, California):
In the lead-up to the 2016 election, student after student asked me: do you think he will win? I knew who they meant. As the election drew nearer, the question turned into a statement: he will win. All the polls said differently. We tried to assure them, but this assurance, in retrospect, was hubris.
Oakland International High School, where Ricardo and I work, and where Heaven, Bashar and Ali are students, is a public high school for recently-arrived immigrant youth. Our students come from all over the world. Nearly all of our staff are eligible to vote; due to age and immigration status, nearly none of our students or their immediate family members are.
Another act of hubris: on Wednesday, November 9th, Oakland International High School had planned an Open House. Over 30 educators from other schools and cities had signed up to visit our school to learn from our students and staff, our model of teaching and learning. I was charged with setting out the snacks and coffee for their arrival—what an absurd act, that morning, and perhaps any morning thereafter, to be arranging bad muffins on a tray, making copies, dragging tables across the room. As if any order could be made of this despair.
That morning, before the bell rang, students assembled in the courtyard, etched murals in chalk, made signs, readied themselves to march down Telegraph Avenue toward U.C. Berkeley where a demonstration was being held. In the days after, the 12th grade government class prepared lessons to teach the younger students what had happened during the election—how a president could, in this new country of theirs, lose the popular vote yet still win the election. But is that real democracy? Many students asked. Teachers held circles, made space for discussions. But after a while—days, weeks—students had had enough. They didn’t want to talk about the election anymore. Many of them had fled wars, dictatorships, oligarchies. The rise of an unscrupulous strongman was a shock to many staff, but to few students.
Ali (age 16, born in Yemen, after talking with his aunt, Arwa, who is a U.S. Citizen):
This election is important. It’s lonely, and people have been waiting for four years. Even if choosing a president like Joe Biden is not the best option for everyone, he is a better candidate than Donald Trump. People have to vote. This is how humans can make a difference. If people don’t vote then, it shows that they don’t care about what is happening in their country and city, or even to their people. “It’s how things get done,” my Aunt Arwa said. 18-year-olds and young people, especially, need to vote, because the country belongs to the future. The new generation.
Bashar (age 17, born in Irbid, Jordan):
Whoever you vote for is the person that will be representing you in something, so you always have to pick carefully.
Ricardo (age 24, born in Boston, Massachusetts):
In 2016 I was living in Providence, Rhode Island, working for an organization that supported the city’s refugee community. I worked with youth leaders, a small group of them. What a group of young people! Clear-eyed and big-hearted, luminous, hilarious, their sincerity brimming and unkempt, unwiddled by the world. Together, they had founded the first ever student leadership board in the organization’s history. I was their advisor.
The day after the election, we met for an emergency meeting at a boba tea house on Westminster Street.
That day someone brought a large yellow piece of paper and colored markers. I don’t remember who. And I don’t remember who started writing or speaking—I know it wasn’t me, because what I most remember is having nothing to say. The group began to write down things, good things, things we wanted from the world: safety, humanity, justice, faith, trust, food, each written in big letters and spread at random distances across the paper. Happiness beside safety. Unity nearby hope. Love, and right under it, as if its roots, or beneath its wings: poetry, art, music, dance. Someone drew dashed lines between the words, like the lines of a treasure map. We fell together into a shared silence, writing. In the top right corner, NO was written in oversized letters, and under it a small bulleted list: donald trump, violence, police, denial, all the isms, white supremacy. But the no section of the paper was small, relegated to a corner; the rest of what we’d inscribed speaking together its opposite: yes.
As if we could make order, together, of this despair. Draw it or be drawn to it, on a sheet of construction paper, yellow as a leaf before it falls. We made something that day; we put shape to our desires. We drew the lines between everything good. We documented our wants. We were putting the world back together, for each other—we could do it again and again, every day; if we needed to, we would.
I remember first learning about voting when I was really young. Back in Jordan, some teachers recommended that I become the leader of the “student government” in school. So I applied, and they had students vote between a couple of competitors, and I ended up winning by a huge difference. It felt really good to know people trusted me to take on a position like that, and then my friends surprised me with a celebration.
Election is the formal way of choosing a government. All citizens have the right to vote, then based on the majority, the people will choose a president. That’s what an election means to me. But after I got into it a little bit in my government class, I learned what counts most is the electors’ voice, not the people’s voice. Like what happened in the election of Donald Trump with Hillary Clinton. Hillary got more voters but most of the electors voted for Trump, so he became the President.
I didn’t see anyone talk about this issue before. If we say America is a democracy, we don’t need to have the electors, if the majority of the people choose Hillary Clinton she has to be the President, right? That’s how democracy is, the people’s voice matters (“demo”-people and “cracy”-rule). However, if the electors' voices matter more than the majority of the people, America is not a democracy, it's an Oligarchy. Oligarchy is when a minority of the opulent make the choice for everyone. I heard James Madison say “The primary purpose of the government is to protect the minority of the opulent from the majority of the poor.” So if we use the electors then we are following what James Madison said.
But even though I know all those things I still believe voting matters. A community together can make a change. Even if there is nothing changing, it still makes everyone one part of the community, which matters. It may take time but there will come a day things will change.
Last time around we were so unprepared. And this time? Chaos abounds. We haven’t been together as a school community since Friday, March 13th, the day I crouched next to desks, student by student, collecting cell phone numbers. I spent the next three weeks sick in bed and helping families file for unemployment from under the covers, while our families lost their jobs and homes. And now fire season. A few weeks ago, the smoke blotted out the sun; our staff ran our weekly, mid-day food pantry for families in the dim, sickly twilight of mid-day as ash rained from the sky. A community supports itself by coming together. As this election nears we are scattered, and already on our knees.
Even during Covid, Heaven comes to campus every Friday to help out with our food delivery program. We sit outside together and pack food, sorting cucumbers, onions, potatoes, celery, pears (whatever collection of items we might get from the county food bank each week) into bags, loading them into volunteers’ cars who drive them around Oakland to our students.
We talk while we work. Heaven tells me how she watches Democracy Now! (Every day, Ricardo, and you should too. There are things about the world you probably don’t know about, and you need to know!), how she wants to study biology, how she just joined the ukulele club, how she loves best her friend Asma, they talk every day, even about nothing, how she convinced all her family members, starting with her grandfather, to vote for Joe Biden instead of Donald Trump.
We are putting craisins and Scooby-Doo-shaped graham crackers in the bags now, layering them on top of the vegetables and fruits.
We ask each other questions. How is Donald Trump so confident he will win? She asks me.
He has hubris! I return.
It’s a Greek word for thinking you’re in control of life when you’re not. It’s when you have too much confidence, when you believe you are God!
Ok that’s Donald Trump, for sure, Heaven says.
And then in Greek stories when people have hubris the real Gods always punish them!
I raise my eyebrows. Heaven laughs.
We take a break and each eat a bag of craisins, red and glittering in our hands like jewels, bitter then sweet. We sit in the wind, the cold and the bitterness making me feel alert, alive. We laugh, ask each other more questions. We go back to work.
We’re running low, Heaven notices. Ricardo, put three craisins in each bag instead of five, OK? Or else we’ll run out. A mix of care and alarm mounts in her voice, as though nothing in the world could matter more.
OK, I say through a smile, putting three craisins each into three bags. As though nothing in the world could matter more.
I think voting is one of the most important parts of having your voice heard by a lot of people. Whoever you vote for is the person that will be representing you in something, so you always have to pick carefully.
I was thinking a vote is something like a wish—you’re wishing, on this sacred piece of paper, via a little black line or an inked-in dot, for what you want to see in the world. Putting your vote in the ballot box or the mailbox or the machine is like blowing dandelion seeds out into the wind.
A vote is not a wish, it’s more like a right. My aunt’s dad doesn’t like people who don’t vote. He gets mad when they don’t vote because it’s important here. You have to make a better life for us, even by voting for people that you don’t think are the best choice. That’s what our role is as citizens: we are trying to make a better world for everyone.
No fear. You don’t have to be scared. That’s the reason for being a citizen. “The right to vote,” said Arwa.
We can see hopes with more and more people every year like in Congress. The people who are not taking money from the corporations and stuff. Good people like Rashida Tlaib from Detroit, people like Ocasio Cotez from New York, Ilhan from Minnesota—and a lot of other people, of course. Voting means a good change, because it shows what you believe in.
In my family everyone believes in democracy but this year, because of some reasons, my family decided to vote for Donald Trump. Me, I can’t vote because I’m under 18, but I'm against that idea. So even if I didn’t vote, I had the responsibility to convince my family not to choose Trump. I made a plan first to talk to my grandpa—I knew if I could make him change his mind it would be easy to convince the others. I tried my best, and finally it worked. It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. It went well, so he convinced the others, too. Now, everyone says democracy is the best choice. For this year's election I have a hope democracy will win but am also scared at the same time. It’s hard to think of how it is going to be if Trump becomes president again.
I have a question I plan to ask Heaven next Friday: what kind of country forbids its young people and its immigrants from voting? Immigrants—people new, more or less, to this country—and young people—people new, more or less, to this world. Heaven, who do you believe could notice more about a street: someone seeing it for the first time, or someone who’s walked it every day, absentmindedly, on their way to work, for the last 10 (or 243) years? Do we cling to or push away the people who see us for what we really are? Heaven, what do you think? If we were stranded in a deserted nation with deserted beliefs and deserted notions of humanity, how would we organize ourselves? What is human nature?
Ali Alhabil is not just a student; he is a brother, a son, and your friend when you need one.
Bashar Allataifih is a student at Oakland International High School who is a hard worker.
Heaven Berhe is a student at Oakland International High School who is passionate about biology and democracy.
Ricardo Jaramillo works in the Wellness Center of Oakland International High School, and is passionate about writing and youth leadership.
Lauren Markham is an author and educator who works as an administrator at Oakland International High School.