Kharyshi Wiginton, McClymonds High School

Kharyshi Wiginton is the Youth Leadership Coordinator at McClymonds Youth and Family Center. Wiginton and her students are prominently featured in the “We Dream in Art mural on view at OMCA until 2015.

Kharyshi Wiginton: Youth Organizing at McClymonds High School
Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Last fall, McClymonds High School students in West Oakland threw a party—but not the type that you would expect. The “mocktail party,” as reported by MackSmack, McClymonds' student newspaper, offered juice instead of alcohol, with “Gummie bears surreptitiously dropped into drinks, like roofies” to serve as a reminder to students about the prevalence and dangers of rohyphnol, a date rape drug. The event was, in effect, a lesson inside of a party. MackSmack’s verdict: “Another creative YOLO event.”

YOLO, short for Youth Organizing and Leadership Opportunities—and a play on the hip-hop motto “you only live once”—is an initiative from Alternatives in Action, run out of the McClymonds Youth and Family Center that has developed a reputation on campus for using the power of students’ creativity to tackle the school’s struggles. YOLO is now in the early planning stages for an educational photo campaign to address issues of drugs, violence, and dysfunction, according to Kharyshi Wiginton, the Center’s Youth Leadership Coordinator.

Students at the McClymonds Youth and Family center make paper quilts in collaboration with the Museum for the "We Dream in Art" mural.
Students at the McClymonds Youth and Family Center make paper quilts in collaboration with the Museum for the "We Dream in Art" mural.

Wiginton is a dancer, educator, and a magnetic presence at the Center. After school, students cluster around her desk, jockeying for her attention. The affection is clearly reciprocated. Originally from Pomona in Southern California, Wiginton identifies as a transplant who has found her home in West Oakland. McClymonds is “a gem,” she said, for its legacy of social justice, activism, and its students’ kindness.

“This is the part of Oakland that is home for me,” she said. “The West has a sense of culture and community. Most of my young people know each other, are related to each other, grew up with one another, [and] know each others’ families and each others’ stories.”

West Oakland’s legacy of social justice activism inspires Wiginton and her students to develop innovative programs such as YOLO and Culture Keepers, a tier-mentoring program that fosters discussions about identity. She emphasized that McClymonds is a Black Panther school and West Oakland a Panther neighborhood, the home of pioneering free lunch programs at schools and for neighborhood women and children.

“There’s so much history here, so much greatness here, and even though it’s been riddled with problems, people don’t know the rich history that exists,” she said. “As a transplant, and one who is very much involved, I want to help to empower those individuals who are from West Oakland to restore their community to its original greatness.”

Culture Keeps & YOLO Agreements
A list of agreements posted on Kharyhi’s office door set the tone for the Center.

By teaching her students about the history of McClymonds and West Oakland, Wiginton hopes to inspire them to become leaders. However, she acknowledged that encouraging young people’s creativity is not easy. “[I’m] trying to get kids to imagine what’s not there,” she said. “[Organizing] has to be inspired by them. I’m trying to encourage them, to get them to the point where they want to do it or see that it’s important. So going from idea phase to realization is tricky.”

Wiginton’s work ethic is rooted in a simple, yet novel idea for education: school is more than what occurs in the classroom. And as the only public high school in West Oakland, McClymonds embraces the community school model.

“Kids don’t exist in a box, so when I come into the classroom, if my family is homeless, if I haven’t eaten, if my parents are on drugs, or if I’m struggling with self-esteem or being bullied or whatever those things are, they come into the classroom as well,” she said.

McClymond High School's Youth and Family Center.

In addition to hosting youth organizing activities, the Center, operates as a bridge between students’ lives in and outside of the classroom. Founded in 2011, the Center is a product of a ten-year process between the community, McClymonds Alumni, service providers, and funders. It is a direct accomplishment of the Oakland Unified School District’s attempt to transform its schools into full-service community schools.

Furnished with plush couches, warm colors, and framed photos of McClymonds alumni, the Center indeed feels more like a living room than a typical high school classroom. It also houses two full time care managers and a parent coordinator, which provides another source of refuge for students.

“I think one of the cool things about youth that are in our programs at Alternatives in Action and youth that are at McClymonds is that they’re going to get so much more than just a basic education,” Wiginton said. “They’re really going to gain life skills, and they’re going to get love and support.”

Students at the McClymonds Youth and Family center make paper quilts in collaboration with the Museum for the "We Dream in Art" Mural.
A student at the McClymonds Youth and Family Center adds his contribution to OMCA's "We Dream in Art" project.

Though deeply rooted in the rich history of West Oakland, Wiginton said her dream for the Center is to expand CultureKeepers into a exchange project, where students travel abroad and develop relationships with people in other countries. She said that one of the biggest images that stands out from her childhood is a poster on the wall of one of her middle school classrooms that said, “Think beyond Pomona.”

“There are [students] who have never been out of their city, or left their few little blocks,” she said. “There are kids here who have probably never been to San Francisco, let alone to LA, to Vegas, to Chicago, you know, you just don’t have that. There’s a sense of confidence, there’s a sense of awareness, and a world view that you get when your reality is expanded through travel.”

By inviting and encouraging young people to discuss their identities, Wiginton encourages them to develop a holistic view of themselves as part of a larger community.

“We are exploring our identities,” she said. “Who you are, how you are, what makes you ‘you,’ what are things that are culturally inherent to you and your family, how do you see the world, how does ‘who you are’ effect how you see the world?”

—by Sophia Hussain, OMCA Community Storyteller