“Small is all,” says Heads Up Director Liz Solis, attributing the quote to author and activist adrienne maree brown. It’s what she hopes her students will take away from their volunteer work. “The small choices we make every single day add up and impact the community.”
This November, Liz planned and ran Heads Up’s first-ever Day of Community Action, bringing students out of the classroom and into Oakland. Students split up across three sites: the High Street encampment, Sausal Creek, and Pear Tree Community School.
At High Street, students worked with Candice Elder ’02––founder of The East Oakland Collective––to assemble and distribute over 200 lunches and hygiene kits at the homeless encampment. Candice Elder spoke to the students about “what to be aware of, inside,” says Liz, including, “being careful about where you step and not approaching anyone who isn’t initiating contact.”
The group also debriefed the experience at the end of the day, a conversation with “solemn energy,” says Liz. “The students were excited to assemble, but it was hard to be in that space and recognize this is reality.”
The day’s benefits were certainly not one-sided: “We’re humanizing these folks, too,” says Liz. “Not every person that’s unhoused is a drug addict or criminal or scary person.”
Heads Up students interested in the environment trekked out to Sausal Creek and Pear Tree Community School. At Sausal, the volunteers worked on protecting the Pallid Manzanita, a native fire-adapted shrub. The students “learned about the fragility of the site, focused on cleaning the land, and pulled out invasive plants.” In turn, “they got to hike,” says Liz. “They live in Oakland but haven’t had access to the land.”
East Oakland Collective and Sausal Creek are familiar names in the Head-Royce community, as the School continually volunteers with the two organizations. Yet the day’s third partner organization will likely be new to your ears: the Mycelium Youth Network.
“We have a particular focus on preparing kids for climate change,” says the organization’s founder Lil Milagro Henriquez. “That’s both climate mitigation and climate adaptation.” The program empowers East Bay young people, the most vulnerable to the effects of environmental racism, with “resources, training, and knowledge” to thrive in a climate-challenged future.
The collaboration began this past summer, in the Heads Up science class. Mycelium Youth Network follows the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and teaches students all about environmental science and stewardship, including Oakland’s “plant life, ecosystems, and water cycles.”
With their grounding in environmental science, Heads Up students understood the importance behind their volunteer work. The proof was in the soil. At Pear Tree Community School, “the soil looks horrible,” says Lil, who compared its color to nutrient-rich soil, for the students. She reminded them: “The healthier your soil, the healthier your food.”
Together, Heads Up and Mycelium Youth Network built a carbon sequestration system. “Students helped build the raised beds,” says Lil. “There are three of them: a test bed, a compost bed, and a compost bed with biochar.” The system “uses the same techniques that large-scale agriculture does with carbon drawdown.”
The students then “planted 45 different medicinal and edible plants” in raised beds, with healthy soil. “They learned about toxicity and made organic, household cleaners that they got to bring home.”
Heads Up and Mycelium Youth Network are perfectly aligned with their missions. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a soil scientist at the UN or a 12-year-old kid,” says Lil. “Everyone has a part to play.”
Small is all. “I want Heads Up students to know that even if they don’t have a ton of resources,” adds Liz, “they can still make an impact.”
For Head-Royce parents or alumni interested in making their own impact, Heads Up will host a supporters luncheon at School in January, introducing the program and discussing how donations will help the students, and in turn, give back to Oakland.