The Oakland Unified School District’s Office of African American Male Achievement is housed in a one-story portable classroom in the downtown neighborhood of Grand Lake. There are few windows in the barely glorified bunker, which may be for the best: They would just let in the incessant hum of the adjacent MacArthur Freeway. The only bathroom is across a parking lot, which is lined with a phalanx of similar portables painted a deceptively alluring sky-blue. It is somehow fitting that the highway thrums but a few feet away—maybe it reminds those who work here that the goal is to whisk the city’s young out of Oakland, to Silicon Valley, to San Francisco, to any place that is better than this place that they have always known.
About 71 percent of the children in the school system are in the reduced-cost or free lunch program. To qualify for free lunch, a family of four has to have an annual income of $31,000. Unemployment in “the flats”—the poor black enclaves of East Oakland—may be as high as 28 percent, five times the national rate. And it is black boys who suffer most from this nexus of urban ills.
The handful of people in that portable classroom near the freeway is trying to change all that. Maybe they are delusional, but maybe they are more realistic than they first seem. Oakland’s Office of African American Male Achievement is the first public school department in the country devoted to the problem: Black boys know they are society’s castaways and, often, act accordingly.
In the shadows of Disneyland, often referred to as the “happiest place on Earth,” many children are living a reality that’s far from carefree.
They are living in cheap motels more commonly associated with drug dealers, prostitutes and illicit affairs.
While “motel kids” are found across the United States, the situation is very common in Orange County, California, a wealthy community with high rents and a large number of old motels. In 2009, local authorities estimated that more than 1,000 families lived in these conditions.
When Serato learned that these children often go hungry, he began serving up assistance, one plate at a time. To date, he’s served more than 270,000 pasta dinners — for free — to those in need.