East Oakland Native, Father and Leader: FIA’s Michael McDaniel
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It is an unusually warm February afternoon in front of La Escuelita Elementary School, where the Oakland Unified School District Board of Education holds its meetings, and the news cameras are rolling.
Dozens of families, educators and staff from the Aspire ERES Academy community and FIA Family and Youth Leaders crowd the sidewalk and sit in parked cars lined down the block in preparation for a car caravan set to take off in minutes. They’re here to fight to keep their quality school open and urge the OUSD Board to not create a new enrollment policy that tries to take away school choice from Black and Brown families.
Before the caravan begins and 60 cars start circling the Lake, FIA family leaders and ERES community members hold a press conference. They speak passionately and eloquently about why East Oakland should not lose a quality school due to politics.
Michael McDaniel walks up to the podium, facing the cameras. McDaniel is the FIA Family Organizer, an East Oakland native and a veteran of the military. He’s the father of three Oakland public school students who attend both district and charter schools. Two of McDaniel’s grade-school age sons stand behind him, lifting up a FIA banner and extending their arms high so it covers their faces.
“As an Oakland parent, I’m calling on you as elected board members to listen to the voice of parents and invest in quality choices,” McDaniel says at the press conference. “Keep ERES Aspire open, and stop trying to hide school choice information from families.”
For McDaniel, fighting for access to quality schools is personal. Growing up, his own two siblings were trapped in failing district schools. His brother was expelled from middle school and his sister dropped out of high school. He knows, from experience, that a quality education can mean the difference between life and death for someone from his neighborhood.
“I have a lot of friends that aren’t here anymore, or dropped out of school and ended up in the prison system,” McDaniel says later in an interview. “That impacted me, and I definitely don’t want my kids to have the same experience. I want them to have safety, and to grow up in an environment where they don’t need such a hard edge to survive.”
“I refuse to let my family go down that road,” he adds.
While McDaniel can send his children to high-performing charter schools like BayTech and Cox Academy, those options weren’t available to him in the 80s and 90s as an East Oakland kid growing up in an area dubbed “the killing zone.”
Back then, his only option was the neighborhood district schools that failed his siblings, so McDaniel used someone else’s address so he could attend Skyline High in the Oakland hills. Pulled out of his neighborhood, he was now attending school with kids who were getting dropped off in BMWs.
“You don’t know anybody and everybody is looking at you strange,” McDaniel remembers. “That’s a common theme for many of us. It’s what we had to go through to get some kind of better shot at education back then. It’s not great, and it’s not OK. But sure enough, I had better opportunities.”
McDaniel joined FIA first as a parent leader, and found he had an interest and some skill in organizing. He’s always had an interest in performing — back in his Skyline days, he sang in an acapella group (along with running track and playing rugby) and also created his own record label and music magazine — so getting in front of the camera is no big deal for him.
But the FIA work that inspires him the most, he says, is developing other leaders to stand up and fight for access to quality schools.
“You’re seeing this spark really come alive within another person, and seeing them really push themselves out of their comfort zones,” McDaniel says. “And now, they’re being able to take new roles that they never would have before, in part because of some gentle coaching that I might have done. That is tremendously fulfilling.”