The Humans of New York street portrait series transformed how people view everyday New Yorkers. Teachers of Oakland founder Om Chitale, MBA 18, is hoping his startup will do the same for teachers.
Since founding Teachers of Oakland more than a year ago, Chitale has posted more than 100 first-person stories from the city’s public school teachers to social media, where the startup has 5,000 Facebook followers and 1,900 Instagram followers.
The posts are about starting a conversation, Chitale said.
“The gaps in opinion that exist in the education world are tremendous, and people aren’t listening to each other,” he said. “I want people to look at our posts and say, ‘That teacher shared something that really moved me.’ These stories can change the direction of the conversation.”
With a potential Oakland Unified teachers’ strike looming, it’s particularly important “to fight the urge to look away,” Chitale said. “We have to lean in, because there is real pain there. There are structural issues with how we support and value teachers, and there is a big empathy gap. Teachers of Oakland is an avenue to listen to our teachers directly, and hopefully get involved in some capacity.”
Reclaiming the narrative
Chitale, who worked in early childhood education in his early 20s, knew he was ready for a career change when he arrived at Berkeley. “I came into Haas trying to figure out what my role in the world was,” he said. “I’d worked at Deloitte, but I knew that I was super passionate about education.”
A startup idea emerged during a group project in a social entrepreneurship class taught by lecturers Jorge Calderon and Ben Mangan, both of whom remain strong mentors.
Chitale set out to interview 100 people who inspired him. He chose to talk to teachers about their motivations, struggles, and experiences. “I wanted to learn directly from them instead of relying on broader narratives,” he said.
Those mainstream narratives, he said, often portray teachers in negative or neutral ways. He wanted to create something more respectful of the role teachers play in the community and in closing the opportunity gap for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. “I wanted teachers to reclaim the narrative,” he said.
Teachers who have participated so far include Derek Boyd of MetWest High School, who discussed inter-generational impact, Jason Muniz of Fremont High School, who spoke about privilege and service, Nakachi Clark-Kasimu of the North Oakland Community Charter School, who described the spiritual basis of her work, Tawana Guillaume of Madison Park High School, who talked about innovation and fresh ideas, and Kristen Brett, of Acorn Woodland Elementary, who discussed inclusion.
Chitale says he hopes to double social media engagement this year, and perhaps add a podcast, and more events like the #RaiseYourHand Party for Teachers of Oakland with the Red Bay Coffee Roastery & Coffee Bar that will be held this Saturday morning in Oakland. He’s working on new ideas as an expert-in-residence at The Teachers Guild, an initiative run by a team of educators and designers from IDEO’s Design for Learning Studio.
Gratitude and validation
Erin Gums, MBA 18 and a member of Chitale’s advisory board, attended the first Teachers of Oakland live event last year, when four teachers took the stage to discuss what attracted them to teaching, what keeps them in the classroom, the challenges they face, what gives them hope, and what’s unique about Oakland.
“Having this forum may be the only one of its kind where teachers get to express themselves,” Gums said. “It’s so meaningful for teachers to be seen and heard in that way. You could just see the gratitude and validation.”
Gums met Chitale while they were Haas students; they both enrolled in Dialogues on Race, a student-led independent study seminar for MBA students that Chitale co-facilitated. Gums’ aunt, a retired Oakland early childhood education teacher named Stella Gums Collins, met Chitale at Gums’ birthday party— and became the first teacher Chitale profiled.
“I believe in Om and his vision,” Gums said. “He’s put his heart into this.”
For now, Teachers of Oakland is supported financially by Chitale, along with friends and family. Eventually, Chitale plans to fund the non-profit independently through foundations and donors, and by collaborating with local businesses. He may eventually move the model to other cities, too, though the project’s heart will remain in Oakland.
“There’s just something about Oakland’s ethos,” Chitale said. “This idea that we are fighting for something, we are fighting for justice.”
Antoinette Siu contributed to this article.