This is a guest post from Dr. César A. Cruz, a School Design Lab fellow with Educate78. Dr. Cruz is co-designing the HomiesEmpowerment School based out of East Oakland. The school’s mission is simply to “welcome home resilient youth, with revolutionary love, holistic resources, nurturing the scholar, warrior, healer and hustler within, in the process of emancipation.” Learn more at

Dear Educators,

As part of our Homies Empowerment school design journey, I sat in jail today. I sat inside of San Bruno jail near San Francisco, and heard from 12 brothers — 12 men, all adults —speak what they know is true. They spoke through tears about their schooling experiences. We were there as invited guests of 5 Keys School and here’s part of what was birthed: this poem. After the poem, I humbly urge you to read the 10 pieces of advice they gave us all.

The words below in bold are titles to their pieces. The words in quotes come directly from their soul. All I did was try to listen, really hear, begin to understand, and tranSCRIBE.

(Photos courtesy of Dr. César A. Cruz)


What We Know Is True

Do you hear the screams and the anger?

We’ve been held back and left behind.

In the public eye,

they say I’m a product of my environment,

but there’s a corrupt bond where war, is somehow the answer.

What I’ve seen, has created an early loss of innocence,

where I’ve been “looking for answers,

without even knowing (some of) the questions.”

As early as age 10, I knew that black and white don’t make gray,

but still got cuffed, beaten and locked up,

with a police officer’s boot on my neck telling me, to somehow “stop resisting.

But we can’t stop, resisting!

I now see, it’s been us, versus them, all along.

Have we been set up to fail (to jail)?

When you see us (men in orange suits),

do you see criminal or human being?”

Can you hear the “PTSD” that can no longer remain muffled in silence?

And yet, even in a cage, isolated from the outs(ide),

our spirit and point of view, will still be free.

Sharing our dreams 2 (our) reality are “what (we) know is true.”

You might lock us up, “and first place might already be decided,”

but, can you ever fully enslave us?

No, (and if you must know) that means NEVER.”

Typed by Dr. César A. Cruz, but really written by Fotu P, Kelvin J, Marcus W, Johnnie R, Eric J, Valentino V, Jordan A, Christopher S, Travis J, Dale T and Lafayette R.


These brothers then shared this;

  1. Encourage kids, stop (de)grading them!
  2. Have a recording studio, because self expression is key, but they don’t always want to do it your way through English class.
  3. Be more interactive, field trips can be anywhere, so help us get out, literally and otherwise.
  4. Understand where we are coming from, and why we might bring a gun to school, not to hurt anyone, but because we have to walk home afterwards. Can you actually understand that reality or do you just judge it?
  5. Teach things that can be productive for us in society.
  6. Have role models there that look like us, but not just look like us, but have some of our lived experiences.
  7. It takes the hood to save the hood, so have the hood at your school.
  8. Don’t scold (it stays with us forever).
  9. Have incentive programs based on what we like to do.
  10. Stay away from blanket statements and labels. I am not a minority or free and reduced lunchDon’t write that about us, ever.

Bless you all,

Dr. César A. Cruz, on behalf of Homies Empowerment

Note from Dr. Cruz: I am deeply thankful to teacher Ellen Dahlke, from 5 Keys, for allowing us an opportunity to come inside, and learn from the wisdom of men, who are currently caged, but whose wisdom is for free(dom).