East Bay teens talk pandemic, protests and the people in their lives

Eight teenagers in Oakland and Berkeley talk about how they’ve had to adapt after the shutdown upended their social lives and support systems.

Brothers Jasai and Noah Martinez. June 29, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

For teenagers, the coronavirus didn’t just force the closure of school campuses and the cancelation of proms. The shutdown upended social lives and support systems. For some, the pandemic severed connections to dear classmates, family members and teachers who played important parental roles. For others, the change of pace has brought new and unexpected opportunities for connection and discovery.

The Oaklandside asked teens in Oakland and Berkeley to share how their relationships and familial roles have changed during a few extraordinary months shaped by the global pandemic and national calls for racial justice. For these young people, sheltering in place and civil unrest have created both familial tension and opportunities to shine as leaders. But don’t let us tell you about it. Here are eight thoughtful teenagers from your neighborhoods, in their own words.

Brianna Williams, 16, Oakland High School

Brianna Williams with her mother and father outside their home in Oakland. June 24, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

In March, they told us someone at our school had coronavirus. My sister came and got me and we left right away. The next day, they were saying it was fine, that they had cleaned the school and it should be safe for kids to come back. We were there for a couple days, then they told us we’d be gone for two weeks and we’d come back the next month. We never came back. Days and weeks started to pass and we realized we wouldn’t go back at all. That’s when I realized, “Okay, this is serious.” They wouldn’t have kept us out of school for that long if it wasn’t.

My dad is older, so it’s been hard to work stuff out all the time. There’s a lot of problems that come with that. Usually I’m at school and my mom’s at work, but now we’re home 24/7. Now that we’re here all the time, it seems like there’s a lot more problems. When we get into an argument or a disagreement, he’s upset, I’m upset, but I’m learning to be more patient with everything.


Since I’m an African-American female, I think it’s important for me, any time I see an act of injustice, something that needs to be put out there about being Black in the Bay Area, I think it’s important. What happened with George Floyd, it’s been happening. We see it all the time, but people never wanted to realize it until it was right in front of your face, and everybody saw it on the video. People started to realize, this is really real, it’s happening to these people. That’s a big part of it, why it’s such a big deal now. The protests, the riots, everything. It was just the last straw for people.

Carson Lamb, 18, Berkeley High School, Class of 2020

Class of 2020 Berkeley High School graduate Carson Lamb. June 30, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

When the pandemic started, I think I was a lot more cautious from the jump than other people. I was like, yeah, I’m staying inside. It settled in after a couple weeks. But still, no one really wants to think it’ll last forever. I’ll see people at protests and they’ll be like, “Let’s hang out when this is all over.” It’ll be a minute before I’ll feel comfortable hanging out. In a weird way it’s kind of faith-y; you have to believe there’s a larger goal. There’s so much more to be gained, ultimately, from everyone being safe than a couple occasions of danger.

“If there’s something going on in the world we need to talk about, then we show out.” — Carson Lamb

With all the protests going on, I was first like, “I’m not going outside.” But partially just being from the Bay Area—and both my parents are activists—if there’s something going on in the world we need to talk about, then we show out. It’s so unsafe for some people to just exist in the world, mask or not, so for me, someone who it is safe to go out, I need to show out.

I went to the protest led by Berkeley High students. One of the people who organized it, Shayla, is in my dance company, Destiny Arts. We danced there. Being inside a drum circle, I’d kind of forgotten what it felt like to really dance. The feeling of dancing in community, it’s something that’s so tactile-based. Dancing on your own—I know a lot of people enjoy that. But also once you get comfortable “dancing like nobody’s watching” when there are people watching, it’s hard to go back! There is a lot of beauty in self-expression, that’s why there are solo dances—it’s self-care in a way—but even then it feels good to share that in a space where you have support. We still have Zoom rehearsals, and we’re making a film. We believe so much in the work and the story. We’re working in community with families who’ve lost children, some to gun violence. We were already working on this before the protests. If you’re in any Black community, you recognize this isn’t a new thing. This is part of the history of why, in the Bay Area, this is what it is.

Dainery Escalera, 16, Oakland High School

Oakland High School student, Dainery Escalera, 16. Photo: Courtesy Dainery Escalera

I was in the kitchen with my mom. The school either called or emailed her and said school was supposedly going to go back on May 4. My mom and I were talking, and I was like, “I don’t think we’re going to go back. Why would we go back if there’s only two or three weeks of school left?” That’s when it really hit me, that this pandemic is really horrible and it’s going to impact my life.

My sister and I have gotten way closer. She’s 6. Usually, when I would get home from school I’d shut myself in my room and study or do my own thing. I wouldn’t know what she would do after school. Now I’m here with her all day, and I know she likes to color, she likes music, and she likes watching Peppa Pig. We used to be really distant because we’re 10 years apart.

Dainery Escalera with her little sister. Oakland, CA. Photo: Courtesy Dainery Escalera

I used to be more active with my parents—we used to go everywhere together and I would help out with groceries. My parents are really paranoid about the pandemic and worried about our safety. Now my responsibility is basically taking care of my sister until they’re back with groceries.

My parents are really old-school minded. They really do not like the protests. They watch Hispanic news stations, which are usually focusing on the violence, looting, and rioting instead of actual peaceful protesting. I’ve been trying to tell them that most of the people looting are freeloaders who are using the protest as an excuse to do that, but they’re still pretty mad about it. Plus, they see the protest as this violent thing, which honestly is true, but not on the protesters’ part. The protesters are peaceful, but police can start throwing tear gas and everything.

The protests and everything are very important for me and my friends. I haven’t had the chance to go to a protest because I have someone high-risk at home but I do my part and try as best I can to post on social media about protests and resources. I do feel it’s my place to speak up and share information about police brutality. As a fellow person of color, it’s really important because not only can it happen to others, but it can happen to me.

Muwazu Chisum-Misquitta, 17, Berkeley High School, Class of 2020

Class of 2020 Berkeley High School graduate Muwazu Chisum-Misquitta. June 29, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

I like to think realistically and try not to argue with things. I’ve had a pretty unorthodox way of growing up, and I’ve had to move a lot since I was 9, so the shutdown wasn’t as hard as I definitely see it is for my peers. I’ve been going with the flow and playing it by ear because that’s what the disease is. We can’t set a definitive timeline. Convincing myself of that, and not having resistance, has helped me. But yesterday I was in the car with my dad and was like, wow, the world we know is gone.


My art teacher, Miriam Klein Stahl, she’s been the hugest, most craziest support I’ve ever had in my life. She’s more of a god-aunt type figure. I knew her before Berkeley High. She’s been checking in, a few texts here and there, and sending me her art. It’s really nice to see other art being created and to know that people are thinking of me. I borrowed her skateboard—it has her art on it—and she ended up giving it to me. She called me and was like, “You got a scholarship and you can have the board!” It was so kind. It’s the High Hopes Scholarship. I’ll be attending Mills College for child development. Miriam Stahl once took me and her daughter to Bay Area Skate Like a Girl, and I started roller skating with quads, and I got really into that and got my own pair. A friend recently told me she got skates because of me, since it seems like I really enjoy it. When I heard that I felt like I was going to cry.

“I was in the car with my dad and was like, wow, the world we know is gone.’” — Muwazu Chisum-Misquitta

I’ve been to a few protests. One at the lake was very powerful—there was a ceremonial dance. I think of my role as “songbird.” I’ve been learning ukelele and bringing it to the summer camp where I work. It’s brought a lot of smiles. I sang for my Black Graduation. It’s a song from Steven Universe called “Here Comes a Thought.” It’s about darkness, and how you can dwell on it if you don’t let it go. At the end there’s resolution.

Evan Kleinhans, 16, St. Mary’s College High School

Evan Kleinhans at Cordornices Park in Berkeley. June 24, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

I’m lucky enough to have six grandparents in my life. My grandpa is an older person and he’s living at Rossmoor, in Walnut Creek. We can’t really get near him, and we used to see him every weekend. It’s really hard for us to see him all alone and not be able to do anything except stand 6 feet apart.

It’s not even like he’s just a grandpa to us, he’s a real friend. Me and my sister, we’ll go hang out with him on a Friday or Saturday night instead of our friends. A big thing for him is in the spring he gets to come to my baseball games and he really enjoys that. I was starting to learn how to fly a plane with him.

Evan Kleinhans, left, as a young child with his grandfather, right. Photo: Courtesy Evan Kleinhans

It’s cool to listen to his stories and learn from his mistakes and what he has to say. He was kind of an outlaw teenager. He’s kind of a hippie but not a hippie. He has that mindset from the sixties still—he didn’t need to go to the best school. Personally, that is what I want to do, like I want to play in college, I want to go to an Ivy. He’s giving me that, “Look, that’s good, but you also need to live your life. Go get in trouble on the weekend, go get those experiences, get a balance.”

For me and my friends it’s easy to stay in touch because of social media, and we all have our phones on us 24/7 anyway. But it’s hard to think about with my dad’s parents, they’re older now, so I might not get to hug them again or be with them in that way again. Every Saturday we do a Zoom call with our whole family. It’s brought us closer. At the beginning of the pandemic, we sat down as a family and said, “I don’t care what you do normally, but we’re all going to carry our load here and if someone asks you to do something, just do it for them.”

Sandy Mach, 16, Oakland High School

Sandy Mach. Photo: Courtesy Sandy Mach

I watch documentaries for fun and when I first heard about coronavirus, I knew it was pretty serious. Around April, I started hearing about the violence towards the Asian American community and that’s when I started realizing it would really start to impact people, especially people of color. I was scrolling through Instagram when I saw the explosion of posts about racism and violence. That’s when I started to immerse myself into it and learn more about the violence against people of color in general instead of just Asian Americans specifically.

Sandy Mach, 17, and her mother, Phuong Trieu, at the beach in Half Moon Bay on Christmas in 2018. Photo: Courtesy Sandy Mach

One major impact has been with me and my mom. We had a disagreement about the Black Lives Matter movement. We grew up in a house where it was normalized to dehumanize brown and Black people. I always knew that was wrong but when she admittedly said she didn’t support it, that’s when I started to realize the impact that my family’s words have and how I would have to be the one to change their views in this house.

Recently, I’ve been putting on videos explaining, because I knew if I tried to explain, it’d just be a sympathetic type of connection, which I personally didn’t want. I didn’t want her to change her views because of me, but because she thought it was right. So recently I’ve been putting on these political videos supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and evidence to help change her mind.

I’ve been signing petitions in my free time and trying to see if I can donate to organizations and stuff like that. I think being in Oakland, since Oakland is so diverse and me being young and not really sure what to do right now, re-educating myself and my family and others is the best way for me to stay safe and also participate in the movement.

Jasai Martinez, 16, Leadership Public Schools Oakland

Jasai Martinez, 16, outside his home in Oakland. June 29, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

During the last week of school, they had given us computers and said we’d be working from home for two weeks. Once it got past those two weeks, and continued to go on longer, I was like, wow. It was shocking and unbelievable, like something none of us had experienced.

“We’re learning to be respectful because who knows how long this will last?” — Jasai Martinez

Since we’ve been inside more and more, my brother and I have been very close and sometimes it’s causing problems. We’re pretty opposite: he’s more into sports and is outgoing, and I’m more independent. Of course brothers fight and argue, that’s just how it goes. We live in the same room. Sometimes he’ll be playing games with his friends and it gets late and loud, and I just want to go to sleep. During school it was really complicated because we’d both have Zoom meetings constantly. My mom would be working in the living room too, and it would get really chaotic.

It has gotten better over time. We’re making agreements. We got Disney+ to watch a movie together and just relax, and it was peaceful for once. We’re learning to be respectful because who knows how long this will last?

Noah Martinez, 17, Leadership Public Schools Oakland

Noah Martinez, 17, outside his home in Oakland. June 29, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

At first I didn’t really care much about the virus. I thought it was going to be something quick, like the flu. Then there was a case in California and it started going down in Alameda County. That’s when it really hit me.

I have this one friend, Victor, we went to middle school together. We were mostly in the same classes and we played soccer together. We used to go to the movies a lot, the fair, the arcade, the mall. He’s a caring person. He’s funny, and he’s supportive if a friend is going through a hard time. When we each have our own problems and issues we go to each other and talk it out to get it off our mind.

Victor is still working, so since we’re apart from each other it’s been hard to connect. We barely talk, except in the nights and late afternoons we sometimes Facetime. We kind of ignore everything that’s going on and talk about other regular things to get our minds off it. I miss being outside though, it feels kind of like being homesick. Hopefully, soon, me and my friends can get connected again.

Ashley McBride reports on education equity for The Oaklandside. Email: ashley@oaklandside.org.