Destiny Shabazz grins as she opens the door to the West Oakland home where she rents a room. But she can’t show a reporter inside. Her housemates like their privacy. She’s barely ever here anyway, Destiny explains — mostly just to sleep on an air bed inside a small converted office.
Destiny is 17. She’s on her own, and that’s not unusual.
Unaccompanied youth are the fastest growing group of homeless students in our nation’s schools. Among them are kids who run away from challenges at home, or cross the border into the United States on their own to escape hardship in their native countries. Others, like Destiny, fall through the cracks when their families are displaced.
Destiny’s not an adult. She’s not in foster care. And she’s not emancipated. But she is getting by — in some ways, thriving — thanks in part to some grownups at her school, McClymonds High School.
In fact, a handful of adults on this West Oakland campus are pretty much raising Destiny now.
She’s got braces on her teeth and she’s sporting a pair of red sweats. We head out to walk to school.
At the end of the block Destiny points out the house she grew up in with her grandmother, who was her legal guardian. She sighs heavily.
“Well, we lost the house really because my grandmother passed away. But before she passed away we were struggling to pay the rent because it kept going up,” she says. The rent hikes, she says, kicked in when their elderly African American landlord died and a series of corporate landlords took over.
Destiny’s grandmother received a rental subsidy through the federal program known as Section 8. That could have passed down to Destiny’s brother when their grandma died but, “he was only 18 or 19, he couldn’t afford it,” Destiny says. “He’d just got outta high school.”
That brother bounces around now, couch-surfing with friends, essentially homeless. After he and Destiny were evicted, she moved to Pittsburg for a while to stay with another brother and his family.
It didn’t work out. She says it wasn’t healthy for her there. Finding a place on her own was impossible. So Destiny reached out to a former neighbor, who converted her office into a small room. Now Destiny pays $300 a month to stay there.
“My grandma always taught me you can’t live somewhere for free, that’s not real,” she says. “People don’t just let you stay places.”
Being back in West Oakland feels right, though. Destiny grew up with a ton of kids here. They all call each other cousin now. She has strong memories of her childhood.
“That Boys and Girls Club, there,” she notes, “I been going there since I was like six or seven.”
But childhood is receding fast. Destiny’s a senior this year. And the future both weighs on her and entices her. She pulls up a post on Instagram that sums up her mixed feelings and reads it aloud.
“When you’re graduating but you’re scared to enter the real world cuz you cheated your way through all four years.” Then she laughs. “That’s, like, the story of me.”
Destiny got by with bad grades at Oakland Unified School District for a long time. But since she’s been on her own, Destiny’s turned it around, retaking her geometry class last summer and staying up long hours doing homework.
“I was working my ass off to get my grades to where they are now,” she says. “Even though OUSD may not prepare us 100 percent in our academics, but I feel like Oakland prepares us for the real world to know how to deal with anything and know how to persevere through anything.”
When we get to McClymonds High, Destiny bumps into Devan McFadden, a staffer from the East Bay Consortium who runs the school’s college and career center with help from a district counselor.
She squeals, asking him if he got her email. McFadden did but he didn’t read it yet.
“I finished it!” Destiny tells him, thrilled.
Her scholarship application to the East Bay College Fund is in, a couple days before the deadline even.
“Yes!! That’s what I like to hear,” McFadden answers, as bass tones boom from a car that pulls up to school nearby.
Destiny follows McFadden into the center. She has no first period, so she comes here instead, to work on her college applications and research scholarships. It’s one of her main hangouts.
One of Destiny’s best friends is here, too, bragging about her. She points out that Destiny just won a Rotary Club speech competition. And that she’s the school’s “No. 1 debater, she won the championship. And she’s hosting the March Madness debate stuff here next week.”
That’s a big Bay Area Urban Debate League event. Destiny’s in charge of recruiting McClymonds participants. But it’s this coming Saturday, Destiny reminds her, adding: “You better be here.”
Right before the bell rings, Destiny finally settles down, and asks McFadden for help.
“OK, so Devan, I still don’t know what college I should be going to,” she says in a low voice, suddenly deflated.
“That’s fine,” he assures her. “You have to wait until you get your financial-aid packages from them, to make your decision.”
Destiny’s recent spurt of hard work is paying off. By March, she’d already gotten into 20 schools. Most are historically black colleges, with a couple of backup state schools mixed in. Her financial aid is obviously really important.
In her AP English class today, the college and career staff take over, to help students fill out scholarship applications. Mid-way through, she calls over district college career readiness specialist Jamia Morton to tell her about a problem with her financial aid package.
She hasn’t received anything back yet because “they want to know, like, how am I a ward of the state, how am I independent,” she explains.
Destiny tells Morton her district case manager, the McClymonds principal and vice principal are all working on letters for her to explain her situation. Because she doesn’t fall into any category at all. Morton agrees to meet her the following week to help her call each school and figure out exactly what they need.
Some students have to deal with parents breathing down their necks about college applications. Destiny has to motivate herself, but she has an army of adults helping to guide her through.
Still, it’s complicated. In the hallway, we talk about it.
“My situation is, like, sticky, because I’m not emancipated. I’m not in foster care, nothing,” she says. “So technically I’m like lost in the system.”
After her grandmother died, Destiny looked into the process of becoming emancipated through the courts. But it takes so long, she realized, she’d almost be 18 by the time she got through it. So she just lives in the gray zone.
“Sometimes,” she says, “if have field trips, just so they won’t say nothing, I just sign my granny’s name. I just be like, ‘Whatever, they not even gonna notice.’”
Signing her dead grandmother’s name was tough on her emotionally, Destiny says. But it turns out plenty of people at school did notice that she was struggling. Destiny talks a lot about her Oakland Unified case manager, Miss Stacy. She’s more like a very involved aunt than a school bureaucrat.
It was Miss Stacy, OUSD case manager Stacy Daniels, who helped her start collecting a modest government check — a payment that had been going to the older brother Destiny wasn’t even living with anymore.
Miss Stacy is also helping Destiny to find a new dentist. Because she went to her old one recently, she says, “they said they got stricter on their rules.” She hadn’t been there in a while, they told her, so she’d have to sign up as a new patient.
But, you guessed it, she couldn’t do it on her own, “so I haven’t got my teeth fixed in like two years because I haven’t had a parent guardian.”
This kind of stuff, it happens all the time. But Destiny? She feels lucky.
“In my eyes I don’t never think of my situation being bad because I always think, there’s people out there with way worse situations,” she tells me. “What if if you didn’t know what to do? What if Miss Stacy wouldn’t have helped me get my money? What would I have done?”
For a time after her grandmother’s death, Destiny says she felt really low. Shut down. She was isolating herself. She realized she needed her community.
And she embraced her school life. Here at McClymonds, she’s social and ambitious. She runs track. She’s taking three college-level classes this semester. And she gets a stipend for her leadership roles with the debate team and the school’s Youth and Family Center.
And she’s also really resilient, considering 18 young people she knew have been killed.
Last year, she says, just a week after a friend was shot to death, “two of my friends got murdered the same day, Travon and Peek a Boo. That shook me.”
The best friends had graduated from McClymonds and Destiny said they were like big brothers to her. “That was all within a week,” she said of the three deaths. Their funerals were within a week, too. “Three funerals, three friends. All to gun violence.”
That level of trauma could have turned Destiny’s heart against Oakland. But she loves her city.
Her family’s West Oakland roots date back to the 1940s, when the Black community here thrived. Destiny’s AP English teacher here at McClymonds, LuPaulette Taylor, went to school with Destiny’s granny and has taught here for more than four decades. The vice principal was her oldest brother’s fifth grade teacher, “and then if you look on these walls,” Destiny said in the McClymonds hallway, “my uncle pictures is all up because my uncle is a major big alumni for the school.”
The staff and administrators here, they root for her. In the hall between classes, Vice Principal Cleveland McKinney gives Destiny a shout-out.
“She’s winning for our debate team, she’s a great school leader, she’s developing into an awesome young lady,” he says. “She’s one of our best, our brightest.”
Brian McGhee, program manager for the African American Male Achievement program at McClymonds High, sings her praises a little while later, saying Destiny “speaks her truth” and is “an advocate for youth and students of Oakland.”
He sees her achieving great things in the political realm, so much so that “when you say [East Bay Congresswoman] Barbara Lee, we say Destiny Shabazz, when we say Rosa Parks, we will say Destiny Shabazz. That’s the level I see her rising to.”
She’s not quite there yet though. McGhee calls her “a diamond in the rough … I mean she got some things, we all got some things we want to work on. And we’re gonna support her.”
Destiny’s used to the outpouring of encouragement. “I love the support,” she says. “It never stops. Well, maybe in Algebra 2 class but then you know, it comes back right after.”
Algebra 2. That’s one of those things she has to work on. There was no permanent teacher for a chunk of the fall semester. Now it’s Mr. Tivol. And Destiny, well, she finds him condescending. He gets under her skin. The day before I come to school with her, she cussed him out. She was worried about today’s quiz. She apologized in an email. He wrote her back. He encouraged her. Told her not to “sweat it too hard.” But in class, it’s like Destiny can’t stop herself from messing with him.
She finishes her quiz early and starts to chit chat. Mr. Tivol asks her and her friend to quiet down out of respect for those students who haven’t yet finished. Then Destiny takes out her iPad, and starts scrolling through her email addresses. Using electronics in class is against the rules. Mr. Tivol asks her to put it away. She refuses. So he calls in Will Blackwell, the school’s restorative practices facilitator, who suggests to Destiny that they “take a walk.” She agrees. But before she leaves, Destiny throws her quiz in the trash.
“Here,” she tells her teacher as it sails through the air. “I probably aced it.”
In the hallway, Mr. Blackwell reminds her that she knows perfectly well that she can’t use the iPad in class, that she doesn’t need to sabotage herself that way, especially considering that she needs this class to graduate.
Blackwell knows the students really well. That’s his job. When there’s trouble, he tries to bring the feuding sides together, to help them work it out. Ater they talk for a bit, he suggests a restorative justice sit down with Mr. Tivol. For a meeting like this, a student would usually bring a parent or some other adult advocate. It’s yet one more reminder of Destiny’s unusual situation.
“All right now,” Blackwell tells her, “who do we call? Is it Uncle Buddy, is it Ed?”
Ed is the older brother Destiny lived with for a while, and she balks, saying, “Ed do not get called.” She tells Blackwell she’s grown, that she can be at the table by herself. She can, Blackwell agrees. But he eventually persuades her to seek adult backup.
“My uncle could come,” she finally agrees. “Yeah. Miss Stacy too.”
Destiny’s in a good mood when she shows up at the McClymonds Youth and Family Center in the afternoon. She spends a huge chunk of her life at this center. It’s staffed by a nonprofit called Alternatives in Action. And they show her a different kind of love. Destiny’’s honest about what happened in math class. But it doesn’t go over well. When she tells the roomful of staff that she threw her test in the trash, they go off on there.
The parent liaison says her actions are like “dumb and dumber.”
Then Kharyshi Wiginton, the community programs manager, weighs in.
“You block your own blessings, you sabotage yourself, right?” she tells Destiny. “At 17, I need that not to continue to be the story.”
Destiny’s time here at McClymonds is short. And the staff here worry for her.
“This is bigger than this moment,” says Wiginton, who had coaxed Destiny to write Mr. Tivol the email apology to show some humility. “In a second you’re not gonna have us. The world is not nice to adults like that. You’re not allowed to just mess up and mess up and mess up, right? And so this last little grace period that you have? You better start implementing some of these things.”
All the students at McClymonds call Wiginton “Miss K.” She buys Destiny dinner just about every evening. They were at the center until midnight just the night before, working side by side. Destiny knows Miss K loves her.
“Honestly, it would be fake for it to be all this positive, you know, like, ‘Oh my gosh, she's such a wonderful student. She's such a wonderful student’ when everybody know that I have two sides, like I'm still a teenager,” Destiny says after the chaos dies down.
Destiny concedes she used to be a fighter, that she has gone through some things “that make me act certain ways, you know, argumentative, all that.”
Joining debate last fall has given her a way to channel her sharp tongue in a more productive way, she says, but, “I'm still growing.”
It wouldn’t be real, she says, if the staff at the center didn’t rail on her for her mistakes, “but they love me too, you know — hard love, tough love.”
And thanks in part to them, Destiny has big dreams. She plans to return to Oakland and run for mayor in 2022. She is dead serious. She has a vision for what her city needs.
“My plans are to change Oakland financially, socially and in equitability,” she explains. “Gentrification? I’m gonna create another form of gentrification when I come back. I want Oakland to be like a Black Wall Street. I want it to be Black schools, Black businesses, Black courts, Black teachers.”
Destiny stresses that she doesn’t want to “stop the diversity in the Bay Area or stop the diversity in Oakland. That’s not possible, but I know that Oakland is changing from Old Oakland to New Oakland and the plan for New Oakland has nothing to do with Black people.”
After debate, Destiny heads outside for track practice. When she notices the sand pits are open, she can’t contain her joy.
“Oh my God, I’m so happy!” she hollers. “I am juiced right now.”
I check back in with Destiny at the end of the semester. It turns out she’s chosen Cal State Sacramento. She got four scholarships, and they’ll cover all but $2,000 of her tuition and living expenses.
Destiny says she feels great, that she always knew she’d meet her goal. And she’s in good company. Here at McClymonds High, it turns out, 60 of the 62 graduating seniors are going to college.
That’s a huge accomplishment for the students. And a testament to the work of the adults here, too, inside the classroom and out.