Denilson Garibo starred in Sundance 2021’s Premiere of ‘Homeroom’, which recognized the plight under-funded schools like Oakland have faced, while battling systemic injustice
Andrew Rossow speaks with 'Homeroom' star Denilson Garibo | Source: Zoom
Each year, Sundance Film Festival brings to light many independent films and works that are looking for public recognition. However, this year’s 2021 Festival was different, for several reasons.
For the first-time in the history of the Festival, Sundance was converted to an all online, digital experience for viewers and the media. For media, we had a limited number of films we were able to see over the course of the Festival with our press accreditation, while viewers were able to experience as much as they could absorb.
But arguably, the most important, was the political and social climate we have experienced for the past four years, as a new president and vice-president entered The White House. With pressing issues speaking to our fundamental rights of humans confronting decades old precedent that our U.S. Constitution aimed to protect and/or prevent from resurfacing, the U.S. has come face-to-face with a dark reality:
That racism and systemic injustice didn’t disappear with the enactment of the Civil Rights Act and the 13th Amendment—it evolved. Which is why one of the most gut-wrenching and tearfully impactful works I’ve seen at Sundance to date, was this year’s premiere of Homeroom, written and directed by award-winning cinematographer/director Peter Nicks.
For Nicks, ‘Homeroom’ completed a trilogy of documentaries exploring health care (The Waiting Room), criminal justice (The Force), and now education in Oakland, California.
‘Homeroom’ traces the journey that Oakland High School’s class of 2020 faces during a period of horrific social unrest, ranging from the brutal murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, to COVID-19, and the fall of former U.S. President Donald Trump. Efforts to eliminate the school district’s police force unfold against the nationwide cry for systemic change.
I spoke with Homeroom star and now college freshman, Denilson Garibo via Zoom immediately after the Sundance 2021 debut. Garibo is halfway through his first year of college at California State University in Long Beach and has been taking 18-credit hours this semester in hopes of transferring to the University of Southern California (USC).
But Garibo’s start and journey towards a very bright and successful future wasn’t an easy one by any means. Growing up in Oakland, California, Garibo first came to the United States from Mexico at six years old, and it certainly wasn’t an easy transition.
“I had to adapt to a new language and a new environment out here,” Garibo reminisced. And that he did. “It was definitely very hard, because it was an emotional time. I didn’t understand anything that was being taught to me at school, and I think it was because I didn’t have enough of the educational resources and support. I didn’t have a translator by my side to help me translate the classes. Making friends was hard. Nobody really understood me, which is why I’m using my personal experience to provide those resources that I never had, to those incoming students who might be similarly lacking in those tools. I don’t want them experiencing the same problems I did, and still do.”
Along the way, Garibo revealed that of the many challenges in growing up in the United States, witnessing and living through the violence that occurred in Oakland, as well as the problems stemming from its education system were the most difficult. “It wasn’t until I realized that all these issues, I was facing were systemic.” Garibo’s story, however, as he soon would discover entering his freshman year of high school, was not unique. “Many students who looked like me were also experiencing the same challenges,” he told me.
Which is what led him to entering community advocacy and organizing students around campus to stand up against the systemic injustice that was (and still is) poisoning Oakland’s school districts.
As Long As People Use Violence to Combat Violence, We Will Always Have Violence
American writer Rick Remender, known for his work on Image Comics and Marvel Comics, described three kinds of people in this world—leaders, followers, and destroyers:
“Leaders are those who take charge, build, inspire, and create.
Followers are those who support leaders and work to achieve mutually beneficial goals.
Destroyers cannot find it within themselves to follow anyone; their hatred and insecurity is too pure to see strength in any OTHER being. They utterly lack the ability to inspire or create, so they do the only thing left to them. They tear down all they come in contact with.”
—Uncanny X-Force, No. 19, February 2012
Following the brutal murders of Ahmaud Arbery (Georgia), Breonna Taylor (Kentucky), and George Floyd (Minnesota), our world was awakened to just how poisoned our social climate (and political climate) has been. And for Garibo, who at the start of his freshman year of high school, to witness first-hand, many deaths occurring in his high school, specifically black youth:
“I kept seeing students who looked just like me dying. And I just thought, wow, like this is real. That could be me. I remember thinking that I don’t want that to happen to anyone, anymore. I don’t want any student to go through that, which is what led me down a quest of discovering what I could be doing to help. How could I get connected with other organizations in the community to shift the cycle that was happening in our Oakland schools. And I did that.”
Garibo connected with the former student director that was before him, who taught Garibo all about the system and the board. “I had the support from her in helping me realize that this is what I was meant to do, which helped me get elected by the 36,000 students to represent them.”
Michael Berg, in an interview with CNN back in June 2006, said that “as long as people use violence to combat violence, we will always have violence.” And how true that is today.
Andrew Rossow: During your tenure as director, what were some of the biggest challenges you faced, maybe that weren’t immediately brought to light in Homeroom?
Denilson Garibo: First and foremost, schools should not undermine the system that criminalizes Black and Brown students, to make them feel unsafe to the point where they cannot learn. And that is exactly what happens when our schools are underfunded. When I was a student at Oakland Unified School District, I got to experience those disparities that happen in schools that are underfunded.
Garibo referenced a part of Homeroom, where he emphasized the extremely low SAT scores. “These test scores are very low, and even a student that had a 4.0 GPA, got an 800 SAT score. And that’s not an accurate presentation of us as students. That is, however, an accurate representation of the education that the District was providing us. And why you ask? We don’t have the access to private tutors, or those support programs that perhaps students in richer or wealthier districts might have access to.”
According to Garibo, the documentary is one that hopefully others can take into consideration, which can educate others on shifting the mindset of our flawed education system.
“How can we try and support the students and invite them to spaces where we don’t see students, like the board meetings? We saw in the film, how these board meetings were always pushing students to the side. In other spaces, we often see youth pushed to the side. How can we change that and invite them into the process of making decisions that affect their everyday life? In the end, we are being harmed by the decisions being made by adults.”
In watching the film, there was one statement Garibo made before the school board that really sent chills up and down my body:
“How can you undercut programs with budgets that are designed to be for the benefit of your students, but not consult with those students to get their opinion? You invite them to come to the meeting simply to tell them no?” he asked.
Continuing, he asked one final question to the Board:
“Why is it that you three (pointing to individual members on the Board) who look just like me, just like my classmates...how can you vote against this? How can you allow this?”
There’s no question as to the power and hurt behind Garibo’s question. And he was right.
AR: As for those individuals that may be confused or afraid to speak up, why is that?
DG: I think it depends on the way we grew up. Maybe, they may look like the students they represent, but at the same time, didn’t experience the same struggles the students enrolled at USD go through. We don’t know if they were being criminalized by school police or law enforcement in general, because they were living on the better side of Oakland? I’m not sure why individuals would stand in solidarity with students who they represent, but that’s what’s important to take into consideration, you know? If you’re going to be representing students, represent them well, represent them and get them fully engaged and to change the structures in our work, to invite them as partners. To truly stand in solidarity with them.
AR: If you could see the changes you brought to light in Homeroom in let’s say, the next 6 months, what would you like to see happen? And not just in Oakland, but across the board with education?
DG: I want us to fully educate ourselves on the disparities that underfunded school districts have, and how can we gain solutions to those disparities and problems. Whether that is donating to local student unions and standing in solidarity with them. Every action you take matters, because making an effort is way better than staying silent and doing nothing.
So, where is Garibo today? He currently attends California State University in Long Beach, with hopes of obtaining all the necessary credits to transfer to the University of Southern California (USC). “I want to transfer to USC and see where life takes me,” he told me. “Fortunately, I am lucky to have cousins who are already enrolled in college, so I have that type of support system at home.”
A Dream to Meet Former President Barack Obama
He also emphasized that his passion for community advocacy is far from over, stating that he will continue to stay actively involved in his community. He also said that if he could ever sit down to have a meal with anyone in this world—a God, motivational speaker, actor/actress, president, Garibo immediately replied—former President Barack Obama.
“I’m just so proud of being from Oakland, that I would just love to speak with Barack Obama about it. I feel like having a conversation with him would be so fulfilling. Learning from him and seeing that he is a community man, after everything he has done for our communities, perhaps I could shed some light in Oakland, while talking with him about the problems that continue to happen in Oakland. You hear Oakland in the news depicted as violent, but at the end of the day, that’s not what Oakland is all about. There is unity in Oakland, with a diverse group of people and powerful culture.”
“I know in Homeroom, I mentioned that my passion is politics, but now that I think about it, I think there’s a difference between politics and community organizing 100%. I tend to have more of a passion towards local organizing and just being connected with the community and those specific organizations. I want to give back and giving back because I want to make sure that Oakland youth can know their potential, know their power, and their power to totally change the world. Just because we might not have the resources to that, and support, doesn’t mean we don’t have it. We just need that extra push, and I want to be sure to be that extra push to make them realize what they have.”
A Message for Parents...
Once Homeroom is available to the public, every parent should be sitting down with their child to watch this. I don’t care how old you are, if you’re still living at home, or where you are in your professional career. Parent or child, if you have the time, please sit down and watch this film with one another.
As our interview concluded, Garibo left the following thoughts for parents to think about as they continue raising their children:
“I feel like many times us youth, we get told that we’re ‘too young to make an impact on the world’, or we’re told to ‘mind our own business’ and ‘to just focus on our education’, while also trying to come up with solutions that we are encountering in the problems of having an education. To parents, please try and support your child in whatever they are doing—whether that is being a doctor, a teacher, or anything. Make sure to be there for them and to check up on them. Many times, us youth don’t want to talk about the problems we are facing, because of our age, but you should care, because at the end of the day, we are growing every day. And we are learning every day. Learn from us in the same way you want us to learn from you.”
Running at 90 minutes, ‘Homeroom’ was directed by Peter Nicks, with the storyline created by Nicks, Sean Havey, and Kristina Motwani. The documentary stars Denilson Garibo, Mica Smith-Dahl, Edgar Galvez, Dwayne Davis, Itzel Mercado, and Miguel Cuevas.