Oakland students choose to name building for radical poet Nellie Wong

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Oakland, Calif., home of the November 2011 Occupy movement general strike, is a 
town that strongly believes in celebrating its working class roots. So it’s no surprise that revolutionary feminist poet and activist Nellie Wong, born in Oakland’s Chinatown in 1934, was chosen to have a building named after her at Oakland High.

Usually people pay big bucks to get such recognition. But Nellie was selected by popular student acclaim, a tribute to her decades of passionate creative writing, radical organizing and multi-racial solidarity-building among the exploited.

A well-deserved honor. Nellie is the author of many esteemed poetry collections, including Dreams in Harrison Railroad Park, The Death of Long Steam Lady, and the forthcoming Breakfast Lunch Dinner, to be published by Meridien PressWorks. She is the co-editor of Voices of Color, available from Red Letter Press. Her poetry and political writing has been featured in over 200 anthologies and other publications.

As a radical activist, Nellie has provided dedicated leadership in the Freedom Socialist Party (FSP) and Radical Women. She served for many years as the Bay Area FSP branch organizer and is a veteran member of the joint National Comrades of Color Caucus of the two organizations. Nellie has been a delegate to the San Francisco Labor Council, an anti-war and immigrant rights stalwart, a fighter for political prisoners like Mumia Abu-Jamal, Marilyn Buck and the San Francisco 8, and a defender of abortion clinics and reproductive freedom.

Three new buildings at Oakland High School were named after distinguished rebel alumni. The others were the famous novelist, socialist, and partisan of labor, Jack London; and civil rights pioneer and Harlem Renaissance figure, Louise Thompson Patterson.

Vibrant dedication ceremony. Nellie, the only living honoree, was delighted to attend the September 2011 naming event. Hundreds of students, faculty, staff and community members, including several of Nellie’s family members and Radical Women and FSP comrades, attended. Student Mayan and Chinese lion dancers performed, with the Chinese lion blessing the three buildings.

The Nellie Wong Building is a beautiful, modern, two-story structure housing the Departments of English and Science, and a computer lab. Touring the new building, Nellie says, “I was filled with much emotion as I looked around the classrooms that were nothing like the dingy halls of the ‘Pink Prison’ that I remembered. There was so much light streaming through the windows. Books and art filled the shelves and walls. I recognized names of poets and writers whose books were available. The environment certainly will be conducive to learning.”

A highlight of the ceremony for Nellie was meeting the students. Many were Asian American, African American, and Latino and Latina (just as they were when she was there in the late ’40s and early ’50s). They told her that teachers initiated the building naming, and school administration opened a contest to let the students decide who to honor. The pupils researched alumni records, made nominations, wrote letters supporting candidates, and visited classrooms so that all students could discuss the final choices. The students expressed respect and admiration for Nellie’s courageous battles and poetic wordsmithing against racism, sexism, class oppression, and exploitation.

Nellie wrote “The Building Song” especially for the dedication ceremony, delivering the poem to a warm response from campus community, visitors, and OHS Principal Alicia Romero. “That to organize together / For bread and roses, … / Strong bodies and beautiful minds /
 Our necessity, our freedom to make.”

Nellie also gave a shout-out to Radical Women and FSP. For some time afterwards, a flashing sign outside the school pronounced: “Congratulations to Wong, London and Patterson.” Congratulations, Nellie!

Contact Toni Mendicino at t_mendicino@yahoo.com.

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