by Sharayah Lane
As the year comes to a close and the haze of an election filled with racism, sexism and xenophobia moves closer to an inaugural reality, walking into a freedom school is no doubt a revitalizing and liberating experience for south Seattle’s youth.
Freedom Schools are a bi-annual experience organized by American Friends Service Committee and Youth Undoing Institutional Racism at United Church of Christ on Beacon Hill in South Seattle. They are a space for healing, a space for collective organization and an immersion into an education that is so often suppressed in our public school systems.
All who enter the space are asked to introduce themselves. Activities are paused to make sure that everyone is acknowledged. “What’s your name? What do you do? Why is it urgent to undo racism?” The same three questions are asked of everyone upon arrival. The third question has the power to, when contemplated, thrust anyone into the current state of racial reality in our country.
This afternoon’s curriculum focused on the construction of race and its distortion toward Black people from the earliest scientific classifications. Next the group discussed the transition from indentured servitude to race-based slavery. “What would happen to that 1% class if the Native Americans, the slaves of African descent and the poor Europeans were to work together?” asked a facilitator. This question was followed up by a call to “raise your hand if you’ve ever heard of the Black Codes.”
What is race? What are the benefits of enacting a law that says an enslaved woman’s children are enslaved automatically? What is a social construct? These were just a few questions posed to students. One student gives her definition of a social construct while another follows up with a reminder that deeming race a social construct often undermines the true extent of the destruction it wields.
These students know their stuff and have come to learn more.
“We are trying to push young people to a new level of consciousness with the end goal of giving them the tools for organizing and taking action,” said program coordinator Senait Brown. “The Freedom School is based on popular education and the curriculum is largely shaped by who is in the room. What we discuss is always based around what folks are experiencing now.”
Freedom Schools started in Mississippi during the summer of 1964 as a coordinated effort by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to register Blacks to vote. The schools were an opportunity for all people in the Black community to get an opportunity to learn about things such as Black history and African culture. It wasn’t uncommon for students to attend who were in their 50s and 60s.
South Seattle’s Freedom School, founded by Dustin Washington, is designed for students age 15 – 23, but anyone at any age is invited to participate. No one is turned away. The power of social media allows some of our youngest citizens to know all too well the weight of racism in America. Children often look to their families and teachers for answers to tough questions about race and equity. 11-year-old Myanna got to add the Freedom School to her arsenal of knowledge on herself and her Blackness. Her grandma told her about the school and she learned within her own life why it was important for her to get the education.
“When I was younger I used to be really, really scared of Black people, I was scared because of what people were telling me at my school. I was scared of my own family sometimes, but I would always go to white people. I would always think that they were the ones who were going to be there. Then my grandma showed me why this was wrong, she taught me the history of racism,” said Myanna, “then I came to Freedom School and started learning what really happened. Before I didn’t really care for black people and then I learned that I’m black, these are my people and we all stand together in this nation as one.”
For other participants the Freedom School has become a space of healing; healing for themselves and, in turn, their families. 23-year-old Robert Gavino, a first generation Filipino American, is attending his second freedom school in the company of friends he insisted needed to experience the power of the education.
“I consider this experience very healing and being able to bring more of my family, friends and community into this healing is one reason I came back to the Freedom School for a second time,” said Gavino. “If any of us wants to live full meaningful lives we have to bring each other along in this education and deeper understanding,”
And with the seemingly endless imagery of black and brown bodies subjugated to destruction and the elusive silhouette of justice throughout 2016 and previous years, the Freedom School atop Beacon Hill is an enlightened haven of collaboration, education, hope and most of all, freedom.