A Day at Freedom School: How Could Other Education Models Transform Our Public Schools?

by Guy Oron

On a hot Thursday summer morning in a church in South Beacon Hill, I joined about 40 people of all ages, from youth to elders, to learn about racism. Organized by Youth Undoing Institutional Racism (YUIR), which is affiliated with the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, Tyree Scott Freedom School is a five-day summer camp, primarily for youth and young adults of color, which focuses on community organizing, learning a deeper analysis about racism and systems of oppression, and undoing racism in our society.

One of the facilitators, Black Moses Nola, explained to us why Freedom School exists: “Scholarship is a commitment to this community. We have a commitment to knowledge because knowledge is power.”

This week, most public and private schools in the region have begun their year, operating almost exclusively under conventional education models. Going to the Tyree Scott Freedom School helped broaden my perspective on other models of education which could serve to transform our society’s education system.

Alternating facilitators, who are mostly youth, led us through a discussion of gatekeeping—the process of people and institutions use to limit certain people or groups from accessing resources. Students answered questions in popcorn fashion, naming people who gatekeep, including bus drivers, police officers, and the Golden State Warriors (who don’t allow anyone else to win the NBA championship). I learned the importance of accountable gatekeeping, making sure that I use my own access to institutions and privileges to benefit community.

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Student Char Mays participates in the Freedom School (Photo: Guy Oron)

YUIR’s Freedom School comes out of a long lineage of education alternatives to state-sponsored schooling. Throughout the Jim Crow era in the South, Black people had to create their own community-based schools to supplement the inadequate and segregated school system. Freedom Schools popped up, teaching everything from reading and math to history and ethnic studies.

During the civil rights movement, student groups and civil rights organizations such as the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) continued the radical, community-based education tradition. In the summer of 1964, thousands of students studied in the Mississippi Freedom Schools, providing lessons in a variety of subjects, including empowering students to become organizers and activists. In 1966, organizers from CORE and other groups came together to host a two-day boycott of Seattle Public Schools, protesting segregation and racism within the district. Over three thousand students showed up to the alternative Freedom Schools hosted in conjunction with the boycott. Even as segregation in public schools, was formerly outlawed, the Freedom School tradition continued to live on.

Since its foundation in 1980, the People’s Institute has continued the Freedom School tradition, focusing on educating youth and adults about systems of oppression, especially racism, and how they affect ourselves and our communities. The Children’s Defense Fund has also created their own Freedom School curriculum, partnering with Washington Building Leadership of Change (WA-BLOC) to hold Freedom Schools every summer. These two Seattle-based Freedom Schools are part of a national network of Freedom Schools that continue empower generations of young people, inspiring them to take action in their communities.

 

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A poster for Youth Undoing Institutional Racism (YUIR). (Photo: Guy Oron)

 

As my day at Freedom School continued, the discussion shifted to internalized racial oppression. Facilitator Senait Brown explained the concept, using the analogy of crabs in a barrel, noting that internalized racial oppression leads to setup where all people of color lose out. Internalized racial oppression “pits us [people of color] against each other,” making it “so we cannot be in solidarity.” When we have to compete for liberation, it ultimately leads to no one being free, just like how the crabs step on each other, preventing any crab from leaving the barrel.

One of the most powerful moments for me was when we did racial caucusing. The entire group split up into respective racial communities—understanding that racism categorizes without humanity in mind. The groups were Black/African, Latinx/Hispanic, and Asian/Pacific Islander. The few white students were asked to join a group but just listen.

This exercise brought up a lot of anxiety for me, because as a mixed-race person, I don’t feel like I cleanly fit into a single “POC community.” I ended up joining the Latinx group because I felt that most people identify me as Latinx, despite my mother’s lineage originating in southern India. This made me confront my own insecurities with racism, and how I intellectualize and distance myself from it.

We discussed our own experiences with racism and internalized oppression, as well as how cope with these struggles. Students named micro (and macro) aggressions they had experienced from teachers and cops. We talked of how internalized racial inferiority influences our friend groups, affects our of worth and beauty standards, and promotes anti-Blackness in our communities.

Later in the day we discussed internalized racial superiority, the definition of race, and ways racism manifests in society. The facilitators explained the cultural construction of race and how race was created and ingrained into our society by Europeans such as Friedrich Blumenbach in the latter half of the second millenia to expand privileges brought by colonialism and capitalism. This was used to explain how race is a hierarchy, combining race-based prejudice and power. Finally, a white facilitator from European Dissent led a discussion explaining how internalized racial superiority teaches white people to be complicit in racism and why it is necessary for white people to take accountability for racism and fight against it.

The following day, students took the Freedom School curriculum and put it into practice. WA-BLOC and YUIR held a joint Freedom School-led No New Youth Jail demonstration at the construction site of the new juvie. Students led chants, performed poetry and spoke speeches about why they opposed the new youth jail. YUIR, WA-BLOC and over 100 other community organizations are part of a coalition which has called for a People’s Moratorium, demanding an immediate end to the construction of the new youth jail and a transition away from youth incarceration.

With the upcoming school year starting this week, I couldn’t help but thinking about a moment at a recent No New Youth Jail event on June 11th, where one of the youth experts proposed the entire Seattle Public Schools district to be replaced by Freedom Schools. What would it mean to replace public schools with a liberation-centered curriculum? How could our public school district learn and practice concepts of accountable gatekeeping, undoing institutionalized and internalized racism, and radical political education?

The Freedom School model is an opportunity for our current education system to truly tackle the enormous opportunity gap and help us unlearn racism. It is an opportunity to introduce students to organizing, activism, and being active participants of democracy while critically approaching powerful institutions. Freedom School shows that public schools could challenge existing hierarchies and be governed by students, who are most impacted by their own education. Perhaps the biggest lesson I have learned from Freedom School is that there is still so much room for me to learn and grow, especially in regard to my own internalized oppressions and privileges, and understanding my own limits and responsibility to mitigate harm. During my day at Freedom School, I have seen so much wisdom within our youth, and the public school system would do better to listen to these voices.


Featured Image: Students and community members engaging in discussion at Freedom School. (Photo: Guy Oron)

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