“Freedom, Freedom, I can’t move, Freedom cut me loose! Freedom! Freedom! Where are you? Cause I need freedom too!”–Beyoncé
As I push repeat on Beyoncé’s song “Freedom” I cannot help but feel that she has captured the yearning of so many people who find themselves trapped by the fear of gun violence, police brutality, hatred, misogyny, local and global terrorism, ignorance, bigotry, racism, political and economic disenfranchisement, sexism, and even the fear of the future. If you remain in front of the television long enough, listening to the media, it can become easy to lose hope and wonder if freedom is attainable, and if so you wonder who this freedom is for, to what end, by what means? And what would freedom even look like given the disparate perspectives and worldviews present in the United States today?
Well, this summer I got a glimpse of what shape this freedom could take, particularly with in the educational system for our black and brown children who all too often find themselves trapped in the cradle to prison pipeline. And with the number of black and brown children growing within the elementary and secondary schools in the United States (It is reported that by 2022 the percentage of Hispanics and multiracial students in public elementary and secondary schools is projected to grow 33 percent, and 44 percent) , it is important that we take seriously the need for a major shift in our educational system. But what could this shift look like?
A vision of educational freedom began to unfold for me as I served as the Site Coordinator of the James Lawson Freedom School literacy and cultural enrichment program in Allentown, PA. The James Lawson Freedom School is one of over 150 freedom schools in the nation that has partnered with the Children Defense Fund to foster high quality literacy development amongst children of color, utilizing literature that reflects the stories and experiences of people of color and change agents in our society and around the world. Furthermore, this program seeks to empower families and parents to be involved in their child’s learning, to engage their communities through civic activities and social action and develop healthy nutrition as well as physical and mental health.
What sets this program apart from any other summer camp or literacy program I have been a part of is its holistic view of what education should prepare the learners to
be, its recognition and celebration of multiple learning styles, the intentional use of multiple teaching styles, and the programs emphasis on celebrating diverse cultures. Throughout the course of the day you will witness scholars learning how to spell through cheers and chants, affirming themselves and one another through song and dance, reading out loud and silently, acting out the stories of Harriet Tubman or Pele, and thinking through how they can use conflict resolution skills in their daily lives.
History of Freedom Schools:
Another facet of this program that sets it apart from other programs is its conception. Freedom Schools are rooted in the American Civil Rights Movement, and was utilized during the Mississippi Freedom Summer project of 1964. The Mississippi Freedom Summer project was one of the many activities civil rights activists in the 1960s coordinated to bring about change within the racially and economically stratified south. Mississippi at that time was one of the poorest states in the United States and its black population was amongst the most politically and educationally disenfranchised. While blacks made up almost half of Mississippi’s population, only 5% of the blacks who were of age were registered to vote. And those who had the courage to vote were faced with the possibility of getting fired from their place of employment. Educationally, Mississippi maintained segregated and inequitable schools despite the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling. Also, certain subjects such as foreign languages, civics, and the historical period in American history, dating from 1860-1870 (the end of slavery and Reconstruction period) could not be taught in the black schools in Mississippi.
Due to the severity of the situation in Mississippi, several initiatives were started by the NAACP and SNCC to encourage black voter registration and turn out. In 1964, which was an election year, the Council of Federated Organizations, consisting of members of the Congress of Racial Equality and SNCC, organized the Mississippi “Freedom Summer” with the goals of: expanding voter registration, organizing and legalizing the “Freedom Democratic Party” that would more appropriately represent the racial make-up of Mississippi, establishing freedom schools, and providing legal and medical assistance to blacks. In preparation for the Freedom Summer, the Council trained both black and white college students from the north in voter registration procedures. Knowing the danger the college students might face (at the hands of angry white Mississippians) for standing in solidarity with the black Mississippians, the students were also taught non-violent resistance strategies and even had to come to terms with possibly dying for the cause.
Despite the riskiness of this journey, the college students took the trip down to Mississippi and assisted with voter registration and the facilitation of freedom schools. The schools provided instruction in reading, writing, art, mathematics, Social Studies, African American history and science. That summer the students that attended the Freedom Schools throughout Mississippi gained academic knowledge, but more importantly they learned how to use this knowledge to critically engage their community and society in order to bring about positive transformation. Many of the students that attended the Freedom Schools that summer went back into their schools and communities advocating for better public accommodations, educational material, integrated schools, and state representation etc. They took what they learned in the Freedom Schools to better their communities.
Education towards Liberation:
Napoleon Hill once stated that the missing link in all systems of education is “in the failure of educational institutions to teach their students how to organize and use knowledge after they acquire it.” The pedagogy of Freedom Schools, both historically and presently, offers scholars a space and opportunity to organize and apply the knowledge they gain so they can make a difference. I believe if we are to see our children avoid the imprisonment of their minds, bodies, and spirits we must make it our collective responsibility to educate them towards the liberation of their self and their communities!
Cozzens, Lisa. “Brown v. Board of Education.” African American History. http://fledge.watso.org/~lisa/blackhistory/early-civilrights/brown.html (25 May 1998).
Hill, Napoleon. Think and Grow Rich. History of Freedom Schools, 2015 Ella Baker Child Policy Training Institute www.usnews.com/news/blogs/data-mine/2015/01/28/us-education-still-separate-and-unequal