Freedom School, Part IV: Our turn to speak truth to power
This is the fourth and final part of an essay on the 22nd Tyree Scott Freedom School held in Seattle.
At 10:30 sharp on the last Friday of Freedom School, everyone met at City Hall’s cavernous front lobby dressed in Freedom School t-shirts and carrying posters to present to city council members and community leaders. Nerves were running high as representatives from each group practiced their presentations and gave each other encouragement.
The capstone of Freedom School is “speaking truth to power” by taking what students have learned with and from each other to create policies for the changes they want to see.
One group was addressing the school-to-prison pipeline by proposing a youth-run community center that would provide jobs for youth and a supportive mentorship program for students suspended or expelled from school.
Another group proposed Freedom School training for police officers and more direct communication between youth and police to prevent police brutality.
The group I participated in was requesting that local businesses like Microsoft, Boeing, and Starbucks work together to provide living wage jobs to poor youth of color that would help build skills and resumes that they could take to later work.
Over the course of the week, Dustin had continually urged students to “speak up,” to be confident in their ideas and in what they knew to be true to their experiences. As a crowd of over a hundred adults, including Seattle City Council members, Director of Office for Civil Rights Julie Nelson, and Chief of Staff for Prosecutors Leesa Manion gathered to hear the presentations, many students wondered if they could communicate their ideas in a way that the audience would take seriously.
Dustin began the conference by thanking Freedom School supporters and facilitators, then introduced Freedom School participants James and Otieno, who started the conference with performances. The stuffy atmosphere of the conference room shifted as James read a spoken-word piece and Otieno performed two songs. It started to feel more like the meeting room at Bethany, where we had learned the urgent necessity of confidently “speaking our truths.”
After presenting the annual Freedom School awards, Dustin invited each group to the front of the room to present their projects.
One of our group’s presenters, Cristina,* had been nervous that she wouldn’t present clearly.
When it was our turn, however, Cristina took the microphone and began to speak of her experiences attempting to be a third wage-earner for her family in California, her move to Seattle to find better work opportunities, and the expenses she faces as she attempts to start a nursing degree.
She spoke with power and conviction of the need to create living wage jobs for poor youth of color so that cycles of poverty could be broken.
The audience broke into applause not out of encouragement but because of the compelling story Cristina told.
The presentations ended with audience questions directed to a panel of Freedom School students. City council members showed genuine interest in the policies that had been presented, and a community leader working with El Centro de la Raza argued that the presentations were compelling evidence the voting age should be lowered so that youth could have a more direct political voice.
Getting ready for the long road ahead
After the conference, everyone piled into cars and drove back to Bethany for a barbecue to celebrate the work that had been done. Tables were set up and students, hungry after the conference, grabbed chips and grape sodas while Dustin grilled. We set up tables to play cards and dominoes and take break from the work of analysis and organizing with the knowledge that the work we had begun wasn’t finished.
The presentations had been a success, but who knows if any of the city council members or community leaders would remember or continue to take seriously the proposals they had heard.
Earlier in the week, Marcel had said that one of the ground rules of Freedom School is that there is “no quick fix.”
Lisa Daugaard had similarly suggested that “undoing racism” requires a “multi-generational commitment” that must tackle racism on a large scale.
Freedom School is meant to provide an entry point into the ongoing, difficult, and often exhausting work of antiracist organizing.
As we played rounds of UNO, I realized that to an outsider the scene might look deceptively ordinary.
However, I did not see, as the media might represent them, a group of youth “too young” or “too unmotivated” to care about the world around them. Instead I felt grateful to have met some of the most imaginative and critical thinkers of this generation.
Elizabeth C. Brown is currently a Ph.D. student in literature and culture at the University of Washington, where she is writing a dissertation on U.S. imperial culture and representations of education in fiction. Elizabeth discovered Tyree Scott Freedom School and AFSC while researching Alice Walker's novel "Meridian" and is looking forward to staying involved with their work on education and social justice.
*Not her real name