Acknowledging our past, celebrating our future: AFSC and the Freedom School movement
The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) Youth Undoing Institutional Racism (YUIR) programs are a multi-city youth-led network mobilizing people of all ages to work against racist systems that oppress us all.
AFSC serves hundreds of youth annually in anti-racism workshops called Freedom Schools. Dozens of young people participate in ongoing YUIR organizing groups that have been influential in change on an individual, community, and national level.
Who we are and what we do
The AFSC Freedom School is a popular educational experience that provides a framework for the process of undoing institutional racism and addressing what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., identified as the three pillars of oppression (militarism, capitalism, and structural racism). The curriculum reflects the desire to follow in the footsteps of the Freedom Schools of the 1960s and learn from current anti-racism organizing around the country and around the world.
Whereas civil rights era Freedom Schools dealt primarily with struggling against the legalization of segregation, the AFSC Freedom School focuses on addressing the culture of institutional racism. It is grounded in the undoing racism principles of the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond based in New Orleans, Louisiana. Youth are invited to continue building their anti-racism organizing skills as part of Youth Undoing Institutional Racism (YUIR), organizing groups meet weekly to design and lead ongoing campaigns and projects that address institutional racism.
To date there are four AFSC youth programs that provide three- to-ten-day AFSC Freedom School trainings:
- Seattle, Washington - Community Justice Program
- St. Louis, Missouri - Peace Building Program
- St. Paul, Minnesota - Twin Cities Healing Justice Program
- Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania - Empowering Voice for Peace and Justice
Out of the AFSC Freedom Schools comes Youth Undoing Institutional Racism (YUIR), organizing groups that meet weekly to design and lead ongoing campaigns and projects that address institutional racism, dismantling the birth to prison pipeline and other forms of oppression.
Although YUIR honors and encourages youth to be at the forefront of changing racist systems, it also builds bridges to supportive adults and other organizations committed to anti-racism work, and welcomes the voices and participation of all, ensuring multi-generational organizing.
Out of the work of the AFSC Freedom Schools and YUIR programs, organizing campaigns and educational trainings have emerged. For example:
- Seattle: The Ending the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC) campaign informs youth of their rights and how to conduct themselves if and when they are stopped by police. EPIC has organized against the building of a new juvenile detention center in King County and to create anti-racist community-based alternatives to youth incarceration.
- Pittsburgh: Since becoming part of the YUIR/AFSC Freedom School network, youth in Pittsburgh have been sharing the analytical tools they’re learning with peers and adults in their lives. YUIR youth leaders have facilitated workshops and initiated/organized Black Student Unions in seven area high schools. Additionally, YUIR Pittsburgh has been developing a campaign to shift school culture from punitive to restorative with an anti-racist and youth-led lens.
- St. Louis: Since forming in 2015, YUIR has established the Freedom Garden that, in addition to producing fresh eggs and produce, is providing a space where young people can learn about self-determination and food justice. In an effort to raise awareness, YUIR St. Louis is also collecting the stories of students, teachers, parents, and the formerly incarcerated to produce a documentary about how the school-to-prison pipeline functions in St. Louis. In this way they are dismantling institutional racism in existing systems and building power in the community through the development of alternative systems.
- St. Paul: The newly formed YUIR group consists of young people interested in focusing on their own liberation through analyzing and healing from internalized racial oppression. The group is expanding their leadership skills by planning and executing events designed to educate others and raise community consciousness.
“A people without the knowledge of their past history origin and culture is like a tree without roots” - Marcus Garvey
The AFSC acknowledges that we stand on the shoulders of past freedom fighters who have paved the way for our accomplishments through their wisdom, knowledge and love. We pay homage to all the Freedom Schools that have come before us and that have been on the front lines of change in the name of justice, equality, freedom, and black liberation.
We acknowledge John Berry Meachum, who started a Freedom School in 1847 in response to a Missouri law that outlawed teaching blacks to read in the state. Meachum challenged this law by loading books, desks, and other supplies on a steamboat and opening the first “floating Freedom School.”
We also lift up the Freedom Schools of the civil rights era as well as other Freedom Schools that are operating across the world.
“Know from whence you came. If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.” -James Baldwin
How did this dynamic organizing work get started? It began in Mississippi in the summer of 1964 when thousands of civil rights workers travelled south to register black voters, organize community centers, and set up Freedom Schools. These Freedom Schools were community driven and provided youth and adults with an alternative education that focused on community organizing, leadership development, and taught the philosophies of the civil rights movement. Students of Freedom Schools also received instruction on black history, reading, math, science, and many other subjects that black children were being denied access to in the public school system. The success of Freedom Schools gave communities a new confidence in community organizing.
AFSC’s Freedom School and Youth Undoing Institutional Racism programs are particularly inspired by the history of anti-racism organizing in Seattle, Washington. In the spring of 1966, thousands of mostly African American school-age youth and their families boycotted the Seattle public school district to protest racial segregation in the Seattle schools.
After years of frustration, a coalition of organizations led by the Central Area Civil Rights Committee (CACRC), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) organized a district-wide boycott requesting that all Seattle parents keep their children out of school for two days (March 31 to April 1). Pulling from the Mississippi Freedom Schools of 1964, students poured out of their public schools and went to community Freedom Schools in protest, using direct action to turn their education into activism.
In 2001, the Seattle Freedom School was revitalized. Prior to this date, the People’s Institute of Seattle and the city of Seattle Undoing Institutional Racism (UIR) (which came out of the Peoples Institute for Survival and Beyond) started organizing around the challenges of racial disparities within the educational system. The two groups that emerged out of that effort were Youth Undoing Institutional Racism (YUIR) and Taking Care of Kids is Power.
Once again there was a need to organize around the lack of a multicultural curriculum and the racial disparities in discipline and achievement in the Seattle public school system.
AFSC was among the community organizations that mentored the YUIR group, which conducted regular sessions with youth on a variety of issues relevant to their lives. In the summer of 2000, youth from YUIR Seattle, which was led by Dustin Washington of the AFSC, participated in the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond Freedom School in Oakland, California. The mission of this particular Freedom School is to develop antiracist, multicultural youth leadership and to give youth a sense of his or her own power to organize.
After that experience, in 2001 Dustin and his team established the AFSC Tyree Scott Freedom School, named after brother Tyree Scott, a civil rights activist and labor leader who worked tirelessly to improve working conditions for low-income workers globally. Pulling from the principles, analysis, and methodologies of the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, the AFSC Freedom School, which is often facilitated by former participants, has now conducted trainings across the country.
Part of the legacy of Freedom Schools is the carrying on of its name and the deep desire for communities to provide alternative education to marginalized and oppressed people. There is a long history of Freedom Schools like those found in Missouri with brother Meachum and in Mississippi with the Freedom Summer Campaign. Dozens of schools today proudly hold the Freedom School name such as Akwesasne Freedom School on a Mohawk Indian reservation; The Freedom Schools in St. Louis, Chicago, and Philadelphia; and the Paulo Freire Freedom School in Tucson, Arizona, to name a few.
“Our lives begin to end when we become silent about the things that matter” -Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Since the inception of the AFSC Freedom School in 2001, AFSC staff have worked to expand the AFSC Freedom Schools and Youth Undoing Institutional Racism organizing groups across the AFSC network.
Currently, there are four AFSC programs offering Freedom Schools and YUIR organizing groups. The programs work collaboratively, with phone calls, check-ins and organizing skill development. Each state has local representation in the facilitation and planning process of the AFSC Freedom Schools.