Imagine living right next to a gas station and being forbidden to walk there for a snack. For many of Baltimore’s youth, like Octavia Chase, this is a reality. "My parents don't really allow me to go outside," Octavia shared. "The neighborhood doesn’t seem bad, but if I can’t go to a gas station that’s right there, there must be something wrong. That bothers me." But the high school student found an alternative environment in the Eddie Conway Freedom School, where she can actively give back to her community and attempt to change it for the better.

The school is a joint project of the American Friends Service Committee—specifically, the Youth Empowerment through Conflict Resolution and Friend of a Friend programs—and Pleasant Hope Baptist Church. It is named after Baltimore native Eddie Conway, who has been imprisoned since 1970 for a murder he claims he didn’t commit and denied parole in spite of being a model prisoner. "Since it’s a partnership with the program that works with Eddie Conway on the inside, it seemed appropriate to honor his work and the work of people under his mentorship," said project director Mia Jones.

The freedom school’s goal is to provide community members with organizing techniques, life skills, and knowledge about their culture and history, all with distinctly local flavor from discussions about the state of Maryland and Baltimore City specifically. Since its official launch in late January, the school has offered a variety of other events including films and festivals. These sessions provide an African-centered perspective on relevant topics like prisons, drugs, and relationships to community members of all ages.

This intergenerational aspect fills a void left by other programs in the city.  "A lot of educational programs in Baltimore are very isolated—they only deal with young people or old people, only with people who believe this one way," said Mia. "The freedom school brings different types of people together—we had a session where the youngest person in the room was 7 and the oldest 70."

As she prepared to teach such diverse students, Octavia found her own knowledge increasing. She learned about protecting her identity and how to build credit at one session, and about communication at another. "We were talking about communication skills so I learned how to communicate a little more and to be more open with other people." Octavia has also learned to set goals; she hopes to attend college to become a veterinarian and run her own practice.

This personal growth is only part of the school’s goal, however. "We hope that those who are involved are inspired to take action. We equip people with the tools to actually take action in the community with events that are truly community organized and intergenerational," Mia explained.

To this end, the summer session participants made a video about youth violence in the city. Inspired by recent violence in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and media reaction to it, as well as the proposed closing of local pools and recreation centers due to budget cuts, the youths interviewed each other and community leaders about these issues. The video also contains fictional scenes the students came up with to illustrate points and set the scene, including one in which Octavia makes her acting debut as a newscaster.

The school is hosting a luncheon where they will show their completed video to the community and facilitate a dialogue about what is being done to address the problems.

This whole experience has been very positive for Octavia. Before, she thought that "even if I did think of something [to improve the neighborhood] half the people there wouldn't even want to do it." But now, she thinks differently. "I’m very excited because I think [the video] will be entertaining and informative. People might listen."

- AFSC intern Emily Blackner