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Systemic racism the focus of Twin Cities Freedom School

Systemic racism the focus of Twin Cities Freedom School

Published: January 9, 2015

On two frigid days in December, the AFSC Twin Cities’ Freedom School was launched at a library in St. Paul. Approximately 30 young people and adults came together to gain a deeper understanding of structural and institutional racism coupled with the importance of making change.

The lessons of Freedom School really came alive on the second morning. 

As participants delved deeply into the ways in which racism has been legally sanctioned in our country, there was a knock on the door.  A librarian informed Sharon Goens-Bradley, Healing Justice program director for the Twin Cities’ office, that a reporter and cameraman were outside wanting to speak to someone.

The reporter, a perky young white woman, told Sharon that they’d heard about Freedom School from an article that had been written in a neighborhood paper and were hoping to shoot footage of the event and interview some of the youth there. “The reporter seemed to assume that because they had spontaneously shown up at Freedom School they’d immediately be welcomed in to the group,” Sharon reported.

That particular station, however, has a long-standing antagonistic relationship with progressive citizens, many of them from communities of color. Most recently the station was involved in “Pointergate,” a news segment that accused the Minneapolis mayor of making gang signs with a “known felon.” Many community members had complained to the station about the coverage and were boycotting them because they had not apologized for the story.

When Sharon explained to the reporter that the consensus of the room was that they not be allowed to enter, the reporter became irritated. “I can’t believe you don’t want more people to know what’s going on here” she replied. “Can’t we just interview a couple of people? How about you?” When Sharon continued to repeat that there would be no interviews and mentioned “Pointergate,” the reporter stated, “I was not the reporter on that story and he (pointing to the cameraman) wasn’t there either.”

Eventually the reporter and cameraman accepted that they would not gain access to the room and left, visibly upset.

“That experience shows the degree to which predominately white, wealthy institutions assume that they can have access to events to which they were not invited” Sharon stated. “The reporter’s insistence that she was not responsible for her employer’s behavior illustrates the propensity in our society for ascribing poor behavior only to individuals and not looking at the larger systems that help keep racism in place.”

Community partner Timothy Turner added, “This was a great teachable moment. Freedom School helps youth become politically aware and helps us to act as a community to protect what’s really in our best interests.”

After spending a few minutes processing the event, Freedom School continued as scheduled. Dustin Washington, director of AFSC’s Seattle Community Justice program, continued to educate and challenge participants to explore our country’s history and the ways in which we all participate in the perpetuation of racist systems.

When surveyed about what they learned after participating in two days of Freedom School, youth wrote: “[Racism] affects more people than I thought”, “Some of the statistics and racial demographics are astonishing and I learned the best time to take action”, “How I can change myself and engage more and involve more people different from myself”, and “The definition of racism”. 

After reading that numerous attendees expressed a desire for a longer time together, Sharon remarked, “That’s great news, Christopher Melendez (AFSC Freedom School intern) and I are already planning a four-day summer Freedom School. We’re just beginning here in the Twin Cities; the future looks very promising.”