New Models: School Without Walls and Chicago Freedom School

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #3 in September 2006]

The early Civil Rights movement was led, in part, by unsung heroes in their teens. In 1951, 16-year-old Barbara Johns organized a walkout and twoweek strike at Moton High School in Farmville, VA. This case became one of five reviewed by the Supreme Court when it declared segregation unconstitutional in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case. Nine months before Rosa Parks sparked the Montgomery Bus boycott, Claudette Colvin, 15, refused to give up her seat on a bus in the same city and was arrested. Not unlike the Civil Rights movement ripe with teenage dissent, many youth in Chicago are concerned with issues of zero tolerance, criminalization, racism, sexism, and homophobia (1).

Interestingly, many youth who take action on these issues are often affiliated with a school or community-based organization. What does this mean for youth acting in isolation or without said support networks? To address this concern, in January 2004, Girls Best Friend Foundation (GBF) convened members of local organizations to discuss what young people in Chicago (specifically girls, since GBF supports youth development for girls and young women) needed in order to support their activist social change work. A freedom school, inspired by the original 1964 freedom schools, with the strong belief that youth will want to act together for social justice and change, was the answer.

To envision a space where youth can talk openly about the desire for social change. A place that would help young people remember stories of teens during the civil rights movement as well as stories of other social movements in order to be able to reflect on and use these models as ways to think about becoming agents of social change themselves. For this initiative, adopting an open and inclusive ‘nonownership’ philosophy—where youth would be involved at every stage of the planning process and no one theory or model of organizing would take precedence over another—would be critical. “By grooming youth to build capacity for the future, they will be the ones who will be maintaining these open structures,” remarked Alex Poeter of Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, a community organization located in the Southwest side. “There needs to be a real commitment to move away from a methodology-based, dogmatic approach … Furthermore, it is a very important aspect to develop an environment where it’s not only o.k. to deal with open-ended questions or saying it’s not that we have it all figured out, but that it’s about exploring and not always having the right answers.” Emphasizing the process in order to act is integral to the Chicago Freedom School (CFS) philosophy.

With anchor funding from GBF, Mariame Kaba, Education and Youth Development Program Officer for the Steans Family Foundation and adult ally for the Young Women’s Action Team in Rogers Park, and Jobi Peterson, former Executive Director of the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health and current consultant for the Gates Foundation, stepped up to the plate to assess the need for a freedom school in Chicago. Between March 2004 and February 2005, Kaba and Peterson met with youth organizing groups such as Blocks Together and Southwest Youth Collaborative (spearheads of the complementary Schools Without Walls project also featured in this issue), hired an adult consultant in collaboration with youth researchers to undergo a feasibility study, visited with youth organizing groups working in Oakland, CA, and spent time building relationships with people in the field who wanted to join in the spirit of collective struggle (2) and help develop the CFS from scratch.

Many of the core planners for CFS are representatives of non-profit social service organizations committed to fighting violence against women and girls or for social justice through grassroots advocacy projects. The CFS steering committee include a handful of emerging leaders from Chicago’s public high schools and area colleges, as well as individuals who work at various organizations including the Chicago Girls’ Coalition, Alternatives, Inc., Women and Girls Collective Action Network, Housing Action Illinois, Afterschool Matters, Amate House, Uhlich Children’s Advantage Network, and Brighton Park Neighborhood Council.

People working on a variety of issues, in a variety of capacities from service provider or organizer to advocate or funder, are all concerned with combating sub-par youth development models and the institutional fright and stigma that often accompanies young people of color as they gain agency and voice. “Youth activism is a word that strikes fear into the heart of every political mind because youth are not often thought of as critical thinking individuals,” said youth activist Jessie Aviles. While the mission of CFS is to build the personal and social capabilities of youth and adults so that they can work together to eradicate oppression, the vision of the Chicago Freedom School is to develop and support new generations of critical and independent-minded young people who, through revelations of identity and power, are compelled to use their unique experiences, energy and talents to counteract the staggering effects of repressive social policies and create a just world (3). Add to its vision a city-wide intention and CFS is attempting head-on one of the hardest aspects of solidarity work. On June 16th, CFS sponsored a training institute for youth, led by Dr. Kathy Emery (the San Francisco based co-author of Why Is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools? and founder of about the role of young people in the Civil Rights movement and how to utilize this history to understand freedom and social justice concepts. Twenty-five young people came from a number of schools and community organizations and, more importantly to CFS, from all across the city. Through discussion, role-plays and other small group activities, the young people identified connections between this important history and their future as activists. “Open mindedness, engaging, leadership roles for youth, friendliness, safe created space,” was one insightful response from a youth participant in the day’s activities. One of CFS’s challenges will be to keep these young people from all across the city engaged throughout the Winter and into Spring 2007 for the planning process.

CFS plans to open its doors in July 2007 with the hope of attracting forty-five young people, ages 14 to 16 and diverse in race, class, gender, and sexual orientation, from all corners of the city. To date, with the help of over fifty individuals on the steering and advisory committees, CFS has raised $100,000—the majority of which will be used to solidify its own ada-compliant home (a lease will be confirmed in September 2006). Choosing a specific geographic location for CFS will be a difficult task, considering its desire for city-wide appeal, unless they find affordable space downtown close to all cta trains. The site will ideally include space for meeting rooms, a technology center, a kitchen and dining room, and open studio space for art, design and dance. The first year will be a six week program consisting of seven institutes, each with a social justice focus: visual arts, music, science/environment, performing arts, media and literary arts, sports and healthcare/nutrition/holistic care. While these sound like subjects taught in school, they will be tweaked to focus on the student experience and the important role that questioning plays in social justice-oriented curricula. Five key themes, critical to the libratory education model, will be threaded throughout all institutes at CFS: leadership development, sociopolitical consciousness and analysis, relationship and identity issues, movement-building and strategy, and research and documentation. Youth will have the option of choosing two institutes, led by adult volunteers and youth, and every Friday will be dedicated to studying Civil Rights history. The fourth week of the summer will be a retreat experience outside of Chicago where CFS participants will have the opportunity to think about their own personal desires and growth as agents of social change, and apply what they have learned to their own activism.

Goals for CFS are to foster intergenerational social change work among youth and adults in the city of Chicago, but also to provide an autonomous space for youth where they can self-explore, develop and create their own environment of continued learning. Furthermore, Poeter believes, “It’s important that it doesn’t happen in a vacuum and that it really reflects diverse constituencies from geographic areas, lending itself to influencing and impacting other organizing networks, structures, or policy initiatives.” Within a few years, CFS hopes to provide a home for activism in Chicago, with a central site and active year-round programming, a growing summer program where youth come back and build on their skills, and the groundwork to build a new movement in Chicago.

“I know it is going to be hard,” says Poeter, “but that’s why we have got to empower youth to be as much a part of the decision making process … and that’s the only way to overcome, to really break these structures that perpetuate oppression and to give the youth the sense that they have the capacity so they can go back into their communities and really affect change… Because it’s essentially also about them reforming the institution that they are connected to, the public school system for instance. ”

To get involved with CFS, email Thanks to Mariame Kaba, Alex Poeter, Keisha Farmer-Smith and the entire CFS steering committee for source material/content.

1 CFS feasibility study

2 CFS information brochure

3 CFS concept paper. August 1, 2006


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