New Models

New Models: Schools Without Walls and Chicago Freedom School

If oppression is the force that divides, then solidarity is the practice of reclaiming our unions and bonds. In a city like Chicago— where neighborhood boundaries, gang turfs, and racial segregation keep people separated from one another—it is difficult to see all the ways that we are connected. Occasionally there are those moments when we clearly understand the need to work together and build a unified grassroots movement. In these moments it becomes obvious that the political agenda of Chicago is dominated by corporate interests and the corrupt Daley machine, and that this political domination requires that poor Black and Brown communities fight within and between themselves. But knowing that we need to unite and knowing how to unite are two very different things. The sad reality is that division, competition, and segregation are the norm in Chicago. At times, this is as true for social change agencies as it is for street gangs. The struggle for the redistribution of wealth, resources, and opportunities is a battle fought on scarce resources. Everyone involved in grassroots movement building today is competing for the same limited pool of funds. Moving beyond the parameters of the non-profit industrial complex 1 requires changing both the infrastructure and the culture of struggle. For many youth allies in Chicago, this means that we must make sure that future generations are equipped to challenge the divisive political landscape that shapes Chicago and its surrounding communities.

In order to build alternative futures for Chicago, it is crucial that we community activists and organizers help to re-root today’s young people to the city’s struggles and movements. Wherever possible, youth should be involved in the development of their neighborhoods and have spaces within their community to make meaningful contributions. It was with these intentions that the Chicago Freedom Summer 2006: School Without Walls initiative was organized. The School Without Walls was a combined effort head up by staff from Access Living, the Southwest Youth Collaborative, the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization, Enlaces, Metropolitan Area Group Igniting Civilization, and the Community Justice for Youth Institute. Beginning in July and continuing through the middle of August, young people from across the South and West sides came together to discuss issues of power, to share experiences from their communities, and to learn about one another’s lives.

With over 40 youth and 15 adult participants, the discussions at the School Without Walls ranged from disability rights, to gender and sexuality, to the criminalization of young people of color. Over the course of the summer the school took one of the largest and most diverse contingencies of people to the Midwest Social Forum in Milwaukee, sent a delegation to the National Hip-Hop Political Convention, and facilitated a week-long trip to the 9th Ward in New Orleans where a group of 16 learned about the ongoing struggle for a grassroots reconstruction effort. Using donated space and an extremely limited budget, this effort was a pilot project that sought to generate momentum for city-wide anti-oppressive education efforts. As Jonathan Peck, one of the School’s organizers, explains: “This joint effort will be a building block in the on-going process of organizing and movement building throughout the city of Chicago. We look forward to joining on-going efforts to build freedom schools across the city throughout the year and into summer 2007.” Dynamic efforts, like the School Without Walls and the Chicago Freedom School project (also profiled on the following page), point towards how groups can unite to leverage resources for the more than 500,000 youth in the city of Chicago.

Meanwhile, the challenges facing young people in Chicago are daunting. Youth are threatened by gentrification, a privatizing school system, the school-to-jail pipeline, gang pressures, and minimal access to jobs. The systematic oppressions that impact Chicago neighborhood all take a heavy toll on young people. One major example of this is a phenomenon known as second- and third-generation incarceration which disproportionately impacts urban neighborhoods of color. As a result of the growing devastation caused by the US prison system, it is increasingly common for the children of the incarcerated to end up behind bars themselves. Furthermore, observers are declaring that a “generational apartheid” exists between today’s youth and their elders in many low-income urban neighborhoods of color. We must ask: How can youth contribute to social movements that fight for their families, their neighbors, and their city? How different would the situation look for young people if they were growing up in strong communities of struggle? Building on a powerful history of youth organizing in the city, the Chicago Freedom School, School Without Walls, and projects of a similar mind and heart are building answers to these questions. Rather than focusing on recruiting leaders from outside of marginalized communities, these initiatives recognize that movement actors must come from all sectors within those communities on the receiving end of oppression. The ability of these efforts to struggle together will create invaluable political space for Chicago’s emerging young leaders and set a powerful example for generations to come.

Forty years ago the Chicago Freedom Movement was born when the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (sclc) came to Chicago to work with the Coordinating Council of Community Organizations (ccco) and to put an end to slums in the city 2. Their fight for open housing marked a critical moment in Chicago’s political history, as movement builders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Al Raby successfully organized across race, class, geographic, and organizational boundaries. The Chicago Freedom Movement’s marches in Chicago’s all-white neighborhoods eventually pressured Richard J. Daley to change the direction of the city’s racist housing policy 3. Though decades have passed, Chicago is still being shaped by policies that are inherently and structurally oppressive. Private developers and government representatives at City Hall are implementing a vision for Chicago that does not include working class people or poor people of color. Our city is plagued by the widespread displacement of the poor from the urban core to the periphery, intense discrimination against immigrants moving here as a result of global economic shifts, and the mass incarceration of low-income people of color. These issues require that grassroots forces unite in order to hold Chicago’s mainstream leadership accountable, and that we begin to place strategic attention on those suburbs where countless families are forced to relocate. Today it is more important than ever to create bridges across race, class, community, organizational, and generational divisions.

Future generations of organizers in the Chicago area cannot accept the level of separation and segregation that has been put in place to divide today’s grassroots forces. Movement building efforts have the potential to create a region where social justice rather than segregation is the norm. From the Chicago Freedom Movement of the late 1960s to the liberatory education projects of today, Chicago has a long history of integrated struggle. What might become a true Freedom School movement, focusing on the development of young people while challenging the oppression that keeps grassroots forces divided, is an essential investment in the future of such struggle.

1 The term “non-profit industrial complex” is a term developed over two years ago at the INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence conference entitled “The Revolution Will Not Be Funded.”
2 For more information on the 40th Anniversary of the Chicago Freedom Movement, celebrated this summer, go to


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