In summer 2013, AFSC’s Seattle Community Justice Program held its 22nd Tyree Scott Freedom School, bringing together young adults ages 15-21 to discuss issues of institutional racism, systemic poverty, and the prison-industrial complex, and to learn organizing tools to tackle these issues.

In this essay, adult participant Elizabeth C. Brown recounts some of the uncomfortable, honest, and powerful conversations and moments shared among the participants during the eight days of Freedom School. 

I wasn’t sure what to expect as I pedaled up to Bethany Church in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Seattle to attend Tyree Scott Freedom School. As a graduate student and teacher at the University of Washington, I was familiar with the civil rights history of “freedom schools,” including the creation of freedom schools in Seattle during a 1966 public school boycott, but I was curious what a freedom school would look like in 2013.

Dustin Washington, director of the Community Justice Program at the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), and Marcel Purnell, Community Justice Program Associate and Coordinator for Youth Undoing Institutional Racism (YUIR), greeted me with smiles and hugs as I entered the church.

During the half hour before the school began, around 30 youth filtered in out of the hot July sun. Veteran participants caught up with each other over muffins and coffee, while newcomers sat expectantly within a circle of chairs set up for discussion.

Freedom School states that one of its main goals is to provide a “community-driven school,” and this was made immediately apparent as Dustin and Marcel greeted new participants to the school.

Newcomers were not merely names on a roster but welcomed as the children, friends, and siblings of activists and former Freedom School participants. After making phone calls to check on students who hadn’t yet shown up, Dustin and Marcel called everyone to the discussion circle to begin.         

Gateway to antiracist organizing

Dustin opened by introducing himself and giving a brief history of Tyree Scott Freedom School.

The freedom school movement is a legacy of the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Summer when hundreds of youth volunteers from across the U.S. traveled to Mississippi to register black voters.

As part of this effort, youth activists set up alternative schools to organize local communities, provide leadership training, and conduct classes in subjects relevant to students’ lives, such as black history, that had been suppressed by mainstream public school education.

In 2001, freedom school was revived in Seattle with curriculum and activities created by staff at AFSC adapting antiracist curriculum from The People’s Institute of Survival and Beyond. The school was named after Seattle antiracist labor activist Tyree Scott in 2003 to honor Scott’s powerful work for justice locally, internationally, and with AFSC.

The goal of Tyree Scott Freedom School is to train youth leaders with the confidence to “speak truth to power” in order to create positive change in their communities. The curriculum provides community-based leadership training in antiracist organizing to address issues relevant to the everyday lives of its students, including youth poverty, institutional racism, and “Eurocentric” schooling.

Freedom School is also a gateway to ongoing community organizing.

Dustin explained that he hopes students who go to Freedom School will decide to become involved with Youth Undoing Institutional Racism, a multiracial group of youth organizers that meets weekly to work against institutional racism.

Sparking this generation’s civil rights movement

Students listened to Dustin as a small air conditioner whirred against the growing heat of the day. After telling the story of Freedom School, Dustin opened the conversation by asking a question that cut quickly to what Freedom School is all about: How did students feel about the Trayvon Martin verdict?  Dustin Washington leads a discussion at the start of Freedom School

Students perked up and several hands were raised. The previous Saturday, George Zimmerman had been acquitted of murder charges in the highly publicized shooting of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old black teenager, based on Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law.

Protests had rippled across New York City, San Francisco, and Seattle against Florida’s racist criminal justice system. While Zimmerman carried a gun, Martin had been found with nothing but a pack of Skittles and a bottle of iced tea.

Students took turns responding to the question, discussing a parallel case in which a pregnant black woman had appealed to “Stand Your Ground” after firing a warning shot only to receive a prison sentence. All agreed that the verdict was “unfair,” but one student of color said he “didn’t know how to feel” about the case.

After several students had spoken, Dustin said that it is urgent for youth to “do something” about institutional racism. Civil rights organizing does not belong to a movement of the past but is vitally important to the present.

Dustin compared Trayvon Martin’s murder to the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black youth brutally beaten and shot to death on the accusation that he had talked inappropriately to a white woman. The acquittal of Till’s murderers had helped spark the civil rights movement.

“Trayvon Martin,” Dustin said, “is the Emmett Till of your generation.”

Going to the “growing edge”

For almost all students in the room, racism is not something abstract but a reality of everyday life. Most of the students identified as black, Asian or Pacific Islander, or Latino/a, and many had experienced living in poverty or having a friend or family member incarcerated.

When asked why it is “urgent to undo racism,” some students responded that it is important for national progress but many more cited the “pain,” violence, and social divisiveness, even among family members, that racism causes.

Dustin emphasized that taking action against racism requires targeting systematic or institutional forms of racism that perpetuate cycles of poverty and oppression and not through charity work confined to helping individuals.

To understand how institutional racism “works,” however, analysis must begin at the level of students’ personal experiences and observations.

To that end, Freedom School begins by teaching students how to conduct “power analysis” so they can connect experiences like the expulsion of classmates, firing of teachers, or police bullying with larger institutional forms of racism.

The critical analysis of racism undertaken at Freedom School requires, therefore, that students “speak their truth.” Freedom School’s discussion-based approach depends on consistent participation and honesty during discussion, even when it is difficult, in order to access the “growing edge” where learning and analysis take place.

Dustin, Marcel, and YUIR youth leaders do not “teach” so much as facilitate discussions and activities that spark active critical analysis.

Next, read part II: "Seeing how racism and poverty play out in our own lives”