Freedom Schools with the Children’s Defense Fund
The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) Freedom Schools program is a summer literacy program that mostly, but not exclusively, serves children of color in low-income communities. The program seeks to instill the love of reading and prevent summer learning loss in participants through generating more positive attitudes toward education and increasing self-esteem. The mission of the Children’s Defense Fund is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start, and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. Freedom Schools embodies this mission while also focusing on providing high-quality academic enrichment, parent and family involvement, social action and civic engagement, intergenerational servant leadership, nutrition, and health – both physical and mental health.
The Freedom Schools Program was created in 1995 by Marian Wright Edelman, the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund and CDF’s Black Community Crusade for Children (BCCC) campaign. Their goal, and the continued goal of Freedom Schools today, is to use the program as a way of transforming the vision of education in the United States. The program is deeply rooted in the Civil Rights Movement; it is modeled after the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project of 1964, which was organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Council of Confederated Organizations (COFO).
I have continued to come back to Freedom School year after year because I believe it provides an invaluable service to children who may otherwise fall through the cracks.
The Freedom Summer Project was a major political action program designed to engage white and black students and community volunteers in a myriad of activities, with the goal of ensuring basic citizenship rights for all residents of the state of Mississippi – most importantly, the right to vote. Freedom Schools in 1964, much like today, were held at sites like churches and offered black children and teenagers a richer educational experience by providing a humanities-based curriculum that emphasized English, reading instruction, foreign languages, art, creative writing, and general math and science.
I began working with the Freedom Schools program in the summer of 2010 in Memphis, TN. As a graduating senior from college, I was looking for a short-term summer opportunity that would prolong my stay in Memphis as I prepared to move to Richmond, VA, in the fall to pursue my Master of Divinity degree at Union Presbyterian Seminary. My best friend came across an email looking for college students to apply for a new summer reading program being sponsored by the Memphis Urban League. She passed it along, thinking it would be a great fit for me since I liked children and loved reading. That summer I became a Servant Leader Intern for Level III (grades 6-8) students.
Since that first summer, I have been working with Freedom Schools for five years; the summer of 2015 will be my sixth. I have served as a Servant Leader Intern for Level III for three years, a Site Coordinator for two years, and this summer will be my fourth and final year as an Ella Baker Trainer. I have continued to come back to the program year after year because I believe it provides an invaluable service to children in communities who may otherwise fall through the cracks.
Many students who come to us do not like reading because they find it hard to connect the stories and characters in the books they are assigned to their own lives and experiences.
Many students (called ‘scholars’ in the program) who come to us do not like reading because they find it hard to connect the stories and characters in the books they are assigned to their own lives and experiences. Recognizing this reality, the books used in the Integrated Reading Curriculum (IRC) feature minority characters and are written and illustrated by persons of color.
The program not only helps scholars maintain the skills that they have learned in the school year, but it also provides an atmosphere that appeals to multiple learning styles and teaches participants the value of civic engagement. The Freedom Schools Program reinforces positive self-image through the overarching theme I Can Make A Difference that, over six weeks, builds their awareness of the ways they can enact change in themselves, their families, their communities, their country, and the world. All of this is work is deeply infused with the methodology of hope, education, and action.
Serving with the Freedom Schools program has been a gift to me in many major ways. As I work my way through my own post-secondary education, it has been a refuge to remind me why I am pursuing my PhD. The Freedom Schools program allows me to connect deeply with communities and children who, in many cases, do not know anyone with a college degree, let alone someone who has pursued education as far as I have.
At Freedom Schools, you really never know what sorts of baggage the students will bring when they walk in your door each day.
I have had the opportunity to be more than a teacher; I have been a mentor, a role model, a mother figure, and a confidant, not only to the scholars that I serve but also to the Servant Leader Interns that I have trained during my years with the program. I have seen some of my interns become trainers and fall in love with this program as much as I have. I have been deeply humbled watching the way people can grow – and witnessing my own growth as well. I’ve been able to share my own love of reading and of African American history, to instill hope in children for possibilities that may never before have seemed plausible, and to be in relationship with others who are working to enact change by advocating for those who are not always able to speak for themselves.
One of my fondest memories from Freedom Schools took place during my second year as a Servant Leader Intern in Memphis. I had the most unique and wonderful group that year, some of whom had been with the program the previous year. It was a summer that profoundly changed me as a person because of the challenging situations my scholars were dealing with.
At Freedom Schools, you really never know what sorts of baggage the students will bring when they walk in your door each day. It is easy to get attached, and that summer was the first time that I felt myself begin to see myself in a mothering role with my students. As I accompanied them through the summer, I watched them grow, mature, hurt, and work through things that plagued them. By the sixth week, my scholars had done some of the best work I have seen in my entire time working with the program.
Unbeknownst to me, one of the students in the other level-three class had described me as her role model.
One day that summer, the students were working on an activity that required them to write about their role models. As I walked around from group to group, checking their progress and talking with them while they worked, one group asked me, “Miss Sharde’, what if you are our role model?” Unbeknownst to me, one of the students in the other level-three class had described me as her role model. On another day that week, the scholars constructed an acrostic poem for the word FREEDOM that was so profound that I have held on to it to this day.
As a person of faith – and a member of the clergy – my life is deeply committed to the mandate to love and serve. Mrs. Edelman once said that service is the rent that we pay for living. In Ephesians 4:1 the author implores the church at Ephesus, “to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called.” These two ‘charges’ resonate deeply within me; they point me back to the example of my grandmother, who lives her life in service to others.
I believe that doing this work – the work of Freedom Schools and justice in education – is one opportunity that God has offered me to ‘pay my rent’. It is my chance to live into the call to serve all of God’s children. It is not enough for me to proclaim the Word with my voice; my work and my actions must speak more loudly than my voice ever could. It is not enough for me to merely proclaim the Word with my voice, but I must also speak with my actions.
We have to work to pay the rent. Actively seeking justice in public education is one way I pay my ‘rent for living’.
AUTHOR BIO: Sharde’ Chapman is a PhD student studying African American Religion at Rice University in Houston, TX. In addition to working with the Children’s Defense Fund, she is a minister in the Baptist Church and former moderator for PC(USA)’s Racial Ethnic Young Women Together (REYWT). For more information on CDF or the Freedom Schools program: childrensdefense.org