This past summer was a game-changer for me. After student teaching ended this past spring, I was left feeling burnt out, exhausted and questioning whether or not my desire to be a teacher, at least for a short period of time, was a challenge I was ready to take head on. However, all of that changed when I decided to accept the position this summer as a “Freedom servant leader intern” with the Freedom Schools program. Participating as a lead instructor for a group of six graders was far from easy, but I believe it was through the lessons my scholars (what we call students in the Freedom School program) taught me daily and the desire to see them overcome obstacles in their own lives that reminded me why I chose this profession in the first place: to guide youth in the process of realizing their full potential.
So what was this program that reignited my passion for teaching you may ask? “Freedom School” is part of a historical legacy of summer school programs that were born out of the civil rights movement, more specifically from a project known as “Freedom Summer”. In 1964 “Freedom Summer”, more formerly known as the “Mississippi Freedom Summer Project”, was instrumental in the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as it focused on engaging the African-American community, and more specifically the youth, in social action activities with a focus on empowerment through literacy. In 1992, this movement was rekindled once again by the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, Marian Wright Edelman. News of the impact this summer program was having on youth quickly spread. Today this program serves youth all across the nation during the summer months. The program has a holistic approach, similar to the original Freedom Schools model, that incorporates 6 key features: high quality academic enrichment, family involvement, social action, intergenerational servant leadership development, and overall health and wellness.
While the majority of youth served in this summer program are predominately African-American, the Freedom School site I worked at this past summer was primarily with Latino/a youth from the East side and West side of St. Paul. It would be impossible to capture everything I learned over the course of the six weeks with my scholars, but I tried to summarize some of the key points I learned this summer.
Top things learned from Freedom School…
6. The movement is always bigger than you
Throughout the summer it was very easy for me to see the difficulties I was facing within my class and feel discouraged about it. Something that was essential to me to keep pressing forward was learning how to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. At the risk of coming across as too much of a Harry Potter fanatic, something that reminded me of this struggle was Harry’s remarks throughout the series about how bad he feels letting other people sacrifice themselves for him. At one point near the end of the series Ron stops Harry mid-sentence and says “Really, you think this is all about you? This is much bigger than you mate!”
By taking a step back, like Harry had to do, I was able to see things from a birds-eye view rather than my own limited perspective. I was able to see that the work I was doing was part of a much larger movement made up of educators and community activists across the country. All of the little “luchas” (fights/struggles) with guiding my students through recognizing the barriers stacked against them and what action they could take to overcome them was part of a much greater “lucha”, one fighting for the equality of all people in this country. It was the hard, but necessary work of planting seeds in the hopes that they would begin to grow. Archbishop Oscar Romero speaks to this well in his famous prayer “Prophets of a Future Not Our Own” saying, “This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water the seeds already planted knowing that they hold future promise.” This is what being an educator is all about.
5. Education is the key to empowerment~“Education not deportation”
“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”—Paulo Freire
Throughout the summer I was constantly trying to push my scholars on the importance of getting an education. The odds were really against many of students. The majority of them came from low-income backgrounds and all of them either knew someone in their family who was undocumented or were themselves undocumented. Each week I would choose a Latino or Latina to be our “Hall of Fame” person, someone who was making a difference in the Latino community, or the broader community at large. Our last week together I chose a group of four students who walked 1,500 miles from Miami, FL to Washington D.C. in what they called the “Trail of Dreams” in support of the passage of the DREAM Act, a bill that would allow a path to citizenship for undocumented youth furthering their education. I had showed them quite a few websites and videos dealing with immigration reform and I was constantly trying to engage them in conversations about immigration and race. Oftentimes I felt my promptings were futile and that they really could not care less, despite my efforts. However, there were several times throughout the summer that I realized this was not the case. They really did care. Actually, they cared quite a lot. They just couldn’t always communicate it in the most appropriate ways.
This particular day when I had them browsing a website http://trail2010.org/ about the “Trail of DREAMers” some of my scholars were actually showing enthusiasm about getting involved. I walked around and saw some of them signing up to be on an email update list from the DREAMers. But, my favorite moment happened when two of the girls from the group started chanting a slogan they heard from a short video clip on the website that said “education, not deportation!”. I couldn’t get them to stop; they really wanted to keep chanting. Even when it was time to do silent reading they were still going at it. It was probably one of the best reasons a teacher could ever hope for in trying to quiet down his/her students. After several minutes of chanting at the top of their lungs I was able to express to them how exciting it was that they wanted to chant this, but their timing was a bit off. At the end of Freedom School for our finale program they chanted this cheer for the parents, and were able to go full-force with their volume 🙂
4. Challenging systems/beliefs that stand against empowerment is necessary to have critical discussion on race, gender, etc.
“The oppressed, having internalized the image of the oppressor and adopted his guidelines, are fearful of freedom.”—Paulo Freire
One of the most important parts of the Freedom School program is the social action piece. Before the students could really take action on anything I realized that it was necessary for them to reflect on the different kinds of labels society has placed on them as Latino/a youth with varying immigration statuses. Having candid discussions about what it means/feels like when someone calls you a “border hopper” or what it means to be a “man” in our society (in control, aggressive, etc.) was something that we tried to do on a regular basis. Often times my students would say things like “why do we always have to talk about race?” At first it was something that made them very uncomfortable, but as the summer progressed I could see them engaging more and more in these discussions. Through these discussions with my scholars I realized that recognizing internalized oppression in all its forms is necessary in order to become truly empowered. If the students don’t feel comfortable discussing the ways in which society has wrongly labeled them and suppressed their voices, then there is no hope for them being able to overcome them.
3. Disempowered people disempower others
Author and activist Alice Walker once said “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any”. I remember several times one of my scholars who was always known as the 6th grade trouble maker argued with me candidly whenever I would bring up the importance the using your voice to be an advocate “But, Miss N we are just kids..nobody cares what we have to say, nobody ever listens to us!” This scholar didn’t believe he had the power to change anything because from his life experience no one listened to him or others with a background to him. The Department of Homeland Security didn’t listen to him during the countless raids they had ICE conduct in his ‘hood. Even the president it seemed had let him and his community down, promising immigration reform by the end of the year while deporting more immigrants on record than any other president in U.S. history. So, why would he think anyone would listen to him? His lack of empowerment, due to valid life experiences, made it easier for him to pick on others and reinforce the stereotype that because he was Mexican and came from a low-income background that he wouldn’t amount to anything. I can’t tell you how many times I heard comments from my scholars like, “Miss N, we are going to be cholos”(slang for Mexican gangsters) or “Miss N we aren’t going to college so why do you keep talking like we are?” or “Nobody in my family has made it through college…Mexicans really must be the dumbest minorities out there”. As disheartening as it was to hear this, it reminded me how many negative messages were getting sent my kids’ way, and how vital it was for me to counter that through open dialogue in class.
At the same I was also reminded that just as disempowered people more easily disempower others, empowered people can influence, inspire and empower others. For example, one day I decided to show the scholars how easy it was to call Congress and tell them to support immigration reform. I had been telling them for awhile how easy it was and that day was an important call-in day for the bill. Within 2 minutes I had called my representative, said a brief statement urging my representative to support the bill, and had ended the call. A few of the students were absolutely shocked. I remember one in particular responded right away saying “No way, I didn’t know you could just call them like that!!”. I replied, “Well, they work for you so all of you have the right to tell them if you don’t like how they are doing things”. I gave them the call-in number to reach MN representatives and told them to spread the word to their friends and family too. I’ll never know for sure whether they decided to make calls on their own after that, but one things for sure. They definitely knew what number to call if they ever decided that wanted to raise their voice.
2. By revealing your own pains and struggles you open up space for others to share their stories
“When you stand and share your story in an empowering way, your story will heal you and your story will heal somebody else”—Iyanla Vanzant
My first week before I started Freedom School, I wondered how I would be received by the students. I was a white female from an upper-middle class background. Yes, I had spent time in the Latino community in the cities, but I hadn’t the slightest idea what it meant to grow up in fear of “la migra” (slang for ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement). What I learned right away was that guilt will not get you anywhere in furthering dialogue or creating a safe space for your students either. Don’t be afraid to own up to your own role in the system. If the students can’t see how you’ve been affected by it then they are much less likely to believe in it or question it themselves. Show how you have struggled with it and share your personal struggles and current challenges you face. Youth need to see that discussions about race, gender, class, etc. aren’t just a one-time convo, but an ongoing exploration throughout your life that needs to happen internally as well as externally. By being open about my background from day one I was able to open up the space for more authentic dialogue to take place and in doing this I was able to turn the tables on them to help them realize that not all white people are against the struggles they face, that some of us want to try to understand the struggles they face and join in solidarity with them—even though we will always have privilege with us. As Paulo Freire says “I cannot be a teacher without exposing who I am”. As I exposed more of my life and struggles with my students, they felt more open sharing the struggles they faced as well.
“My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together”.–Desmond Tutu
The most important lesson I learned working with my sixth graders this summer was that solidarity is love. While my attempts this summer to try to understand my students, where they come from, and the struggles they face was far from perfect, I look to the example of Christ as the perfect example of someone who was with and for the most marginalized of his day. When I reflect on the life of Christ I can really see that “conversion” is all about moving from a place of otherness to oneness with those you once saw as “the other”. My favorite moment this summer left me reflecting on the profound realization of what solidarity is and what it can look like.
On this day in particular it was the national social action day for the Freedom Schools program. I led some workshops with the scholars on how to write letters to legislatures about immigration reform and helped them brainstorm ideas. As I was walking around one of my scholars asked “Miss N do you have any family members that are undocumented?” I replied “No, not blood-relatives but there are people that I consider part of my family now that are undocumented, so yes”. Then, a different scholar turned to me and he asked excitedly “Hey, Miss N does that mean you consider us part of your family?” I replied “Of course, I care about all of you! Somos familia (We are family). A big grin spread across his face. It was little moments like that that left a profound impact on me.
This year as a first-year teacher I hope I can remember why I do what I do. I do not teach to hear my own voice or to be in a leadership role as a means to itself. I lead to serve; I lead to lend my voice to others and to give them the platform on which they can realize their full potential.
I am reminded by the words of Mother Teresa everyday as I get up and go to work that God’s power is not in doing extravagant things, but in the small, and often mundane tasks of everyday life. Every time I reminded a student “si, se puede” (yes, you can) or every time I sat down to read with a struggling student one-on-one or had to wait in the copy room for an hour before class just to make sure everything was set, I was trying my best to do each task with love. So in the words of the Mother I will teach: “Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies”