Freedom Project History
Founded in 1998 by a group of parents, students, and teachers, the Freedom Project was created to improve education and develop leadership among young people in Sunflower County. The founders were frustrated with the low academic achievement, high drop-out rates, and other problems in the local schools. They looked to the Freedom Schools of the 1960s for a model of motivational education. They developed an academic program that used the history and spirit of the 1960s freedom struggle to inspire young people to become capable and compassionate leaders in their communities.
The Freedom Project began slowly, initially offering a five-week, full-day academic enrichment program to 30 middle school students in the summer of 1999. Held at Mississippi Delta Community College in Moorhead, that first Freedom School was such a success that the parents and grandparents on our board of directors demanded that it be expanded for summer 2000. In early June 2000, we began a seven-week program with more than 50 middle schoolers, including 20 who had participated in the first summer; the next year, we continued to expand.
After Freedom School 2001, the Freedom Project staff, students, and directors began to reassess the future. We recognized our limitations. No matter how intensive the Freedom School was, it remained a summer program; until we provided such programs year-round, our students would continue to face overwhelming obstacles without enough support and guidance. We decided to make a long-term, year-round commitment to excellence with the Freedom Fellowship.
Beginning in 2002, the Freedom School became the cornerstone of the year-round Freedom Fellowship, including weekday study sessions, Saturday School, and educational field trips. This fellowship will insure that all of our students graduate from high school on time and enter college by providing academic enrichment, mentoring, community service, and martial arts training all year long. Through the fellowship, our students will become recognized, respected young leaders whose efforts will inspire positive changes in their schools and communities.
SNCC and the First Freedom Schools
The idea for the Sunflower County Freedom Project has its roots in the 1960s freedom struggle. When you joined the Freedom Project, you followed a path pioneered by civil rights workers during Freedom Summer of 1964. That summer, civil rights workers all across Mississippi opened up Freedom Schools, offering academic activities for children during the day and political education classes for adults at night. These education centers were a remarkable, though short-lived, effort to give black Mississippians the educational tools they needed to change their lives. The schools contributed to a larger movement that ultimately overcame legal segregation.
The original Freedom Schools were organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Beginning in 1961, SNCC worked to get black Mississippians registered to vote, but they faced overwhelming opposition from state and local authorities. Mississippi was the most segregated state in the nation, and many people believed that the state would never change as long as it remained isolated from the rest of America. If other Americans only knew what was really happening in Mississippi, SNCC workers believed, then they would join the fight against segregation.
To focus the nation’s attention on Mississippi, SNCC organized Freedom Summer in 1964. Hundreds of volunteer college students, white and black, came to Mississippi from all over the country. Many of these volunteers served as teachers in Freedom Schools, which were a major part of the summer program. SNCC activists established the Freedom Schools because they believed in the power of education to transform communities. SNCC wanted to create an alternative to the segregated school system that failed to give blacks a meaningful education.
To make a Freedom School education meaningful, SNCC devised a curriculum specifically for black Mississippians. Freedom School teachers emphasized Black History, political education, and citizenship to encourage students to question the system of oppression that kept them poor and isolated. They taught practical skills such as typing, as well as subjects like French that would broaden their educational horizons beyond Mississippi. Throughout the summer, teachers linked what students learned in the classroom to the world in which they lived. The main goal of education according to the Freedom School model was to get people to think for themselves so they could change their own lives.
Freedom Schools were set up in both Indianola and Ruleville. Volunteers stayed with local families, often facing harassment and physical attacks from local whites, but both schools remained upon through the summer. At the end of the summer, most Freedom Schools were shut down as volunteers returned home. Civil rights activists continued to organize local people, and the next several years saw massive change in Sunflower County. Legal segregation collapsed, and schools, politics, and businesses were opened to all races.
Sunflower County in the Civil Rights Movement
Sunflower County holds a unique place in the history of the civil rights movement because it was the home of both Fannie Lou Hamer, the legendary civil rights leader, and Senator James O. Eastland, the spiritual leader of the segregationists. For many people across the country, these two Sunflower County residents represented the moral choices of the movement, symbolizing the forces of good and evil in the struggle.
After World War II, black Mississippians became more aggressive about civil rights. Following local leaders such as Amzie Moore in Cleveland, Aaron Henry in Clarksdale, and Medgar Evers in Jackson, blacks began to press for voting rights, equal education, and an end to segregation. But Sunflower County was a “tough” county ruled by powerful planters such as Senator Eastland, and change came slowly. Not until the early 1960s were civil rights workers able to make progress.
In 1962, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) began to organize in Sunflower County. SNCC worker Charles McLaurin, a native Mississippian and founding member of the Freedom Project, traveled the rural backroads to get people to register to vote. One such person was Ruleville sharecropper named Fannie Lou Hamer. In August 1962, she and more than a dozen other blacks went to the courthouse in Indianola to register, but they were denied. That night, Hamer’s boss confronted her and told her to forget about voting, but Hamer defended her actions. She was evicted the next day and began working full-time for civil rights.
Hamer became a leading figure in the civil rights movement. She encouraged SNCC to pursue Freedom Summer in 1964, when college students from across the country came to Mississippi to help blacks register to vote. In Sunflower County, workers established Freedom Schools in Indianola and Ruleville. At Freedom Schools, civil rights workers held summer school for children during the day and offered citizenship classes for adults at night. Though the schools were temporary, they helped inspire people to work for change in their communities.
Sunflower County schools were not integrated until 1965, after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 tied federal funding to desegregation. The first black students to attend formerly all-white schools in the county were the eight children of Mae Bertha Carter, whose incredible story is recounted in Silver Rights and helped inspire the Freedom Project play, “Thirty Years From Now.” Despite threats and harassment, the Carter children paved the way for other black students to attend public schools, even though the schools in Sunflower and other rural towns were not integrated until the 1969-1970 school year. Once they realized the black students were not going to be intimidated out of the schools, white families organized private academies for their children. To this day, these academies remain more than 95 percent white and cater to nearly all white children in the county.
The Freedom Project Way: LEAD
Like SNCC, the Freedom Project believes that education is the seed of freedom. If you do not have a strong education, then you will be as powerless and isolated as your sharecropping ancestors were in the twentieth century. But with a serious education, you will have the freedom to make informed choices about your futures. You will have the academic and spiritual power to take advantage of opportunities that arise, or to create opportunities for yourself. And ultimately that it is what we hope to instill in you and the rest of the Freedom Fellows: a sense of your own power. But book learning alone is not enough—you must become a leader through Love, Education, Action, and Discipline. You must never forget the Commitment to LEAD that you signed upon joining the Fellowship.
1. I commit to LOVE.
a. I will love and respect myself, my teachers, and other Freedom Fellows.
b. I will consider the consequences of my actions as they affect the Freedom
Fellowship and future Freedom Fellows.
2. I commit to EDUCATION.
a. I will attend at least one weekday study session with the Freedom Project every
week and I will attend Saturday Freedom School every time it is offered. I
will participate in the Freedom Fellowship’s annual summer enrichment
b. I will have my parents and teachers sign all necessary papers for the Freedom
c. I will do everything in my power to excel academically. I will assign myself
homework even if my teachers do not give me any, and I will do it in a TV-
3. I commit to personal and social ACTION.
a. I will dress appropriately, participate in class every day, and bring all
necessary materials to school and all Freedom Fellowship activities.
b. I will participate in community service projects and field trips as part of the
c. I will do everything in my power to represent the Freedom Fellowship well.
4. I commit to Freedom Fellowship DISCIPLINE.
a. I will not curse, fight, or engage in any disrespectful behavior. I understand
that such behavior will lead to my losing the privilege of being a Freedom
b. I will never use my martial arts training in an aggressive way. I will solve
c. I will do everything in my power to show self-control and make the Freedom
Fellowship the best program it can be.
May 18, 2005
Reading your materials on The Freedom Project in Sunflower County was, for me, a dissociating experience. I found the accounts of the Project inspiring and discouraging at once—both bold and overcautious, enlivening and enervating, promising and pessimistic. I was divided, ambivalent, and I’ll try here to begin to sort out those discordant reactions.
Your project claims the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s as progenitor, and specifically the Freedom Schools that came to life in Mississippi during Freedom Summer, 1964. The Freedom Project notes that in the early 1960s activists from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) “established the Freedom Schools because they believed in the power of education to transform communities,” and that they sought “to encourage students to question the system of oppression that kept them poor and isolated.” The original “Prospectus for a Summer Freedom School Program,” written by Charlie Cobb in 1963, claimed that while the Black children of Mississippi were deprived of many things, the fundamental injury was “a complete absence of academic freedom, and students are forced to live in an environment that is geared to squashing intellectual curiosity, and different thinking.” Cobb concluded that, “If we are concerned with breaking the power structure, then we have to be concerned with building up our own institutions to replace the old, unjust, decadent ones which make up the existing power structure.”
This is a proud lineage to be sure, a heritage worth claiming. And, of course, an inspirational moment to celebrate. But perhaps this is where I begin to lose the thread of your efforts, for celebration is not emulation. SNCC organizers understood that all education is political, that there is no such thing as a neutral education. Education stands for something and against something else. Do you think this makes sense? SNCC was educating for the uprooting of an oppressive system, and they said so.
The curriculum included an academic component as well as arts, recreation, and cultural activities, but the core was what they called the “Citizenship Curriculum,” a sustained inquiry into politics and society. How prominent was this core aspect? In the published version, the academic part takes up two pages, the citizenship section twenty-five pages.
The “Citizenship Curriculum” is a question-asking, problem-posing affair:
1. Why are we (teachers, students) in Freedom Schools?
2. What is the Freedom Movement?
3. What alternatives does the Freedom Movement offer us?
These were called the “Basic Set of Questions,” followed by “The Secondary Set of Questions”:
1. What does the majority culture have that we want?
2. What does the majority culture have that we don’t want?
3. What do we have that we want to keep?
Note the use of “we” in this context—this is consciously intended to build a sense of solidarity, a need for systemic change, and to oppose the notion that individual achievement and private accumulation is by itself the ultimate goal.
The Sunflower County Freedom Project looks to the original Freedom Schools as “a model of motivational education”; they offer “an academic program that used the history and spirit of the 1960s freedom struggle to inspire young people to become capable and compassionate leaders in the communities.” Worthy goals perhaps, but if the original Freedom Schools had followed that logic, they would have been isolated from any larger social movements or any critical and transformative goals, urging students to conform to the existing social order and drawing inspiration, not from the wrongs apparent in front of their eyes, nor from social and political upheaval swirling around them, but from looking backward at, for example, post-Civil War Reconstruction.
The 1964 Freedom School Curriculum was based on dialogue—teachers listened, asked questions, assumed that their students were the real experts on their own lives: Why? What’s the problem? What’s the evidence? How do you know? Is that fair or right? What are you going to do about it? It was a pedagogy of lived experience with the goal of allowing people to collectively question and then challenge their circumstances and situations.
The problems we face today are unique in some ways, but perhaps we can learn from the stance of the Movement as it encouraged students (including community members) to come together to identify obstacles to their full humanity, to examine the world—social, political, cultural, historical, and even economic dimensions—naming those aspects in need of repair, and to mobilize to act on behalf of what their new found knowledge demands.
I can see the academic emphasis in your project, Chris, but where is the social action aspect? I can see the deep desire for individuals to better themselves through learning, but where is the naming of a system that stands in the way?
Clearly these reactions based simply on my reading of some of your materials, are fragmented, incomplete, contingent. They are but a beginning, a prelude to an introduction, and I’m neither completely confident in nor committed to them as conclusions. I look forward, then, to hearing back from you, hoping that you can correct my ignorance, deepen and reshape my understanding, and also tell me if any of what I’ve written makes sense to you. I hope some day to visit with you in Chicago, or best of all, to come and see your work in Mississippi. Mostly I hope you continue to fight the good fight, to trudge toward progress.
Thank you for a thoughtful critique of our program and a thought-provoking assessment of what the Sunflower County Freedom Project has been endeavoring to do for the past half dozen years or so. As I think about how to respond to your ideas, I recognize both the strengths and weaknesses of our organization, and other community-based organizations elsewhere, as well as the opportunities and limitations of the context in which we operate. I offer in response some thoughts on what “freedom” means at the SCFP.
You are right to note that the SCFP celebrates and takes inspiration from the civil rights movement in general and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in particular. It is inspirational, something worth celebrating for sure. We want our kids to know the whos and the whats and, most importantly, the whys of the movement. We want our young people to hear the voices of older people who made the movement real, people in their own communities and their own families who took risks and hastened revolutionary changes in Sunflower County and the rest of Mississippi. We want them to understand the obstacles that people in the movement faced and to recognize that the movement’s success was not foreordained but required patient, often dangerous, usually tedious work. Hence, the history of the movement is an important theme in our curriculum. During their first summer in the program, students read Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi, they conduct oral history interviews with community members involved in the movement, and they take a trip to visit key sites such as Selma, Montgomery, Birmingham, and Memphis. Students in our Media Production class are currently in the process of planning and creating an interactive web site that will include videotaped interviews, a movement map, and a narrative history of the struggle in Sunflower County. Our drama troupe has a collection of four original plays about the Mississippi movement, including plays about Fannie Lou Hamer, Emmett Till, and school integration.
But the knowledge of the history is just a beginning, a way to give kids a vocabulary of freedom and an appreciation of the movement’s impact. We want our kids to know about the struggles that came before them not so that they can spout names and dates but so that they can be inspired to make changes in their own lives and communities today. While the first-year summer curriculum does indeed emphasize the movement, we are not “all freedom all the time.” We do not hope to recreate the original Freedom Schools, which arose in response to a specific set of circumstances, nor do we seek only to look backward at a bygone era. Instead, we seek to extend the movement, to build upon its successes, to take advantage of the opportunities it created.
We operate in a different context than the original Freedom Schools. Today, there is no unified, discernible mass social movement that has captured the national imagination; without vivid enemies such as Bull Connor or James Eastland, there is less clarity about whom or what to fight; there are any number of worthy causes, from environmentalism to AIDS prevention, that demand our attention. In such a context, the SCFP can appear to be one exceedingly small, community-based organization in one rural county, isolated from other organizations and focused on apolitical academics.
Despite the lack of a mass movement, however, the SCFP is indeed part of a political effort to change the nature of education in this country. Along with national organizations such as Teach for America, nationwide programs such as Bob Moses’ Algebra Project, and local such as the Knowledge is Power Program schools, we seek to use education as a lever of social change, a means of leveling the playing field to give all children a real chance to achieve their version of success.
Education, as you note, can never be neutral, and we use it to promote a particular vision of the world, a world where citizens have the educational foundation necessary to think freely, participate politically, advocate for themselves, and make informed decisions about the course of their lives. We do this through an intensive focus on academics year-round—after-school study sessions, weekend classes, summer school.
The core of our academic program is reading. In each of the six years that students are in our program, they read five novels from a book list designed both to expose them to some of the best literature in the English language and to get them to question the assumptions of their society and their lives. First and second year students read books such as George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart; third and fourth years read, among other books, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun; fifth and sixth years read from a list that includes The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Shakespeare’s Macbeth. In addition to reading, we focus on the other two “Rs” – ‘riting and ‘rithmetic – and we offer project-based classes such as public speaking and media production.
Our writing class emphasizes current events – students debate issues from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to affirmative action, and they analyze news articles, political cartoons, and televised debates. Far from being “backward-looking,” our kids spend more time discussing Baghdad than Selma.
The teaching methods we use in these classes are similar to those you described from the original Freedom Schools – an emphasis on dialogue and discussion (though with a stronger writing component), constant Socratic questioning, consistent comparisons and contrasts to students’ lived experience. This approach forces students not only to read and comprehend the books or news articles – essential academic skills – but also to relate the material to themselves and their everyday lives.
So we are for using education to raise academic achievement and build students’ critical thinking skills, but what are we against? Sadly, we are against the same kind of educational culture that Charlie Cobb wrote about and that still reigns dominant in the Mississippi Delta and elsewhere in America, one characterized by “a complete absence of academic freedom,” where “students are forced to live in an environment that is geared to squashing intellectual curiosity, and different thinking.” As Cobb noted, the segregated culture of Mississippi in the 1960s extended far beyond simply the school system and included everything from television to newspapers to politics, all of which sought to prepare young black students for a second-class life. Similarly, the SCFP challenges a larger culture that patronizes black children and encourages them to accept and even seek out limited achievement.
But our students’ lived experience reveals that the nature of the culture against which they must struggle has changed markedly. It is no longer the Ku Klux Klan or the Citizens Council that are killing black youth – it is the Gangsta Disciples and other gangs that have infiltrated black neighborhoods, rural and urban. It is no longer just racist white school officials who seek to limit black academic success – black superintendents, principals, and teachers often run schools that tolerate, rationalize, and even promote low achievement among black students. It is no longer a segregated admissions policy that keeps black kids out of college – it is students’ woeful under-preparation, which is itself a product both of poor public schools and a negative peer culture.
What is this culture? It is a culture of complacency and consumerism, one that glorifies anti-intellectualism and mocks academic achievement. Black students who push themselves academically face a barrage of negative attacks on their motives, their abilities, and their racial sincerity. In the halls of our students’ schools, speaking intelligently can elicit derisive laughter, expanding your vocabulary often evokes quizzical stares, and taking academics seriously may brand you as “acting white.” The fact that these charges come from fellow black students (and even adults!) only makes the struggle more difficult because any challenge to them brings more charges of race betrayal.
Where is the social action, you ask? In a world that consistently expects black students to do poorly, academic achievement is social action. Giving kids solid academic skills is promoting social change, because academically capable, socially conscious, and mentally disciplined young people are what our communities need to effect long-term change. If poor black children in Mississippi ever hope to wield power effectively, then they must be educationally equipped to do so, both in a narrow academic sense – they need to be able to comprehend what they read, write clearly and coherently, speak intelligently, and use math well
– and in a broad psychological sense – they must be willing and able to think differently, challenge conventional wisdom, and make intelligent choices. That is what the SCFP is about.
The SCFP is a small but sustained effort to create the leadership base for lasting change. The original Freedom Schools were extraordinary, precisely because they were one piece of a larger movement that ultimately dismantled Jim Crow and paved the way to legal equality. But they were also, we must remember, extraordinarily short-lived — a few schools managed to live on through the summer of 1965, but not beyond that. We are still here long after our first summer, and we follow kids through ups and downs of the school year and their school careers. We are doing the tedious “spadework” akin to organizing. It may not be glamorous, perhaps, but it is necessary.
June 6, 2005
Let me first try to stipulate and embrace our areas of agreement, and use the occasion, then, to move on to what might remain of our disagreements (or perhaps merely my deeper misunderstandings, gaps, or ignorances). I’m thinking of our continuing conversation as a pedagogical opportunity in the best sense: a gesture of speaking with the possibility of being heard while simultaneously listening with the certainty of being changed.
* * *
I agree that the civil rights movement in general and SNCC in particular provide important lessons and powerful inspiration for those of us engaged in struggles for freedom and justice today. Just what those lessons are and how they might instruct us in our contemporary contexts is, however, necessarily contested space—the movement itself was, after all, contentious and conflicted, and while the official story is often sanitized and defanged, history always speaks to us with a thousand voices. We can try to sort some of this out further on, but, yes, developing “a vocabulary of freedom” is an excellent way to put it.
It’s also true that the work of organizing (and teaching) is mostly patient, step-by-step, and day-by-day—in fact the most valuable work of the world is common as mud, its deepest satisfactions discovered in the dailiness of its enactment, the discipline of digging in and doing, the occasional flash of unanticipated leaps forward. In any case glamour is neither a goal nor a particularly favorable circumstance in most cases, but rather an affliction attached to some good work after the myth-makers and the icon-builders have got hold of it.
I agree that while the children of poor and disadvantaged or oppressed communities—whether in the Mississippi Delta, the west side of Chicago, the South Bronx, or the Navajo Nation—are deprived of many things (from decent facilities and adequate educational resources to full access to the larger community as a site of learning and growth) the most profound loss is the deprivation of the right to think. The assault on thinking—on being able to look at the world through one’s own eyes, to name it, to decide for oneself what is fair and just and true, to question one’s circumstances, to wonder about alternatives—is the deepest and most lasting injury.
And I admire what I understand to be the core of your academic program. Reading important books, conversation with committed and passionate teachers, writing and speaking, comparing and contrasting—all of this strikes me as necessary and valuable. Academic achievement is a high and worthy goal.
* * *
That said, I don’t think that academic achievement is social action, nor that giving kids solid academic skills is in itself promoting social change. In other words, while academic skills and achievement may be an indisputable good, it doesn’t follow automatically that these are examples of the struggle toward social justice. It depends.
For one thing, this implies a theory of social change that is a bit anemic and, I think, quite limited. For another, we have before us example after example of academically talented people who do terrible things in the world. In an earlier time Henry Kissinger was a poster boy of sorts for an intellectual giant who was at once a moral midget, a big brain with a shriveled heart. And today we have the touching stories of Condoleeza Rice, Colin Powell, Clarence Thomas, and Alberto Gonzales, each a story of humble beginnings and real obstacles overcome in a march toward huge achievements. Their stories, however, don’t point even tangentially toward social justice. Leaving the fraught world of politics aside, the accomplishments of Mae Jamison, Michael Jordan, Russell Simmons, Don King, Ruth Simmons, and Oprah—wonderful as they each may be—are not themselves examples of achieving justice. Those individuals may choose to fight for justice or not, but justice always demands something more. It’s that “something more” that I’d like to pursue in search of an expanded common ground between us, Chris.
* * *
A struggle for justice is always in part a process of identifying overt or hidden structures of oppression—including law, institutional regularities and practices, power, bureaucratic inertia—and then organizing collective opposition to those structures. People may internalize all kinds of oppressive ideas and embody a range of oppressive behaviors, and these ideas and behaviors may warrant attention and action, but absent a central focus on the structures of oppression, that attention tends to blame the victims, and tacitly, then, to support the status quo. Conversely, challenging the structures of oppression opens an imaginative space for an expanding sense of possibility, as well as a practical space to more effectively challenge backward, anti-social ideas and behaviors.
I’m unconvinced by your discussion of a pervasive “negative peer culture,” an approach that strikes me as one-sided and borrowing too heavily on the received wisdom of the moment. Of course society always envies, worships, despises, and idolizes youth. In Shakespeare a character bemoans the ages from ten to three and twenty, for there is nothing in between, he claims, except getting girls pregnant, fighting, and insulting the elders. Youth culture itself is always a contested space, and in Chicago, for example, the smartest youth organizers I know have tapped into that culture as it rejects the values of mainstream society, mobilizing youth to create their own public spaces, their own arts and culture centers, their own campaigns to fight for jobs, decent schools, and justice.
In any case, gangs are not a new phenomenon in African-American communities, nor are the corrosive components of gang culture. Complacency, consumerism, low expectations and low achievement enforced by members of the oppressed community itself—none of this is new. These were among the conditions faced by SNCC, the Black Panthers, and every other freedom struggle I know.
Racism still exists, still stands poised like a dagger at the heart of American democracy. The schools are still segregated, and still terrible for poor kids of color. Large numbers of Black people are still disenfranchised in Mississippi and elsewhere. Black youth are over-represented in juvenile court and youth detention, Black men are entangled in the justice system and the prisons at astronomical rates, chronic unemployment impacts Black families disproportionately. So what is new?
What’s new is that legal segregation has been dismantled—a huge and important victory paid for with the courage, blood, sacrifice, steady effort and hard work of countless people and whole communities over decades. It’s right to honor that legacy; it’s essential to build upon it. And building upon it includes examining the structural obstacles to freedom today, bringing them to light, mobilizing people to resist, confront, overcome. While there are countless places to begin, seemingly endless potential sites of struggle, for you and me, Chris, poor, inadequate schools might be a good start. And because we are both teachers, I want to focus in on curriculum and teaching.
* * *
I can imagine a “Citizenship Curriculum” component inviting debate, research, writing, reading, and more, around a revised Basic Set of Questions, one for each of our different contexts:
· Why are we (teachers and students) in the SCFP?
· What is the SCFP?
· What alternatives does the SCFP offer?
· Why are we (teachers and students) in Teachers for Social Justice (TSJ)?
· What is TSJ?
· What alternatives does TSJ offer?
Secondary questions flood my mind:
What are schools for? What do people learn in school besides reading, writing, and arithmetic? What do they learn about other societies? About jobs? About democracy? About government? About economics?
Are all public schools the same? What are the differences? Where do the differences come from? Who decides? What is the cost of education? How are schools funded? Are schools funded fairly? How do you know?
What is academic success? Who decides? What is standardized testing? Is it fair? How do you know? How big is the testing business? Has it always been this way? Who profits? What is history? Who makes history? Is history being made today? By whom? Who else?
How many prisons are there in Mississippi? Who does time, and for what crimes? How much money goes into incarceration, and how much into education? Where is the nearest prison or jail?
Where is the Mississippi Delta in relation to Chicago? Is there a link? Where are Chicago and the Delta in relation to Mexico City, Caracas, Ha Noi, Panama, Montreal, New York City, Baghdad, Jerusalem, Ramallah, Cape Town? Is there a link?
Who said, “No Black man should go 10,000 miles away to fight for a so-called freedom he doesn’t enjoy in Mississippi”? Do you agree or disagree? Why?
Is our country at war? When did it begin? Who is the enemy? What are the objectives of the war? When will it end?
What youth gangs exist in our community? What appeals to kids about gangs? What are some thing gangs offer that are OK? What things are destructive and harmful to participants, to the larger community?
What makes you an American? If someone questioned your right to call yourself an American, what story would you offer as proof? What image, object, or document could you produce that would be persuasive?
* * *
It’s hard to stop writing questions—one thing leads to another. And once we take a step into this kind of curriculum and teaching we recognize that everything is connected if we pursue it deeply enough. La Escuela Fratney, a public elementary school in Milwaukee, is a fountain of ideas. When the second graders were talking recently about Lake Michigan, one of them asked innocently, “Who owns the water?” Speculation included George Bush, Bill Gates, and the police. The wise teacher who pursued the question to its outer limits led an exploration of discovery and surprise that swept into areas of pollution and environmental science, the meaning of water in Milwaukee versus Oaxaca, the role of water in civilization, the art and poetry of water.
El Puente Academy for Social Justice, a public high school in New York develops curriculum around a fundamental question: Who am I? Kids read Piri Thomas and Juno Diaz, but they also integrate all the disciplines as they build skills of social analysis and public acting around, for example, lead paint, asbestos, and blood pressure studies in the community. The sugar project, begun in 1996, continues to this day as students investigate the Domino Sugar refinery in the neighborhood, trace economic and political history to their native Puerto Rico, and dive into chemistry, labor, health, oral history, and more.
* * *
One final note: the so-called Sixties is largely a myth—a collection of clichés—handed down as a break on contemporary activists and today’s struggles. What could be more depressing than longing for a ship that long ago left the shore? The received wisdom includes the notion that political struggle was wildly popular, the fantasy that everything—enemies, goals—was clear-cut, the illusion that the path forward was obvious. As you point out, Chris, nothing was fore-ordained. All that unanimity is imposed ex post facto. Furthermore, internal disagreements were intense, goals murky and contested. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” was addressed to his fellow clergy, who did not support the struggle. King’s speeches from 1965-1968 are neither triumphalist nor optimistic; they are the words of an angry, and oft-defeated pilgrim calling for revolution. Ann Moody’s book is terrific, of course, and James Foreman’s, Stokeley Carmichael’s, Rap Brown’s, and Septima Clark’s offer contrasting perspectives—taken together they show something of the denseness and complexity of what they faced.
Revolution is still what we need. A revolution in values, as King advocated, a revolution against war and racism and consumerism, a revolution for peace, community, and a world in balance.
June 14, 2005
Thanks for another compelling assessment of the SCFP. I appreciate your perspective and your suggestions, and I already find myself thinking more broadly and deeply about what it is that we do here at the SCFP. This kind of conversation is invaluable, and I hope it continues. Let me now endeavor to address some of your concerns.
As you suggest, there is a great deal of common ground under our feet. As educators, we share an abiding interest in reshaping the way students think and learn, challenging young people to embrace their full potential as leaders and history makers, and improving public schools that are failing poor children. Most importantly, we both envision a world in which children of all races and classes will have a truly level playing field on which they can live out their hopes and dreams. It is this world that we both long to see and to which the SCFP, in its own admittedly small and limited way, is dedicated to helping create.
We agree too that education alone is not sufficient for social justice. You note many brilliant but blind leaders, highly credentialed people who probably could score well on today’s ubiquitous standardized tests yet could not muster the courage to fight blatant injustice in their hometowns. I also would point out the flip side – “uneducated” people who let neither their lack of schooling nor their unlettered grammar deter them from pushing for positive social changes in their communities. In Mississippi, of course, Fannie Lou Hamer stands out as a prime example – Sunflower County’s darling daughter may not have finished elementary school, but she proved to be an extraordinarily capable organizer, a captivating public speaker, and a formidable political strategist.
Yet while we may agree that academic achievement is not sufficient, I would argue that it is necessary, not simply laudable. The world in which our students are growing up is vastly different than the one that Hamer faced, and not solely because legal segregation has been dismantled. In Hamer’s time, young people growing up in the Mississippi Delta, Chicago’s South Side, and other impoverished areas could expect to make a living – harsh, to be sure, but a living nonetheless – doing field work, domestic labor, or industrial jobs that required little or no formal education. Those opportunities are long gone, and young people without a high school degree find themselves stuck with few job prospects and fewer practical skills they need to survive. “Freedom” is meaningless if people do not have the ability to provide for themselves and their families.
For better and for worse, our nation is moving inexorably toward an economy built primarily on knowledge, a world where power will accumulate among people who can manipulate symbols and process information quickly. The communications revolution of the past generation will alter the life prospects of Mississippi Delta children as profoundly as the mechanization of cotton farming transformed the lives of sharecroppers fifty years ago. While the icons of this revolution are new and ever-changing – from laptops and the Internet to cell phones and PDAs – the underlying skills required to participate in the revolution are actually quite old-fashioned: you need to know how to read, write, and do ‘rithmetic, and you need to learn how to think for yourself. Without a solid foundation of academic skills, young people growing up in the Delta will be mere consumers and observers of the revolution, as isolated from centers of power as their sharecropping ancestors were.
You may agree with this assessment of our students’ future prospects. Where we likely disagree is in our diagnosis of the primary source of future obstacles. Racism, you write, “stands poised like a dagger at the heart of American democracy,” and you identify various structural obstacles from law to bureaucratic inertia as key barriers that require collective action to overcome. As we see it at the SCFP, the dagger pointed at the heart of our kids’ America is not external racism (an amorphous, catch-all phrase that explicates little) but internal apathy and under-achievement. This diagnosis is not “borrowed” from the “received wisdom of the moment” (another catchy phrase that obscures more than it illuminates); it derives instead from our students’ experiences in their schools and their daily lives.
Our different diagnoses of what is ailing our students lead us to different conclusions on what measures would be best to combat the problems. “Absent a central focus on the structures of oppression,” you argue, a program such as ours that emphasizes academics and directly addresses the anti-intellectual, self-destructive mentality that undermines academic achievement in the Delta will wind up “blaming the victim” and upholding the status quo. You suggested a series of Secondary Questions that could lead to a more socially active curriculum in the SCFP. The kind of questions that you posed are wonderfully thought-provoking, and we wholeheartedly embrace using that kind of questioning to push our students to think beyond the parameters of deadened responses they usually provide teachers and other adults. We have asked perhaps a majority of those questions with our students already, and they have sparked many wide-ranging discussions. But musing about the nature of academic success or what it means to be an American is no substitute for skill development; discussing the connections between Hanoi and Sunflower can be edifying but such talks alone cannot sustain a program for any significant length of time or produce the kind of long-term social changes we both envision.
While I may be attracted to your kind of questioning, I nonetheless recognize the practical limitations of an ideological approach to education. The SCFP often attracts well-intentioned, even radical students who arrive in Sunflower ready to teach kids how to fight institutional racism, how to discern bias in mainstream media, how to challenge the “received wisdom” of our leaders. Then, they arrive in the classroom and face the reality of kids who can barely read a newspaper article. Sometimes, in their ideological zeal, they refuse to alter their basic approach, and they seek to indoctrinate students into their way of thinking through heavy-handed methods and leading questions. The more effective teachers, however, learn to discard their own ideological blinders and work with students where they are.
The SCFP emphasizes old-fashioned academic achievement because we believe that it provides a solid foundation on which a constructive life of community engagement, civic leadership, and responsible parenting can be built. Long-term social change requires capable citizens able not simply to advocate and “resist” but to create and build. We do not want our students to become “activists” per se, but we do want them to be contributing citizens – people who vote, who raise honorable children, who voluntarily pick up litter in the streets, who help out at the local library, who coach Little League, who look out for neighborhood kids as they would their own. We want to teach them the solid values that rural Mississippi taught generations of young children – respect for elders, family, and community; perseverance in the face of adversity; faith in oneself, one’s country, and one’s creator. To demand that poor children in Mississippi work hard, achieve academically, respect themselves and their communities, and show self-discipline is not “blaming” them; on the contrary, it honors their humanity by holding them to high standards.
A key assumption in our effort, a dirty little secret that may not be fashionable in certain circles to admit, is really quite simple: opportunity exists in this country, for poor kids as well as rich, for black kids as well as white, for rural kids as well as urban. Forty years ago, white mobs rioted to prevent the integration of the University of Mississippi; today, Ole Miss bends over backwards to provide scholarships and access for black students. Forty years ago, black applicants had little hope of landing a job that paid more than subsistence wages; today, companies crave a diverse workforce (even if only for PR purposes) and battle each other for the right to hire qualified black employees; forty years ago, black Mississippians could only dream of controlling the basic institutions and levers of power in their communities; today, black officials run countless towns, public school systems, and courtrooms throughout the state. Denying the multitude of opportunities available to young black Mississippians today not only belittles the power and impact of the civil rights movement, it also cripples young people with a mentality of powerlessness.
By no means do I intend to imply that the movement won, the struggle is over, and America is indeed the colorblind land of opportunity that its leaders often profess it to be. Far from it – if I believed that, I would not have spent most of my adult life working to improve education in rural Mississippi. I recognize, as you surely do, that major, seemingly insurmountable barriers still exist, and they loom higher the lower you go on the economic ladder. In our daily work with students, we do not deny or dismiss the presence of societal barriers; instead we use those barriers as motivation. Perhaps it’s simply a matter of emphasis – we emphasize opportunity over oppression, diligence over discrimination, self-discipline over self-pity.
I can hear the sighs and see saddened heads shaking. The original Freedom Schools, as you accurately observe, consciously sought to undermine an oppressive system and overthrow a social order. They were part of a revolution! The SCFP and other groups like us, alas, seem so small, so limited, even bourgeois by comparison. Indeed, our effort exists in a different context than the struggle more than a generation ago, as we discussed in our first exchange. But part of the difference stems as well from the lessons our generation has learned from the limitations of the movement. As inspiring as we may find the movement, we do not believe that SNCC leaders had all the answers and we do not defer to activists of another time and place. The “freedom struggle” is not static; its means and ends shift over time as contexts change and people adapt to new circumstances.
One lesson in particular that we have internalized is that the turn to radicalism in the late 1960s, while perhaps understandable given the implacability of powerholders and their continued resistance to change, nonetheless was a self-destructive tangent from which many on the left have yet to return. In their attacks on capitalism, their physical assaults on individuals and institutions, and their self-righteous rejection of American ideals, some radical activists alienated many of the very people they hoped to unite for the revolution. Aaron Henry, a native Mississippian who remained active in local politics long after movement leaders left the state, expressed frustration that activists refused to recognize that most blacks in Mississippi did not want, as he put it, “to destroy the middle class but rather to join it and be like them, to share in the comforts conferred by that status.” In terms of the Freedom School Citizenship Curriculum, we can imagine that many activists had very different answers to the Secondary Set of Questions than did the local people who were the heart and soul of the movement.
Henry spoke of aspiring to be “middle class” and achieving “the American dream” – words that led him to be branded a “Tom” and still might elicit mocking laughter in many activist circles even today. Yet that is precisely what we hope to give our students – a real chance to achieve the American dream. In some ways, this approach does indeed hark back to activists of another era – the activists of the 1950s and early 1960s who sought inclusion into American society, not a rejection of it. It was out of this culture of activism, not the one that followed, that the sit-in movement and Freedom Schools grew. Like those determined citizens who courageously waved the American flag and sought to make this country live out the true meaning of its creed, the SCFP seeks liberation not from America but for America.
This discussion of ours reminds me of a sharp exchange I witnessed between two aging SNCC veterans at the 40th anniversary of the founding of the organization. A young black man, a senior at Shaw University, asked what he could do, upon graduation, to contribute to “the movement.” The first SNCC member encouraged the fellow to pursue graduate work or to begin a productive career of some kind so that he could make a decent living, buy a house, raise a strong family, and become a solid citizen in the community. That, the civil rights activist assured, would be the most important contribution to the movement today. From the back of the room came a piercing cry of “No!” from a silver-haired SNCC veteran who proceeded to outline all the reasons why America was too corrupt a society for such an approach. What was needed, he insisted, was a revolution that would tear down the institutional barriers to black achievement in this country.
The young man was left bewildered, as was I. What to make of such advice? Was the second SNCCer – a highly respected activist – arguing that to work hard and achieve success was akin to selling out or preserving the status quo? If so, what alternatives would he suggest? Do we not want qualified black doctors and scientists and Secretaries of State? Is that not progress, even if not the ideal world we wish to see?
Our kids can’t wait for the revolution for which activists long. They cannot wait for America to become a peace-loving, non-racist, egalitarian democracy before they embrace academics and seek to make the most of their potential. They are living now, and at the SCFP we work each day to give them the opportunities they deserve.
June 30, 2005
Your latest letter raises some new issues, some new problems and possible points of departure toward a deeper discussion. Let me take care of what I’ll call old business first, and then get onto those new points directly.
Old business: There’s really no point in repeating that SCFP is small and limited—with what seems, incidentally, like an unwarranted defensiveness. I certainly have no problem with small or limited. In fact, every great work I can think of in history—the American revolution, emancipation, suffrage for women—was small, marginal, limited in its inception. Indeed, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s organiztion was small, SNCC was tiny, and the Highlander Folk School a couple of little buildings on an insignificant hill in Tennessee. You may be arguing with someone else on this question of small and limited, but you’ll get no criticism from me for your modest size.
Further, students need academic skills, and again, we have no argument about this. We need to set high standards for all of our students, and make them aware of the language of power that opens many of the doors of opportunity. Youngsters need to learn to read widely and well and to write and speak with clarity and courage; they need to become confident masters of the language of mathematics; they need to learn to think for themselves and to have minds of their own. All of this is critical for full and active participation in the world as we find it, as well as for the world that will necessarily be created by the coming generation. As the blues legend Willie Dixon sang, “We need to know better in order to do better.”
Onto the new—three points only:
First, I don’t see a contradiction, as you seem to, between asking deep, critical, and probing questions of the world and teaching academic skills. Posing powerful questions and pursuing them to their furthest limits does not have to be mere musing—a dreamy kind of waste of time—nor does it have to compete with or become a substitute for skill-building. Indeed, the best teachers tend to tackle the latter with energy and commitment in light of the former. I know a group of fifth graders in Chicago, for example, who decided with their teacher to investigate the dilapidated condition of their school building; they approached the inquiry with investment and passion, and nine months later, when they were given a civic leadership award, they could also note with pride that each had learned to write better, to do sustained library research, to get a range of information from the internet, to analyze statistics and present findings with charts and graphs, to speak with clarity to a variety of audiences including the press, the school board, and the mayor’s staff. I know another group of students in California—high school kids—who combed the press every day with their teacher in search of stories they wanted to pursue further; one such exercise led from a seemingly insignificant obituary of a teenager in the Oakland Tribune to a study that unearthed the largest illegal smuggling ring of indentured servants in California history—those kids also learned a wealth of skills along the way. We have to teach skills in light of something, why not in light of looking critically at our shared world and then asking questions of the taken-for-granted?
As an educator you say you find these kinds of question wonderfully thought-provoking, and you have experienced the power of sustained discussion as you yourself have challenged your students to think deeply about them. I think it would be useful to write some of that up, and then to include it in the materials you develop to promote the SCFP.
Second, I think we’ve agreed from the start that SCFP is not trying to recreate a project from forty years ago in wildly different conditions, nor is there much to be gained from looking nostalgically at the so-called 60’s. But in your last letter you do look back, and through a lens that I think is a bit cloudy and certainly unhelpful. It’s a signature conceit of certain New Left historians to divide the 60’s into the good—or early—60’s, and the bad—or later—60’s. What that approach misses is the complexity and messiness of real people engaged in real struggles in real time. Dr. King was an activist for a mere thirteen years. If you read his sermons and speeches over that entire period you will see someone learning and growing and changing—even becoming more and more radical in the sense that Ella Baker used the word, meaning getting to the root causes. King—like Baker and Horton and Clark and Parks, like Foreman and Zellner and Moses and Featherstone—lived in both the good and the bad 60’s, and he lived his life with one foot in the mud and muck of the real world, and another foot always trying to get a purchase on a world that could be but is not yet. Without standing on the firm ground of here and now, we become romantic dreamers, incapable of productive participation; without imagining and striding toward a different world, we risk cynicism and despair.
I think you’re right to criticize and warn against the kind of sectarianism, dogmatism, and splitism that we engaged in. We should today search diligently for unity among progressive people and forces, and we should build it and tend to it with care and hope. But I think you’re mistaken to pick out a single activist whose choices you approve as somehow embodying all the right things to have done at that critical historic moment. Here was the situation: racism—not an amorphous term really, but one that King used consistently to refer to the generalized assigning of value to skin color and differences in background or heritage, always to the accuser’s benefit in order to justify his privileges—was morphing once again into new forms but with the same ugly consequences; a foreign war that the majority of Americans opposed continued unabated and into the distant, unknown future at the cost of 2000 people murdered every day. What to do? Some activists burned out and others left for Canada or Europe or Africa; some joined or formed what they thought of as vanguard political parties while others joined the Democratic Party; some ran for office and some ran for the communes of Colorado and California; some dug in and others dropped out; some made a religion out of making love, others made a mess of making revolution. People who lived through that time and believe that they made all the right moves are delusional. Anyone who doesn’t have some serious self-criticism is not paying attention. Those who think—even retrospectively—that there was one true and right way are mistaken. I’m sympathetic to every choice, and I’m critical of every choice.
The sharp exchange you describe between SNCC veterans in response to the Shaw University student’s seeking advice might have been more illuminating had someone in that room had the presence to invoke what I think of as the quintessential teacherly response: “What do you yourself think, given all you’ve heard and experienced and thought about, would make a contribution?” That response would have at least taken him seriously as a person with a mind and a heart. “What is the movement today, anyway? In fact, why don’t we take a moment and ask every student in the room to describe what the movement is now, and make a list of five ways you might like to make a contribution to it; let’s have that guide the rest of our discussion here today.”
I mean, that might even have led to some greater depth and some productive debate, a deeper understanding and a wider range of options. Maybe, in line with the first respondent, the one who suggested graduate school as the right route, people would have championed teaching (I like to hope) as a key calling to change the world, or some other specific professional options—medicine, engineering, community organizing, social work—might have emerged for discussion; or maybe, in line with the second respondent, the one who shouted for revolution, folks would have come up with some concrete campaigns beyond the rhetoric that contain within them all kinds of propulsive potential—Washington, D.C. pops to my mind as an example, the site of a growing struggle for full civil rights in a district that suffered more casualties during the Viet Nam war than 10 states, that is majority African American with a population larger than Wyoming’s, that suffers a tax burden greater than 48 states but enjoys no freedom to spend those monies as its citizens choose. But apparently no one asked these questions, no one engaged the wisdom in the room, and consequently the teachable moment was lost, you left bewildered, and we’ll never know. (Incidentally, I’m a little astonished that the exchange reminded you of our short discussion here—Do really you think I’m sitting in the back of the room shouting, “No!”? I certainly don’t mean to).
Third, I don’t follow your attack on “an ideological approach to education.” I can easily imagine –I’ve known many—well-intentioned idealists who are terrible teachers, but I’ve advocated neither indoctrination nor rigid methods nor dogmatic blinders of any kind—quite the contrary. I think much of what masquerades as education in our country is really nothing more than propaganda—top down, unidirectional, insistent, shrill. If that’s what you mean by ideology, I’m against it.
But if by ideology you mean a set of guiding ideas and assumptions, then show me an example of an educational project that’s entirely free of ideology. You profess a belief in the American dream, a desire for a level playing field so that winners will be determined more fairly, a sense that opportunity exists for poor, Black, rural kids and that internal apathy is the primary obstacle to Sunflower County students’ success. Isn’t that an ideology? If I disagree with you on one or another point, and you accuse me, then, of the sin of being ideological, aren’t you assuming that the American dream, the level playing field, and all the rest are just obvious, the kinds of things that every right-thinking person adheres to? Doesn’t this end any chance of dialogue, of give and take, of learning? It took me a long time to realize that the other person’s orthodoxy is always glaringly obvious in its gaudy obtuseness, whereas our own dogma has the comforting odor of common sense.
July 7, 2005
Amen! Though we certainly have our disagreements, your last letter reveals to me quite a bit of the common ground that underlies our discussion – our shared wariness of dogmatism, our mutual devotion to critical intellectual inquiry, our respect for the complexity and messiness of everyday choices. You may be right to observe that in some ways I am taking issue not with you, Bill Ayers, per se, but with some of the strains within progressive education circles. Indeed,
I think you and I agree on a number of issues that we both have raised in these letters, but I am reacting against what I have experienced in the schools and within the education field. Where we do differ, I hope we do not lose sight of the fundamental commonalities that unite us as we seek to make this country live up to its full potential.
Before I address your main arguments, I would like to comment on an aside you made in reference to my “defensiveness” about the SCFP’s small size and limited scope. You are quite perceptive. After years of having to justify the SCFP’s limitations, I may indeed have become somewhat defensive about our size. The pressure (much of it well-intentioned) to serve as
a “replicable” model and to expand our operations comes from a variety of places – researchers, funders, activists, our dominant culture. A program is worthy, it seems, only if it can be replicated, franchised, or expanded, as if a community-based organization in itself has little value. Mind you, I do not reject the idea of replication in itself. I am flattered when people ask us for advice on how to create strong, sustainable programs for teenagers, and I believe that we have built our program on essential principles that could apply in a variety of situations – our structured year-round program that emphasizes self-discipline and hard work, our combination of academics with both physical activity and social action, and so on. But the current “replication” push seems driven by a desire to find the right formula, the perfect “business model” that can be plopped full-grown into an existing community without having to struggle to figure out a way of one’s own. That approach defies the spirit of our effort, which seeks to build on the particular strengths of our community and staff while targeting the specific needs of our particular community. The key is flexibility – as circumstances and students have changed over the years, so have we. We are free to experiment with new ideas, and we do so constantly. This past year, for example, we began an exchange program with a school in Los Angeles to bring L.A. kids to Mississippi for two weeks, followed by our kids going to California for a fortnight. If the kids respond to an idea well, we do it again; if the idea falls flat, we try something different. So when people ask if they could set up a “Freedom Project” in their communities, I encourage them to do so but caution them against merely trying to recreate what we have done in Sunflower County.
Now on to your larger arguments, which I will address in turn. First, you suggest that I see a contradiction between asking probing questions and building academic skills. I certainly hope there is no such contradiction — I might be out of a job! Asking searching questions and building academic skills should be united in a symbiotic process of learning. I like to think that the Freedom Project would meet your standards not only with our core curriculum of academic subjects but also with our project-based classes. This past spring, our Media Production team created an interactive video documentary project that is now linked to our web site. Entitled “Sankofa,” the project tells the story of the civil rights movement in Sunflower County and applies the lessons learned to what young people can do (and are doing) in the area today. The effort required students to conduct primary and secondary research (including several oral history interviews), write concise and accurate text for the web page, and speak confidently to a variety of audiences, from local activists to conference-goers in Cleveland, Ohio. Our Drama Troupe conducts two tours each year, performing original plays about the movement in
Mississippi. In the process of practicing and performing, students become the resident experts on the history they are teaching their audiences. Our last production, “Thirty Years From Now,” addressed the dicey topic of school integration (which for all intents and purposes has yet to happen in Sunflower County), and our students performed in front of audiences that included not only sympathetic parents, teachers, and activists, but also a significant number of wealthy community members whose children attend private schools and even helped establish the white academies that were the subject of the play.
Nonetheless, I will confess to a certain degree of skepticism about the dedication of some progressive educators to pushing high academic achievement. My skepticism emerges not simply from the fact that many progressive educators have spent considerable time and energy combating the push for accountability and higher standards for low-achieving schools, or that
their agenda seems to reflect a greater concern for lowering college admission standards than on
increasing achievement. Instead, it is has grown from my personal experience with schools and
organizations that patronize minority students by refusing to expect them to behave and achieve as decent citizens. I am thinking of a charter school in California that seeks to teach students how to be activists, but requires so little of them that the students themselves complain that teachers are too lenient and that the school is too easy. I am thinking of a Southern non-profit organization whose promotional material emphasizes all kinds of worthy progressive goals – teaching middle schoolers about the impact of globalization on local economies, “empowering” young leaders through organizing workshops, and so on – but has so little discipline and structure that little work can be accomplished. It can be done and, as you suggest, it must be done. I simply urge caution. What sounds wonderful and inspirational on paper may not be so in reality.
You also argue that my vision of the 1960s is “cloudy” and “unhelpful,” that we must take care not to divide that decade into the “good” and the “bad,” and that we must recognize that activists responded to the turbulent events in a variety of ways. I hope I did not convey the impression that I deny or dismiss the complexity and messiness of that decade (or our own, for that matter). Quite the opposite. Much of what passes for Sixties history may be mere myth, but the era did indeed witness profound, convulsive changes that challenged socially aware people to confront contradictions and inequities in our society.
The pressures and constraints people faced were extraordinary, and I respect the difficulty of making decisions in such volatile times. I can think of no single person from that time whose choices seem universally sound in retrospect; while I admire Aaron Henry, Fannie Lou Hamer, John Lewis, and others, I recognize too that none of them figured it all out. But surely we must be able to look back at that era (and other historical periods) with a critical lens, find the peaks and the valleys, discern the positive and negative lessons from which we can learn. We do so all the time – do you not question the kind of choices that, say, Dick Cheney or Robert McNamara made during that period? If we are willing and able to recognize the long-term social costs and negative impact of Cheney or McNamara, then we must be willing and able to confront the consequences of H. Rap Brown or Stokely Carmichael as well.
Perhaps this is a “conceit,” as you suggest (although I may not agree with the “New Left” tag), but I find that if there is indeed a “conceit” on the left, it tends toward the romanticization of radicalism and the reification of revolution. Historical figures who worked within “the system” or advocated gradual change are ridiculed as sell-outs while their radical counterparts are glorified. On college campuses in particular I find that activists often try to outdo one another in their radicalism, conveying a “more activist than thou” attitude that can turn committed, socially conscious people away from progressive causes. Programs, such the Freedom Project, that advocate academic achievement and other traditional goals get belittled or dismissed as “mainstream.” Such criticism is unfortunate, not only because we need all the help we can get but also because it discourages action.
Finally, you argue that the SCFP, like all educational endeavors, is itself ideological. Indeed, you are right – as our exchange can attest, we have a strong sense of who we are and what we hope to instill in our students, and we certainly have a guiding set of assumptions and ideas. By “ideological,” I meant a more colloquial (and pejorative) definition that approximates propaganda. You certainly have not advocated indoctrination, rigidity, or dogmatism – who
would? But surely you recognize the potential (and reality) of ideologues – whether religious right activists who seek to replace science with fundamentalism or left wing advocates who push
Afrocentrism and other educational fads – to distort the learning process. If we may agree that much of what “masquerades” as education in America is “top down, unidirectional, insistent, shrill,” I might add that much of what slides by as “progressive” could be dismissed as naïve, unstructured, dogmatic, and ineffective.
And that is where I would like to return to our common ground. I hope that one thing you and I share is a preference for action over rhetoric. One of many “lessons” we have taken from the movement and that we emphasize with our students is the question that SNCC members often asked of Americans in general (and Dr. King in particular, if unfairly): “Where is your body?” Where are you – are you working for the changes you advocate, or are you simply criticizing others’ work? Are you on the front lines of change or are you in the rear taking potshots? Where we place ourselves speaks volumes about our values and priorities; how we spend our time reveals more about our beliefs than any number of speeches or articles.
In the Freedom Project we seek to get our students to ask this question of themselves, to question how their lives reflect (or do not reflect) what they consider to be important.
My general inclination, and I suspect yours is as well, is to respect those folks who are out there working in their own ways to create the world they wish to see. I may not necessarily agree with their strategies and I may find their approaches ineffective at times, but I honor their efforts. The Freedom Project often winds up on the receiving end of criticism for a variety of apparent shortcomings – we are an organization that works with black kids but we are run by a white man; we claim to be inspired by the original Freedom Schools but we were not ourselves involved with SNCC; we are not “revolutionary” enough; we read too many books by “dead white men”; and so on.
Some of the criticisms are legitimate, and we seek valuable feedback that can help us improve our program – your critique has been quite helpful. But often the criticism seems unproductive, intent only on tearing down rather than building up. At the end of the day,
I come back to SNCC’s question: where are you? Are you willing to roll up your sleeves and join us? Are you willing to move to Sunflower County and work with our kids? If you know of a better way, are you pursuing it? If so, in what ways can we learn from one another? If not, why not?
Had I been perhaps a bit more confident or a bit wiser, I would have acted differently during that exchange at Shaw University. Perhaps I would have risen to make the point that you emphasize – that the question the young man raised (“What can I do to contribute to the movement today?”) cannot be answered by any “expert,” whether it be a revered SNCC activist
or a highly-paid consultant of some kind. It must be tackled by the individual. I may not have had the guts to grasp the teachable moment that day, but my long-term answer to that exchange has been the Freedom Project itself, an evolving effort to help young people answer that question for themselves. Our students often ask, as they learn about the movement’s past, “Where is the movement today?” We answer, in ways both explicit and implicit, in the words of
Charles McLaurin, a former SNCC field secretary who still lives in Sunflower County and has served on our board since our inception: “It is in you.”
The movement is in the students of the Freedom Project. From the beginning, the parents who made up our board of directors rejected the name “Freedom School” in favor of “Freedom Project” precisely because the latter connotes a sense of ongoing change, of evolution, of work to be done. We certainly have not figured everything out, but we are out here working, in Gandhi’s apt phrase, to be the change we wish to see in the world.