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Freedom Schooling

Grace Lee Boggs writes a column called “Living for Change” for the Fresh Ideas page of the weekly Michigan Citizen (www.michigancitizen.com). This essay is an edited version of two recent selections from that column.

At the June meeting of the Black Radical Congress in Detroit, conference delegates decided to launch a campaign for “Education, not Incarceration.”

That means we have to redefine what we mean by education. Today’s schools create addicts and prepare our children for prison because they teach passivity. What our children need most is a sense of themselves as agents of change and decision-makers. They don’t only need academics. The need to become resourceful, independent and critical thinkers; to see themselves in the context of community and practice what enhances community life, to recognize their worth because their input makes a difference.

In the 1960s, activists had to create Freedom Schools in the South because the existing school system had been organized to produce subjects, not citizens. People in the community, both children and adults, needed to be empowered to exercise their civil and voting rights. A mental revolution was needed. To bring it about, reading, writing, and speaking skills were taught through discussions of black history, the power structure, and building a movement to struggle against it. Everyone took this revolutionary civics course, then chose from more academic subjects like algebra and chemistry.

All over Mississippi, in church basements and parish halls, on shady lawns and in abandoned buildings, volunteer teachers empowered thousands of children and adults through this community curriculum.

One of the best current models of this kind of radical education is Detroit Summer. Calling itself a multicultural youth program and movement, Detroit Summer combines intergenerational dialogues and skills workshops with concrete, visible neighborhood projects. Youth volunteers organize themselves to turn vacant lots into playgrounds and gardens, to work with community people (including gang members) to paint murals, and to explore new ideas about economics, transportation, education, and social change. Detroit Summer recently completed its ninth session and added fall, winter, and spring sessions to its curriculum.

Much of its success comes from combining the experience of making a visible difference in the community with discussions of ideas and issues. As young people develop confidence in their capacity to make decisions about how to design a mural or create a garden or a playscape, they also develop confidence in their ability to make decisions about their own development and the development of their city.

The beauty of Detroit Summer as a model of Freedom Schooling is that it can be organized by all kinds of grassroots community groups in their neighborhoods. Wherever they are— in churches, community centers, or lodges—people can begin working with young people on community- building activities while also engaging them in the discussions and dialogues that give them a sense of the vision and commitment that go into building a movement to create a new society. As they work to transform their physical environment, young people are also transforming themselves into leaders in the struggle. And as young people transform themselves, the adults working with them are also transformed.

In the last two years of his life, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was anticipating this kind of Freedom Schooling when he deplored the way educators were trying to instill white, middle-class values in black youth. King called for programs to involve young people in direct actions “in our dying cities” that would be self-transforming and structure-transforming.

This is the kind of Freedom Schooling we need today.


has been a contributor to Monthly Review for over thirty years. With her late husband James Lee Boggs, she co-authored Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century (1974). Her autobiography, Living for Change (1998), is in its second printing. For more on Boggs, visit www.boggscenter.org. For more information on Detroit Summer call (313) 832-2904.

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