Freedom School returns, remains relevant

'We really need powerful ways to connect'

Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette

Damita Brown is part of an Iowa City-based organization that is launching a new Freedom Schoo
Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette Damita Brown is part of an Iowa City-based organization that is launching a new Freedom School 360 program for teenagers and adults at Old Brick in Iowa City. The school will continue the education around issues of civil rights, discrimination and how to combat racism.

In Hattiesburg, Miss., in the summer of 1964, a student of one of nearly 40 “freedom schools” at the time wrote these words: “I like to go to Freedom School. You would like it too.”

“If you want to come and don’t have a way, let us know,” the student wrote, according to excerpts from Freedom School newspapers collected and archived by The Martin Luther King J. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta. “I think we should all have our equal rights.”

That message – although delivered 54 years ago – remains relevant today, as does the invitation, according to Damita Brown, director of the Iowa City-based Midwest Telegraph Media Co-op, committed to improving access to independent media and promoting social justice activism.

Brown also is co-director of Freedom School 360 – a 2018 iteration of the 1960s model that’s based in Iowa City and focused around three primary aims: education on civil rights, where they come from and how to protect them; empowerment to act as a community journalist; and understanding of personal justice by answering the question, “What is my relationship with my own power?”

“An important thing about this iteration of the school is we are grounding the word in contemplative practice,” Brown told The Gazette, noting the July training will teach skills in sustainability, meditation, and capacity-building necessary when engaging in civil rights work.

“Part of the point is to cut through the polarization we see going on around us right now,” she said. “To find common ground to land on and approach the work from.”

Original freedom schools – developed by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the 1964 “Freedom Summer” in Mississippi – aimed to empower African-Americans with reading, writing, math, history and civics education in an effort to get them politically engaged.

Those efforts paved the way for the Voting Rights Act of 1965, meant to overcome state and local barriers preventing African-Americans from voting. It was a victory many saw evaporate in 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a key provision – removing a tool to combat racial discrimination.

“The enforcement part of the voting rights act was effectively repealed,” Brown said. “So there’s a sense in which we are refighting that battle.”

Hence the 2018 Freedom School, planned to span 10 days at Old Brick in Iowa City. Midwest Telegraph, which landed a grant to host the course, has offered retreats in Eastern Iowa in the past. But this will be its first Freedom School.

The curriculum from July 18 to 20 is geared toward adults, specifically teachers, instructors, trainers and parents. the curriculum from July 21 to 28 is meant for teenagers – ages 13 to 18 – and will employ traditional freedom school techniques and workshops, along with “contemplative tradition, creative improvisation, Liberation Theater, and community-based projects to develop collaborative responses to environmental, social, and economic justice,” according to organizers.

A primary focus of the freedom schools five decades ago was on de-segregation, and Brown said that issue still demands work. But today’s issues also include gun violence, snags in educational and workforce pipelines, the environment, and civic access and engagement.

“We are really bombarded now with a lot of work that needs to be done to protect our democracy,” Brown said. “For some of us, it’s shocking and heartbreaking How can we be doing this again? And what does this mean that there is so much racial violence in our country?”

The teenage sessions last all day – from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. And the school is open to anyone, regardless of race or ethnicity.

“People of color are definitely involved, but the target is anyone who cares about learning more about how to make this society the kind we want to live in,” she said. “No one is excluded.”

Too often, according to Brown, society views racism as harmful to minorities. But majority populations are hurt by it too, she said.

“We really need powerful ways to connect with who we are as people and to create a community around our basic humanness,” Brown said.

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