Last summer, Black Lives Matter Toronto hosted the first Toronto Freedom School, a three-week community self-determined education program. Forty-five families applied and 20 students enrolled. The participants were between four and 10 years old.
The Freedom School also had an associated toddler program for participants who between two and four. The program was launched as a three-week pilot program with limited capacity. In coming years, the organizers hope to expand the number of students and the program.
The Activist Toolkit interviewed LeRoi Newbold as part of its Constructing Change series.
LeRoi Newbold is a community organizer, parent, educator and art curator for BlackLivesMatter - Toronto. For the past eight years she has taught and written curriculum for Canada's first public Afrocentric School. LeRoi is the director of BlackLivesMatter - Toronto Freedom School, which teaches young children about Black pride and resistance through arts based programming.
Activist Toolkit (AT): Where was the Freedom School held?
LeRoi Newbold (LeRoi): It was held in various locations. Mostly it took place at Vaughn Road Academy Middle School, which is a school that is now in danger of closing, actually. We had a big, beautiful, drama room we used there. Some days we were at the PEACH Community Centre, up at Jane and Finch, where the students were using technology, like the sound recording studio and the Mac lab they have available. On other days we were off-site on trips. We went up to the Six Nations and where we visited "Our Sustenance Greenhouse" and visited The Medicine Wheel Garden Christie and Davenport. That was some of what we did off site.
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AT: How many adults were involved in coordinating the Freedom School?
LeRoi: There were quite a few people for the small number of children. There were three educators in the "Young Freedom Fighters" room. There were also bus team leaders who rode the bus with the children every morning and after school. One of our principles was that everything must be made accessible to the family so there was free busing and a free lunch/snack program. There was a cook who made meals for the children everyday, and there were two staff members who were responsible for the toddler room. We had about 12 people who came in to facilitate different workshops for FreedomSchool (button-making, zine-making, quilt-making etc), and various artists who created material that we used to teach with. We also had many allies who volunteered their time with everything from grant writing to grocery shopping.
AT: How was the program funded?
LeRoi: It was mostly funded through private donations. That was the majority of our funds. We did get a grant from ArtReach, which was excellent, and a couple of very small community grants. However, mostly it was funded by people who believe in community self-determined education
AT: Could you talk about the history of Freedom Schools?
LeRoi: The history of Freedom Schools, in general, is that they originated in the United States and were intended as something for Black-Americansm, in particular, in the South during the Civil Rights Movement. There were social and political aims for Freedom Schools that were in line with the Civil Rights Movement. The idea was to encourage Black people and Black communities to register for voting.
The idea of the Freedom Schools, in particular, was to encourage, or to foster, political participation amongst grade-school age children, which meant getting them to think politically from that young age. When we call our program Freedom Schools, we are paying homage to that time period and to that idea of fostering political analysis and political participation among children, but also acknowledging that we are in a very different time and context and that the work we do is very different.
Our freedom school started largely in reaction to the political climate that we are in now. In September we lost 13-year-old Tyree King to police killings. Since the beginning of our movement we have lost seven-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones, 12-year-old Tamir Rice, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, to name a few.
We are living in an environment where children are the victims of police killings, police violence and state sanctioned violence. So I work every day with young Black children and they are aware of this reality, which is happening around them, and it does impact them. We wanted a way for children to be able to analyze the reality we're in and also to resist it. We wanted to give them an entry point into participating in the Black Lives Matter movement. So those are some factors in creating the program.
We are also looking at education and what is happening in Black education in Toronto. Here in Toronto there is a 40 per cent push out rate of Black youth, 40 per cent of Black youth don't graduate from high school. We wanted to create an environment where children are going to be successful, where the curriculum is focused on their liberation and how they can participate in that, and where the curriculum also comes from our own communities. Black parents and Black youth developed the content of the program.
AT: Tell me more about how you developed the curriculum?
LeRoi: We had some visioning sessions with Black parents around the GTA. We asked them questions like "what are your child's experiences with learning about Blackness in school," "what do they learn about Black pride and self," "what do they learn about Black history and not only Black history but the history of resistance, in particular." We asked parents what would be priorities in terms of what their children should be learning. Based on those experiences, which people's children were having, we started to see commonalities and the gaps. Most parents were saying that their child does not learn much about Blackness or Black history in general.
We also asked youth about Blackness in school. It was based upon the feedback of one youth in particular in those conversations that we decided to do an art based program. This youth said with all the violence toward Black people and violence by police towards Black community, she believed that people are becoming desensitized to this type of violence. She said "when we do art and when we create art or when we see art it allows us to experience emotions." So we decided to go with the art-based curriculum.
AT: What are some of the things you'd like to build next time? What changes would you like to make?
LeRoi: This time around the program was only three weeks long. I would love to build capacity to have a longer summer program. In fact, I would love to eventually have, hopefully, a free-standing community school in Toronto. We are very inspired by the work that the Black Panther party did establishing the Oakland Community School (OCS). We had some conversations with Ericka Huggins, who was the director of the OCS for many years, about the process they followed to make that a school a reality. We would like to be a part of a movement for more community self determined education in general.
AT: Are you thinking another Freedom School in 2017?
LeRoi: For sure, in the Summer of 2017, for sure. But we are also doing programming year round. We just did some programming for Halloween where children dressed up as different Black liberation freedom fighters and made skits where they were in conversation with each other. So it could be a historic figure like Marie-Joseph Angélique in conversation with Patrisse Cullors or Alicia Garza. So the participants would have to learn about the person, the figure they were dressing up as, the kind of things they would say, their values and so on. Then they would make their skits.
AT: What are some ways allies can help the Freedom School project?
LeRoi: Well, the Freedom School movement was supported by other activist communities, particularly, by organized labour, like the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) and others. But here are some ideas about the support we could still use. Donations, monetary or material can be made to www.freedomschool.ca.
Donation of space for fundraisers and programming is very welcome. I mentioned before that we had a food program. While the kids were learning about pride in self and Black liberation history, they were also learning about land and food. As part of that we offered the two healthy meals per day and lunch and so gift certificates for organic/healthy food are also very helpful. If people are interested in making a donation to freedom school you can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
AT: What are some links to additional resources for parents and community to learn more?
Leroi: They can check out the program itself at www.freedomschool.ca. We also have some great local resources like A Different Booklist which is a Black bookstore on Bathurst and Bloor. A Different Booklist helped us to develop the library that we used for the Freedom School. Our Sustenance Greenhouse on Six Nations was an excellent resource on the links between decolonization and Black liberation and the similar educational experiences that Black and Indigenous people are facing in Canada.
(Note: A Different Booklist could be moving soon so please check the website in case the location has changed)
Constructing Change speaks to people working in communities to be the change, to build projects, to make a difference. The interviews and profiles are meant to share information about how to get involved to support and amplify the changemakers' work and/or to share how you can organize a similar project in your community. The Constructing Change series is a collaboration between the Lynn Williams Activist Toolkit and Rabble Podcast Network.
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