Freedom School Inspires Hope, Builds Leaders

07 Sep Freedom School Inspires Hope, Builds Leaders

Freedom Schools scholars, age 8-18, get pumped up each day to learn to read and fight for social justice.

Freedom Schools scholars, age 8-18, get pumped up each day to learn to read and fight for social justice.

By Sandra Hamada

“Something inside so strong, I know I can make it,” sings a group of 120 students every morning at the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School hosted by Community Coalition.

African American and Latino students ranging from ages 8 to 17 come together in the morning to participate in Harambee (a Kiswahili term that means “let’s pull together”).

“I like Harambee because it gives people hope in the morning,” said Avion Blackson, a 13-year-old student who joined the Freedom School program for the first time this year. “It gets us active. It gets us ready to go.”

The Children’s Defense Funds’ Freedom Schools, as it’s formally known, is a national literacy enrichment program inspired by the 1964 Freedom Summer, the historic civil rights effort that led voter registration drives and education in Mississippi.

Community Coalition is hosting the program for the sixth year, this time at the University of Southern California.

Freedom Schools seeks to instill a love of reading through stories of Black and Latino characters, both historical and fictional.

Aurea Montes-Rodriguez, vice president of Community Coalition, said “the goal of the program is to target African American and Latino children in South Los Angeles to help prevent the so-called ‘summer slip.’”

The New York Times says research shows that “most kids lose math skills over the summer, but low income children also lose, on average, more than two months of reading skills — and they don’t gain them back.”

Freedom Schools “has inspired me a lot,” said ten-year-old Adan Gomez. One highlight has been reading wonderful new books each week with his classmates.

The school sponsored by Community Coalition is one of the few Freedom Schools that adds curriculum to foster political development among youth. “We’re teaching them to stand up for their communities,” said Melanie Kimes, who led the program.

And their communities are taking note.

Annie Burton, whose granddaughter attended Freedom Schools, says “Community Coalition has made a big difference. They are making her into a leader.”

Students learn about the importance of taking pride in being Black and Latino.

“Freedom Schools comes at a pivotal time for South L.A. students. Our children are seeing Black lives being murdered everyday on the news,” said Aurea Montes-Rodriguez. “Freedom Schools is providing a space for them to heal and build their self-esteem.”

Hollywood celebrities reinforce that message by reading to the students each morning and teaching them about the importance of their education.

“I’m obsessed with reading,” Birth of a Nation director and star Nate Parker told the students, while reading from Langston Hughes. “It gives me the words I need to defend myself.”

Readers have also included Star Wars director and producer J.J. Abrams, Creed director Ryan Coogler, talk show host Tavis Smiley, and Grammy Award-winning artist Pharrell Williams.

But perhaps most meaningful are the voices of support from Freedom School alumni.

“I came back to South L.A. because someone believed in me,” says Patricia Gonzalez, who as a student was a Community Coalition member and returned this year to help run Freedom School. “I believe we’re developing leaders for this generation.”

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