Something Inside So Strong

By Ashley Land

“G-o-o-d-m-o-r-n-i-n-g, Good morning!” Imagine over 150 elementary, middle and high school students enthusiastically gathered on the campus of the University of Southern California dancing, filled with joy, and eager to read and learn. This was the scene every morning during Community Coalition’s Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) Freedom Schools program.

Founded by activist Marian Wright Edelman over 20 years ago, and rooted in the history of the 1964 Freedom Summer civil rights project, a massive voter registration and education drive for Mississippi students and parents, the nationwide CDF Freedom Schools summer reading programs have empowered and inspired over 137,000 children across the country.

Our program at Community Coalition centers on creating space for Black and Latino youth in South LA to grow their love of reading, connect to their culture, while having fun learning about and participating in social action.

In order to effectively engage our scholars around literature and reading, a typical Freedom Schools day is comprised of:

1. Harambee (a Kiswahili word for ” let’s pull together”), a high-energy interactive time that starts the day for our scholars. They gather together in chant and song to get pumped and build camaraderie and excitement as they prepare for a day of reading and reflection. Many of the chants are to the beats of songs that resonate with the scholars, creatively remixed to incorporate the power of books and love for reading. Towards the end of each summer, each classroom participates in a chant writing competition, the winning chant is later incorporated into daily harambee. 

2. Read Aloud Guests. We invite community members to the program to read their favorite books to our scholars which helps expose them to new people and new stories. Some of our past high-profile read aloud guests include major motion picture director J.J. Abrams and his wife Katie McGrath who have generously help fund and grow our program, NBA all-star Kobe Bryant, Oscar-nominated director Ava DuVernay, actress and social justice advocate America Ferrera, Grammy Award-winning Pharrell Williams, and more.

3. Integrated Reading Curriculum (IRC), which ensures that our scholars are reading at a proficient level.  At the beginning of each summer, students are placed into different levels based on their reading comprehension. In their respective classrooms, for the first half of the day students discuss the books they are reading through creative methods such as skits, talk shows, interviews, and summaries. In partnership with Children’s Defense Fund, our program intentionally selects Black and Latino authors for our curriculum so that scholars are able to engage in culturally relevant reading material, which in turn helps them engender pride in their Black and Latino heritage. 

“The best book I read this summer was Sylvia and Aki because although it told separate stories of two girls that were facing their own problems with discrimination, their lives ended up intertwining in the end. It was very powerful”.  

– Maya Rodriguez

4. Afternoon activities, which are structured for students to be able to have fun and express themselves through a wide range of activities from dance to basketball and yoga. On Fridays, scholars attend exciting field trips that allow them to explore new places and break out of their comfort zones. Field trip locations this past year included the California Science Center, the Getty Villa, Mulligans Family Fun Center, and Seaside Lagoon.

Our CDF Freedom Schools program is a safe space for our scholars to increase their love of reading, boost their self-esteem, meet new peers, and learn to be accepting of people of different backgrounds and opinions. “I am always happy when I get to go to Freedom Schools. It’s fun, it allows you to be creative and it grows your brain,” said 7-year-old Kevin Benitez. Many of our scholars have also expressed how powerful it is to be exposed to so much new literature that reflects their life experiences, and a space where they feel valued.

Another key component of the program is that most of the Student Leader Interns and support staff were either once scholars themselves or reside in the communities where our scholars live. This is crucial aspect of the program, for its attempt to ensure that our scholars experience educators who look like them and can understand and help interpret certain life situations. Paying special attention to this element of the program ensures that our scholars excel in the space.

Freedom Schools is a summer experience like no other. Our program will continue to build hope and inspire students across South LA while developing the next generation of leaders. Something inside so strong indeed.