'Freedom Schools' Grow A New Generation Of Social Justice Activists

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Marian Wright Edelman (center) talks to some of the young people she hopes will become part of a new generation of social justice activists. (Shawn Poynter for NPR)

Children's Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman is sitting in a rocking chair on a farmhouse porch in the hills of rural east Tennessee. She's granting a rare interview on the farm she bought 25 years ago to use as a retreat to train a new generation of activists.

"Everybody needs beauty," she says, looking out on the verdant landscape. A creek meanders through the 150-acre property, once owned by Roots author Alex Haley, in Clinton. There are porch-wrapped farmhouses, an apple orchard, a fishing pond and two structures designed by architect Maya Lin — the cantilever barn library and a chapel in the shape of an ark.

"It's a metaphor for hope," Edelman says.

LaKevia Dismal (center, left) and Maya Covington (center, right) celebrate their graduation from the Children's Defense Fund Freedom School training program. (Shawn Poynter for NPR)

Haley Farm harks back to the Highlander Folk School, where leaders of the civil rights movement trained in the 1950s.

Edelman says it's home to a new social justice movement — "a modern movement that goes beyond the civil rights movement that ends poverty."


"Can we be an inclusive country with all of our diverse people? There should not be any poor children in America," she says.

Edelman worked with Martin Luther King Jr. on the Poor People's Campaign before founding the Children's Defense Fund. In the past 45 years, the organization has pushed child-focused policy, including Head Start and the Children's Health Insurance Program.

Now, on Haley Farm, the focus is on movement building.

The 150-acre property includes the Riggio-Lynch Interfaith Chapel, which was designed by architect Maya Lin.  “We think of the ark as our boat carrying all the children in America to a place where they are safe, healthy, happy, morally taken care of, and educationally taken care of,” says Haley Farm Librarian Theresa Ven (Shawn Poynter for NPR)

In June, more than 1,300 teenagers and young adults gathered under a giant tent in a pasture while chanting a call and response, "Good morning. Good morning!"

They're here to prepare to go back into their communities, where they'll run summer enrichment programs called Freedom Schools. The Children's Defense Fund created them in the 1980s to keep kids in low-income communities safe and still learning.

Edelman says the inspiration came from her work as a civil rights attorney during the Freedom Summer in Mississippi in 1964.

Marian Wright Edelman, as an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, testifies before Congress about the government's anti-poverty program in 1967. (Henry Griffin/AP)

"Freedom Schools were a way that the young volunteers could keep children out of harm's way," says Edelman. "My first Freedom School that I visited was in Greenwood, Miss., under an old oak tree, with rocking chairs like the ones here at the farm."

The trainees, called "servant leader interns," start their day with a high-energy motivational routine called Harambee, which in Swahili means "pull together."

It includes chants, cheers, spiritual songs, readings and history lessons about the civil rights movement — the same activities the interns will replicate in their classrooms back home.

"You're here to carry on the work, at least the unfinished work, of the civil rights movement," Freedom Schools Director Philippa Smithey tells the group.

Listening from the audience are college students from Edelman's hometown, Bennettsville, S.C. They attended Freedom Schools as kids and are now ready to lead them.

Maya Covington, 22, says it's empowering to think of her new role in relation to the civil rights movement.

Maya Covington, once a Freedom School student, is now teaching at a Freedom School near Bennettsville, S.C., the hometown of Children's Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman. (Shawn Poynter for NPR)

"Wow, these people really paved the way for us to do this for these kids," Covington says.

Team-building games emphasize values such as respect, cooperation and compassion. The key theme is making a difference — at home and in the broader world.

It has the interns from Bennettsville thinking about how they might have an impact.

"You have an opportunity to be you, to be free," says 22-year-old LaKevia Dismal.

"You don't have to worry about judgment or you don't have to worry about someone treating you less than."

Dismal says even if you come "from a place of poverty, you can still feel like you are able to better someone else's life."

LaKevia Dismal sees education as a tool to improve the lives of future generations. (Shawn Poynter for NPR)

She knows some of her students may come from homes that aren't the best, and she wants to make a good place for them in her classroom.

"It's like when they come to school and they have good educators, they feel like, 'OK, someone loves me, so I do have a shot at life,' " Dismal says.

"We expect this generation to pick up the torch because the struggle is not over," says Theresa Venable, the librarian at the Langston Hughes Library at Haley Farm.

"It's a unique special collection," Venable says. "Books written by African-American authors, children's books illustrated by African-American illustrators, any book that relates to the black experience."

The Langston Hughes Library at Haley Farm was designed by architect Maya Lin. It's a cantilever barn, rustic on the outside, but with a sleek, modern interior. (Shawn Poynter for NPR)

Books are the cornerstone of Freedom School's rigorous reading curriculum. Some 70,000 books go home with students every year.

"Freedom Schools work," says Edelman. "The books work."

The Children's Defense Fund says it has demonstrated measurable improvements in reading comprehension among students who attend Freedom Schools.

This summer, about 12,000 students in 28 states are enrolled. The schools are run in churches, schools, even juvenile detention facilities. Participants have gone on to become local leaders and educators.

Children's Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman sits on the porch at Haley Farm in Clinton, Tenn. The farm was once the property of author and civil rights activist Alex Haley. (Shawn Poynter for NPR)

"A lot of what Freedom Schools has taught me, I use it in the classroom and it works," says South Carolina guidance counselor Jasmine Brown.

Now 28 years old, Brown started going to Freedom School when she was just 5. She works summers as a site coordinator for the program.

"Freedom Schools are still relevant," she says, "because there's still change that needs to happen — leveling the playing field. Equality for everyone."

Another site coordinator, South Carolina middle school teacher Nay'Toniyan Green, says the program is also relevant academically, because it molds the curriculum to provide what the students need and embraces who they are.

"It teaches not only that literacy, which is what we lack a lot in the United States overall," Green says, "but it actually teaches about knowing your self-worth ... knowing your history, knowing where you come from."

At a school outside Bennettsville, Covington and Dismal — the interns from Haley Farm —are celebrating the morning Harambee routine with their fifth- and sixth-grade students.

LaKevia Dismal's students work on posters illustrating the theme of the book the class is reading. (Debbie Elliott/NPR)

"One, two, three, four, let me see you find a book," Covington chants as some 80 kids run around the cafeteria responding "find, find a book" and picking up volumes strategically placed around the room.

"I feel like I'm making a big difference in my class," Covington says. "They are getting close, and getting close to me." She says they want to stay in touch once the program is over.

In the classroom next door, Dismal's students are scattered in groups around poster boards, the tables and floor covered with stencils and colored pencils.

They're making signs to illustrate a book they've just read about immigrant workers banding together to demand fair wages. One reads "we want equal rights." Another says "more pay."

Dismal says they're learning how to advocate for themselves.

"I'm glad that they're able to have a voice and feel like, 'Oh, my input matters,' " she says.

That's how to create tomorrow's leaders, says Max Lesko, executive director of the Children's Defense Fund.

"Learning from a young age the power one can have in both their own life and the environment in which they live — there's incredible power there," says Lesko.

Edelman hugs trainer Stephen Hibbit at the end of the Children's Defense Fund Freedom School training program. (Shawn Poynter for NPR)

Marian Wright Edelman says the work underway at Haley Farm and in communities around the country is the organization's most important yet.


"We build hope and put meat on hope's bones," she says.

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