A Fantastic, Terrific, Great Summer “Freedom School, how do you feel? GRRRREAT! All! Day! Long!”Marian Wright Edelman / July 1, 2022
If you heard a call-and-response chant like this, you might be sitting in the middle of Harambee at a Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) Freedom Schools site—and you would know that another Freedom Summer is in full swing.
Rooted in the Mississippi Freedom Summer project of 1964, the CDF Freedom Schools program is a high-quality academic enrichment opportunity that introduces children, many of whom are Black, Latinx, and Indigenous and from families with low incomes, to high-quality, culturally diverse books that reflect their own images. Thanks to a grant from The Boeing Company, select sites have piloted our culturally responsive STEM curriculum, “CDF Freedom to STEM.” Since 1995 more than 150,000 children in grades K-12 have had the CDF Freedom Schools experience. Every summer CDF Freedom Schools programs are hosted in schools, places of worship, recreation centers, juvenile detention centers, and other community spaces, and this summer 109 sites will operate in 90 cities and 25 states serving more than 10,000 students across the country.
Harambee means “all pull together” in Swahili, and at CDF Freedom Schools sites Harambee is the opening activity during which students sing, dance, cheer, and get excited for a day of learning. College-aged Servant Leader Interns are trained to lead students (known as “scholars”) through an integrated reading curriculum featuring the carefully chosen books. The Servant Leader Interns are intentionally recruited to have backgrounds similar to the children they serve, and more than 90 percent are non-white and more than one in five attend Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). They are role models for the children in their care and many are inspired to continue their careers as teachers, providing a much-needed pipeline of teachers of color into the workforce.
Later in the day, scholars might engage in social action activities or activities that involve family members and other older members of the community. The CDF Freedom Schools program incorporates the totality of CDF’s mission by fostering environments that encourage children and young adults to excel and believe in their ability to make a difference in themselves and their families, schools, communities, country, and world with hope, education, and action. The wonderful books instill a love of reading, help scholars avoid summer learning loss, and deepen their understanding of themselves and all they have in common with others in a multiracial, multicultural democratic society.
At a moment when the U.S. Surgeon General has issued an unprecedented advisory on the need to protect youth mental health, and as the everyday threat of gun violence and the renewed fear of mass shootings have assaulted many children’s sense of security and safety, the wraparound care and sense of empowerment CDF Freedom Schools programs provide is desperately needed. As Freedom School Partners, which coordinates CDF Freedom Schools sites in Charlotte, N.C., put it after the most recent mass shootings: “We long for a country where our children can take comfort in knowing they will be safe when they go to school each day and where we know we should not fear for our lives when we go grocery shopping or when we gather in a house of worship . . . While our work is centered around literacy and we are acutely aware of how critical this moment in time is because of the extended learning interruptions and disruptions our scholars have faced over the last two years, we also know that our focus on the whole child is more important than ever.” They add: “And we lead with love. We want our scholars to feel safe, valued and loved each and every day they are with us; while also caring for their basic physical and mental health needs . . . We are hopeful when we think about the promise of tomorrow.”
The adults and college-aged servant leaders at CDF Freedom Schools sites pass this sense of hope on to the scholars, and it shows. Find out here if the children in your community have access to a CDF Freedom Schools program!
Marian Wright Edelman is founder and president emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information, go to childrensdefense.org.