Detroit Independent Freedom Schools Movement

By Bianca Ayanna Suárez

During Freedom Summer 1964 grassroots African American community organizers recruited and trained volunteer teachers to travel to Mississippi to create educational spaces where children and adults learned political civic education, African culture, African American history and other subjects. Freedom Summer challenged educational oppression in Mississippi – the denial of an affirming equitable education – which was used to continue the political, racial and economic disenfranchisement of African Americans and further supported the afterlife of chattel slavery and the ongoing settler colonial system. In the Detroit context, the underdevelopment and subsequent denial of an affirming equitable education – accessible to all – continues along racialized economic, gendered, linguistic and nationality cleavages through a historical practice of racialized policy discrimination. The 2016 Detroit Independent Freedom Schools (DIFS) movement draws on the lessons of Freedom Summer 1964 as a model for how to challenge educational oppression locally as we launch our work throughout the city.

Decades of concerted political isolation and economic disinvestment of grassroots Detroit has created an educational policy landscape in which our young people continue to be denied an affirming equitable education. At the same time, Detroit students, grassroots activists, parents, and broader community members have continued to make accessible, wherever possible, affirming equitable educational spaces. In this tradition of curating space for educational justice and collaborative learning, the Detroit Independent Freedom Schools movement brings together an array of stakeholders to provide spaces throughout the city in which youth and adults may access an affirming equitable education. The Detroit Independent Freedom Schools movement believes that education can and must play a vital role as part of a broader struggle for collective self-determination.

Grassroots Detroit was shaped by multiple forces, including colonization and indigenous genocide, racial Southern violence and murder, internal colonial labor structures constructed in the afterlife of chattel slavery, and industrialization. These forces were guided and supported by  a system of Western education which centers itself as the highest and ideal form of knowing and being in the world. Drawing on critical principles of Afrocentric education, the Detroit Independent Freedom Schools movement transcends an institutional Western perspective of education and curates spaces where curricula is student driven and guided by an Afrocentric orientation. Detroit is a majority racialized minority city, with a more than 80% African American populace – the Afrocentric approach provides an avenue to affirm the cultural heritage and historical contributions of diasporic Africans, affirming each youth and adult as we engage in curricular content that ranges from mathematics to political and cultural knowledge production to sexual health education. Such an approach will support students to both engage in their own cultural heritage and historical knowledge systems, and engage with traditions and systems that differ from their own. Critical educational analysis has documented the positive impact of Afrocentric and Ethnic Studies based learning models on student self and collective awareness and life pathways. The DIFS movement is committed to curating spaces where volunteer teachers committed to the centric approach can contribute to fostering youth and adult creativity, and maximum potential, as contributors to the broader Detroit community and society as a whole.

The Detroit Independent Freedom Schools movement is not a supplemental, institutional entity, but a grassroots driven approach to transformative educational practice. The DIFS movement acknowledges the complexity of the situation at hand, its historical links to chattel slavery and settler colonization – systems that pivot on particular interactions of race, gender, class, nation and sexuality, among other oppressive categorizations – and through the Independent Freedom School movement, self reflection and rigorous study, we hope to curate spaces to resist, transform and create anew. We invite you to join us.



  1. I would like to know more about what the Freedom schools in Detroit are doing and how many students are involved and I would then like to volunteer in whatever capacity is needed. Jackie Bell

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