What It Looks Like When Communities Make Racial Justice a Priority

By Zenobia Jeffries & Araz Hachadourian

January 16, 2017

Section on Michigan: “To outsiders like Donald Trump, Detroit is like “an urban dystopia of poverty, crime, and blight.” But to Detroiters and those committed to the city’s revitalization, it’s a city full of promise—with the notable exception of its school system. Following multiple state takeovers, the largest school district in Michigan continues to suffer teacher layoffs, crowded classrooms, and financial mismanagement. And longtime residents and activists have had enough, turning to a legacy of the civil rights movement’s Freedom Schools to serve their children.

In February, parent Aliya Moore’s call to boycott schools on Count Day—when the state uses student attendance to calculate per-pupil funding—prompted a local group, Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management, to reimagine education for Detroit schoolchildren and launch the Detroit Independent Freedom Schools Movement.

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Victor Gibson teaches math to middle schoolers at the Dexter-Elmhurst Center. The retired teacher signed up to work for the Detroit Independent Freedom School Movement. (Photo by Zenobia Jeffries)

Organized by African Americans in the 1960s around sociopolitical and socioeconomic issues, the Freedom Schools presented an alternative setting for all ages centered mostly on voter registration and social change, as well as academic components—mainly reading skills—for young people. Since then, civil rights and racial justice organizations, along with grassroots movements, have resurrected the Freedom School model for their work in African American communities still faced with inadequate education, disenfranchisement, and racial discrimination.

The organizers of DIFS created a program that was piloted this summer at a local recreation center, where volunteer teachers provided cultural activities and lessons in the core subjects of math, science, English/language arts, and social studies. Other institutions, including the Charles H. Wright African American Museum, have signed on to host the DIFS program at their facilities this fall.

Gloria Aneb House, a former member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and a member of D-REM, helped to organize the local Freedom Schools movement. “Our intention is to do as much in outreach around the city and get into as many churches and community centers where they’re happy to have us,” House says.”