In the cramped quarters of the Chicago Freedom School in the South Loop, the hallways serve as the backdrop for Mia Henry’s work.
Across a wall, a timeline outlines periods of social, political and economic upheaval in the country. It passively assigns blame to presidents and other leaders who did nothing for or even worsened the plight of marginalized people while giving kudos to those who made headway during their terms.
Down the hall, a gallery of black-and-white photos document the 2007 Jena 6 rally in Washington, D.C., serving as a sobering reminder that racial tensions still linger. And another poster functions as a pictorial representation of presentday social stratification in the U.S. Color-coded stick figures symbolizing various demographics march in rows delineated by household income. The disparities are grim.
The hallways are what inspires her as she seeks to inspire a new generation to take up a life of activism. As the school’s director, Henry is determined to teach the nonprofit’s young protégés that the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott is not to be relegated to the pages in a textbook.
The school, which awarded its first fellowships to 39 high school students in 2007, is modeled after “freedom schools” that arose in Mississippi in 1964 to address racial inequalities. The schools offered leadership development, and explored civil rights movement philosophies and strategies.
In its latest incarnation, the Chicago Freedom School empowers youth who are from communities that are criminalized, racially profiled and marginalized by discriminatory public policies. The one-year program includes a summer leadership institute with research and movement strategy sessions and support for the development of an “action goal” plan.
For Henry, the innate fire in 14- to 17-year-olds is an untapped resource that needs to be harnessed. “We’re not bringing in young people after the agenda has already been set,” said Henry, who volunteered with the school as it was getting under way in 2006 and was recruited for the nonprofit’s first position opening. “It’s not just about getting bodies in the room in some effort to superficially represent a certain age demographic. They are in control and in charge here.”
The former Chicago Public Schools teacher sat down with The Chicago Reporter to discuss her work.
Your school works with an anti-oppression lens. Why articulate it in that way?
You can’t say you’re working to eradicate racial discrimination but be homophobic. We ask our activists and activistsin- training not just to be effective campaigners but to look at themselves as in the business of ensuring everyone’s liberated. Oppression is bound in oppression.
Right off the bat, we ask our fellows to identify themselves on a number of levels. Gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, ability, economic status, age and faith or other. When we are privileged in any way, we think of those things less. When we are not privileged, we become more cognizant.
The first week, we do community building and anti-oppression with the fellows. We know it’s a lot for them. For the antioppression exercises, we have everyone stand in a triangle and say how they are oppressed, how they are the oppressor and how they can liberate. It’s a sobering moment and really requires them to do some soul-searching. It’s hard for them to recognize how they oppress others. But it’s a necessary part of the discourse. Sometimes they dilute that component of it to, –˜I make fun of others.’ But we push them to get there. And they may not immediately make the connection from the violence they witness to how that relates to their race, gender or where they live.
When you live with it–”when it’s your reality–”those relationships aren’t salient. Then we start drawing attention to it.
What kind of commitment do your fellows have to make? What does the curriculum look like?
The Chicago Freedom School fellowship requires a good amount of energy and commitment, so we need to know our fellows have that capacity in their core. We are more and more candid about that and make sure we articulate that early on in the process. This is not just some extracurricular activity. This is not camp. Not a boys and girls club. We don’t just want them to be leaders but leaders of this organization. Our youth run meetings.
They get a budget and decide how much to spend on food and whether to use it to go on a retreat. They discuss and ultimately decide the rules around receiving a stipend. Learning how to take on tasks like that is a big part of making change.
During the summer leadership institute –¦ the fellows are required to do a personal mission statement, discover what they’re committed to, develop a list of issues, design an action goal, come up with three strategies to reach that goal and actually try one.
Ninety percent of applications we get include [essays] on violence in the home or community. And because of that, we do a four-day retreat on healing violence.
We also do wellness seminars. We cover dating violence, nutrition, body image. There’s even a grocery store scavenger hunt, and we focus on making healthy decisions and being aware of what we put in our bodies. We discuss identity crises, sexual assault –¦ We want to work on our insides. The program is not just about power analysis or fighting the man. Sometimes the man is within.
Do you recall moments where you see things dawn on your students?
In our wellness seminars, we’ll talk about food deserts. What you can get at what price depending on the neighborhood you’re in. Organic stores and markets in higher socioeconomic areas vs. the price gouging and lack of viable nutritional options in poorer areas. The dawning starts to set in. One girl said, –˜They tryin’ to kill us!’ It was a jolting moment for her as the inequities and implications began to materialize for her. It’s reflective learning. We start by posing questions and seeing what chunks we can gradually answer. We’re not talking at them but with them.
What have some of your youth-led campaigns centered on?
One of our fellows, Hector, worked on a campaign to address homophobia in his school. He put together a video to respond to homophobic language used in a senior class video that was shown to the whole school. His response video was also shown. And he worked with the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance to get teachers to go to professional development workshops on sexual orientation and gender identification to ensure a safe space in schools. And there also was some LGBTQ awareness [discourse] he got integrated into freshman orientation.
Another fellow wanted to secure a comprehensive sex education program in her high school to combat teen pregnancy and STDs, and another did a PSA around gender issues and hip-hop music and culture.
Some of our fellows even make it to the level of presenting on an issue at national conferences.
Is part of your goal to have the kids translate their new-found ideals on global liberty into a vested interest in improving their surroundings here?
Yes, the idea is absolutely to make our fellows more invested here. Change starts in your own home, in your own community. That’s it. That’s the lab. That’s where they have to start. I’m an internationalist. But I don’t trust people who are more invested in what’s happening in Slovenia than in their backyard.
What are the skills or bits of knowledge you want your fellows to walk away with?
I want our youth to develop critical thinking skills. To be sensitive to biases and language like using –˜illegal aliens’ vs. –˜undocumented immigrants.’ The purpose of the program is to have them develop an activist identity and mentality for the rest of their lives. To be more curious. To have a strong sense of urgency and efficacy. To be willing and able to bring others together to address issues. To dig until they can find the root causes of an issue. To never give up on the idea of true justice and internalize it so that it becomes their mission in the world.
If they choose to become an architect, if they’re cognizant of what they learned here, they might be able to create a space that’s fully [wheelchair] accessible and that’s affordable for people with lower incomes. There are so many different ways to do good as a nurse, as a researcher –¦ There are a million great ways to interpret the justice and liberation messages and carry that out in day-to-day life. I hope our fellows create new ways of battling inequities, and I hope they are doing things in a manner I can’t even fathom today.
One good thing that came out of [President Barack] Obama’s campaign and election is that now –˜community organizer’ has entered into the nation’s consciousness. It’s part of our lexicon, and his resume helped give that position more credibility. Before that, no one knew what that was. It was too loosey-goosey. I like the idea of professionalizing activism.