Freedom School

Thanks to Minneapolis Foundation for enabling us to continue deeper content and discussions about gender-based violence in 2024. Our gender-based violence stories and conversations won a 2023 community service leadership award from the Minnesota Newspaper Association. 
Cyreta Oduniyi  (Photo by Sarah Whiting)

In 1960, a group of Black students in North Carolina demonstrated resistance to segregation with a sit-in at an all-white lunch counter. Ella Baker helped organize the 1961 Freedom Rides, to challenge segregation on interstate buses, and the 1964 Freedom Summer, a registration drive aimed in part at Black voter suppression in Mississippi.

Ultimately, these efforts evolved into Freedom Schools. Marian Wright Edelman — the Yale educated attorney who was the first Black woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar — expanded on the Freedom School model as president of the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF).

Today, Minnesota offers a 6-week summer literacy program that is part of the Freedom School program around the country. I am proud to be one of its graduates, and to have seen it in action in Minnesota for more than 10 years.

Why Minnesota Needs Freedom School Training

The educational and opportunity achievement gap between children of color and white children in Minnesota is among the worst in the nation. I have seen the positive impact of Freedom School on children of color. In just six weeks, students develop a newfound love of reading and education.

According to CDF, nationally 84 percent of Freedom School scholars avoid summer learning loss. I strongly believe it would be wise to implement this learning approach in our state’s struggling school systems.

The Summer Integrated Reading curriculum is about identifying self in the world, focusing on family uniqueness, understanding the importance of community, being global citizens, and discussing hope, education, and action planning.

The program also involves family and community in five essential components of the program: high quality academic enrichment, parent and family development, civic engagement and social action, generational servant leadership development, and nutritional and mental health.

The summer training of leaders is offered in Knoxville Tennessee, where more than a thousand college students, educators, youth workers, CDF employees, and original Freedom Rider elders come for seven days.

One of my favorite aspects of this experimental learning program includes the value of Harambee — Swahili for “Let’s pull together.”

The week is filled with love, energy, and power. Once done with Freedom School training, leaders go back to their sites, inspired to serve scholars.

I am from North Minneapolis. I grew up in a two-parent, loving home. I also grew up poor. I was put into special education for a learning disability in 5th grade. Despite some hurdles, I received a Bachelor of Science in youth studies from the University of Minnesota in 2013. I went on to graduate school at United Theological Seminary. I will receive a Masters of Divinity in May 2019.

My personal and career focus has always been on community health and education with families and young people. As a womanist and public theologian, I believe one of the central questions is: “How are the children?” Our children are not in good condition. Lack of access to quality food and education threatens their future, and ours as a whole.

My passion to advocate for children and families comes from my lived experience. I honor and am obligated to stand on the shoulders of Marian Wright Edelman, Ella Baker, and others — because they have fought for me.