Autonomous Education in Chicago: Freedom School for Social Change

Omar, Freedom School student
Omar, Freedom School student
Faced with shuttered schools and top-down, profit-motivated reforms, parents and students in Chicago, Ill., are looking to autonomous pedagogical alternatives.

The Washington Park Freedom School offers free, community-based education on Chicago’s South Side.

Dissatisfied with the lack of critical inquiry in traditional classrooms, and after exhausting all resourses within the system to address instances of bullying her son, Omar, faced, Marissa Brown opted for autonomy. She wanted autonomous education not just for her family, but for the surrounding community that she believed to be unfairly under-served as well.

Thus far the Washington Park Freedom School has had one full-time student and about two dozen part-time students. Brown anticipates about a dozen being involved by the fall.

A former community organizer who had been involved with Occupy Chicago, Occupy the Hood and Occupy the South Side, Brown saw this as an opportunity to recuperate learning without looking to the institutional hierarchy for help.

“The mission then, and it’s still the case now, is to bring the Occupy movement to the South Side and bring the South Side to the Occupy movement,” Brown said. “I reached out to people in Occupy to help get it off the ground. And a few responded and helped out.”

Last year Occupy Chicago passed a proposal so the first Freedom School classes could be held at their headquarters at 501 W. Cermac. Classes began in Fall 2012. They relocated later in November when someone from Occupy Our Homes offered them vacant property to use for the school.

When thinking through what kind of curriculum to implement, Brown and other activists realized there was no need to start from scratch given the rich history of Freedom Schools and autonomous education in the US and beyond.

“We did more research into Freedom Schools, and we found out there was a Freedom School in Occupy LA,” she recounted. “So we got some of our inspiration from Occupy LA’s freedom school.”

They also adopted and adapted the curriculum taught in the Mississippi Freedom Schools in the early 1960s.

The Washington Park Freedom School parallels, in part, the pedagogical style and community orientation of the bachillerato populares (popular schools) that grew in Argentina after the 2001 economic crisis hit the country hard, resulting in rupture but also an opening for new social relations, as activist and sociologist Marina Sitrin details in her book, Everyday Revolutions. The bachilleratos function “via face-to-face meetings, influenced by or using direct democracy attempting for full participation and doing so without hierarchy,” Sitrin wrote. Students in these autonomous educational organizations in Argentina “can choose a path for their diploma, with subjects such as cooperativism (the study of how cooperatives work) being particularly popular.”

Likewise, about 10 students in Chicago are currently involved in the Washington Park Freedom School’s Freedom Summer Challenge where they learn non-traditional subject matter from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Thursday for eight weeks. There is an overarching theme each week tied to the principles the school prides itself on.

Consonant with notions of politica afectiva, “a politics and social relationship based on love and trust,” as Sitrin writes about with respect to revolutions of the everyday continuing in Argentina, the theme for week two during the Summer Challenge in Chicago was friendship and solidarity.

Arianna Norris-Landry, from Belleville, Ill., traveled up to Chicago to facilitate the second week. She and students discussed emotional attachments versus commodified relations of exchange that reduce people to consumers.

“You’re a friend to a person, then you’re a friend to your community, then you’re a friend to your city, then you’re a friend to the world,” as Norris-Landry and students discussed. Reference to the nation-state was omitted from the list “because I’m not a nationalist,” she explained, due to the ever-present dangers of American imperialism and the troubling jingoism it can engender.

An experienced activist, she participated in Occupy STL in 2011, but had ample opportunity to practice decision making by consensus prior to that back in the 1980s during direct action planning in protest of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. Norris-Landry became rapt with the anti-nuclear cause and participatory consensus-building during Diablo Canyon efforts together with Starhawk, the renowned activist profiled by social movement scholar James Jasper in The Art of Moral Protest.

Norris-Landry has “adored that model” of consensus since that time, using it whenever possible. Facets of it infused her facilitation at Freedom School, because, she said, “I was a teacher in the Montessori model, so I’m not a normal teacher. Everything is about coming at it from sixty different angles, and whatever the kid can do and can learn by themselves and with their peers. … It’s to establish cooperation … peer-to-peer teaching, older peer to younger peer, younger peer to older peer — it’s a networking style.”

Having met through Occupy networking, Brown recognized quickly that Norris-Landry’s style dovetailed with what they were trying to do at Washington Park, where teachers function as facilitators, not authoritarian instructors.

Brown too, has been facilitating, “and really trying to get the kids on the track of critical thinking as opposed to that second-hand information-handed-down kind of thinking,” she said. “It’s been very exciting and very humbling.”

In addition to other weekly summer themes that include community building and caring for physical health, there is an explicit effort toward inter-disciplinary learning. Students and facilitators dialogue about and engage in activities involving oft-neglected subjects like restorative justice. Marginalized music makes it into a lesson virtually every day. They discuss issues of structural racism and white privilege. Conventional subjects like math, language, reading, writing and science are also taught, but in an applied way.

Norris-Landry and the kids participating in the Summer Challenge walked through the community garden in Washington Park that second week, discussing the science of local garden growing in the inner-city. To address a food desert issue several years back she started an urban garden – “just this little tiny garden [that] has changed people’s lives,” she reflected about the community growing project in North St. Louis, Mo.

“I knew that what I could do was teach people to grow food,” she said. “I’m real practical. … Because I know you can’t sit there and go, ‘The banks are screwing us over!’ when somebody has no food, you know what I mean? It’s basically hitting people now on that gut level: it’s food, it’s housing, it’s subsistence type of stuff.”

Many basic level needs are met at Washington Park as well, like free breakfast (such as fresh fruit, granola). Lunch is also provided. They learn collectively through food too, Brown said, referring to explanations of recipes where students — some very young — learn to apply math to everyday situations. Sometimes parents of the students provide food.

A student whose mother was originally from Aguascalientes and had spent time in Nogales, Ariz., not too far from where Norris-Landry once lived, came during the second week after hearing from her daughter how exciting the educational experience was. She made vegetarian tostadas and rice for everyone and committed to providing lunch for the school two days a week throughout the summer.

But the Freedom School goes beyond meeting basic needs. The idea is to provide safe, free and radically democratic education that is accountable to the community and not alienating for students.

Summer Challenge gathering at the Freedom School
Summer Challenge gathering at the Freedom School
They practice a kind of critical-constructivist pedagogy, says A.J. Segneri, another Freedom School facilitator. “It’s not rigid,” stressed Segneri, who helps the school with strategic planning while also operating his own non-profit organization, Foundation for a United Front, that seeks to address the failures of the political system by building community and working with people on issues of socioeconomic/ecological justice.

Segneri says there is no preconceived methodology in play. Nor are there dogmatisms or any doctrine adhered to uncritically at the school.

Yet, Freedom School praxis is informed, in part, by previous emancipatory theory. The work of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire has been influential, Segneri notes. Drawing on insights from Freirean philosophy, students at the school are not viewed as deposit boxes for dropping in nuggets of pre-packaged knowledge for rote memorization. The banking model of education is antithetical to their aims.

Segneri said students are encouraged to facilitate classes. Similarly, the Landless Workers Movement (MST) are currently trying to transform schools in Brazil in accord with their social movement aims, integrating aspects of Freirean philosophy and encouraging students to facilitate classes, as UC Berkeley doctoral student Rebecca Tarlau documented.

Freire, a proponent of dialectical thinking and dialogue, wrote that teachers should conduct thoroughgoing research and come into learning situations well-prepared. But, in underscoring the importance of communication as “life and vector for more life,” he suggested the roles of pupil and pedagogue should frequently shift in the learning process.

Brown expressed such sentiments about the Washington Park initiative.

“We leave a lot of space for the kids to step up and answer questions because we want this to be two-way learning,” she said. “We’re not just teaching kids stuff. That’s not it at all. We’re learning from the children as we go along.”

When Norris-Landry facilitated she also integrated Freirean ideas into the Freedom School curriculum, emphasizing language. She helped students begin to learn sign language, and she set up pen pal connections between Freedom School participants and students her goddaughter (also a teacher) works with in Alaska.

The drastic departure from top-down teaching is part of what makes the Freedom School so special, activists say, suggesting dominant modes of pedagogy are far too pervasive in other spheres.

Brown adds that, in the main, hierarchy “infiltrates the system” of mass education in the US, reproducing social stratification and reaffirming internalized oppression.

Much of public education is too tethered to corporate profits, Brown lamented.

“There is no reason whatsoever that there needs to be a CEO of education,” she said, pointing to the position formerly held in Chicago by current US Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan. Duncan’s agenda called for high-stakes testing — criticized by educators as a spurious method of evaluation — and allocated public funding for charter schools run by private companies.

Brown says internal contradictions threaten for-profit pedagogy in the long run.

“In a way, I feel sorry for people that decide to make their fortune in education and turn it into a business model,” she said. “Because they are going to flop.”

“We take the business out of education, essentially, and give community control to the schools,” she said. “That’s what I think should be happening.”

Coincidentally, the Freedom School started about the same time as the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) went on strike against the business model approach to education imposed by administration and state-sanctioned reform measures activists assert privilege private enterprise over the people who teach and learn in schools.

University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC) professor in Curriculum and Instruction Eric (Rico) Gutstein, together with UIC professor of Educational Policy Studies Pauline Lipman, wrote favorably about “the emergence of the CTU as a social movement union,” and acknowledge that “Chicago, a birthplace of neoliberal restructuring of public education in the United States, is now a center of the push back against it.”

The UIC professors decry the “nexus of neoliberal urban and economic development policies centered on real estate and downtown development, corporate subsidies, and privatization that has restructured the city for capital accumulation and has pushed out low-income communities of color.”

The two see CTU’s new-found social movement unionism as a boon for the public.

Brown, her 15-year-old son Omar, Norris-Landry and Segneri all adamantly support the struggle for teacher’s rights and equitable public education for all. But, they all believe The Washington Park Freedom School to be a crucial supplement to public schools in Chicago, given the gutting of the system and the incessant standardized testing that predominates.

For some, Brown says, community-centered education is actually a necessary alternative at this juncture. And like the protagonists of neighborhood pedagogy in Argentina that Sitrin describes, some activists in Chicago want nothing to do with the inextricably linked state-corporate nexus.

“The Washington Park Freedom School is autonomous,” Brown stated emphatically. “The state ain’t giving us squat, and we don’t want squat from the state.”

However, she does want to see free and critically-attuned, decentralized education available to everyone with no price-tag attached. Brown insists that kind of education is a human right.

“I’m for community control of the public education system,” she explained. “What we’re doing in Freedom School I think should be duplicated in the public school system … because it’s still our tax dollars paying for these institutions … and the people should control it.”

In the meantime, she continues to expand the Freedom School concept through public pedagogy, using interpersonal networks and social media to spread the word. Washington Park Freedom School will soon have literature and resources available to assist with other autonomous education projects, she said.

With an eye on the future, Segneri also sees autonomy taking off in far-reaching directions. “It’s more than project,” he said. “This is the real deal.”

The school’s summer quarter will finish with a “Freedom Fest” where students will have the opportunity to showcase the skills acquired and lessons learned during the Summer Challenge.

It also ends on the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which is when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I have a dream speech.”

The theme for the final week of the Freedom Summer Challenge is civil disobedience. Fitting, it seems, given that the program culminates August 28 with a mass march on city hall for peace and justice to keep King’s dream alive.

Brown said Occupy the South Side is working with the Chicago Alliance Against Racism and Political Repression to co-coordinate the mass action that day.

“We want the community to come out by the thousands and march on city hall,” Brown said, articulating the cornerstone of Freedom School autonomous education — engaged praxis for positive social change.

James Anderson is a Ph.D. student in Mass Communications and Media Arts at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. His interests include social movements, political economy, alternative media, alternative economic paradigms, world systems analysis, critical pedagogy, praxis, prefigurative politics, horizontalidad, direct action and satire. Like so many others he believes another world is possible.