Freedom School spurs social change

When Quinton Davis’ guidance counselor asked him what he planned to do over the summer, Quinton replied jokingly “help my community out.” But, his guidance counselor took him seriously and the next thing Quinton knew, he had a Chicago Freedom School application in his hand.

The Chicago Freedom School (CFS) is not a school in the traditional sense, but a summer program designed to equip participating Chicago high school students – also known as Freedom Fellows – with the tools needed to implement change in their communities.

“We don’t have an issue-based agenda. We support what the youth identify based on an informed analysis of issues and connect them with other organizations working on that (issue). It’s education and training,” says Mia Henry, Director.

Davis, a 17 year-old junior at Urban Prep Charter Academy, wants to address “street laws,” which he describes as “teaching youth about their rights on the streets and what to do if you get harassed by the police.” He is in the process of developing a workshop on the issue.

But, before Davis could begin educating others about street laws, he and 29 other students from all over Chicago were in “school” over the summer for six consecutive weeks, thirty hours a week.

“We learned things that we wouldn’t learn in (regular) school,” says Hector Nava, a 17 year-old junior at Thomas Kelly High School. “Those things helped us open our eyes to questions going on in our world.”

In its third year, the CFS curriculum involves identifying social issues in the community and developing an action plan to address an issue the student wants to change along with a mission statement to do it.

And, what is school without field trips? Every Friday last summer, the Freedom Fellows along with CFS volunteers visited different organizations, including one such trip to Access Living, an advocacy organization for the disabled, where they spoke with representatives and viewed a sensitivity video.

“Since then, I resent the word ‘retarded’ when it is being used as a negative connotation,” says Nava. “That really bugs me now. I had no clue it was such a strong word and it could actually hurt someone.”

Once the regular school year is back in session, the commitment to being a Freedom Fellow continues with monthly meetings from September through May to ensure action plans are on track and to address any related issues.

For Nava, a self-described “tech geek,” a video he created in his spare time to educate students on tolerance for one’s sexual preference raised issues he never anticipated. His principal refused to air the video on the school’s network.

“I collected over 500 signatures (on a petition), which is about 14 percent of the student body, and requested a face-to-face conference with (the principal),” says Nava. Nava has been waiting for his principal to respond.

This type of call to action is rooted in CFS’ history. As described on its website, “The Chicago Freedom School builds on the original Freedom School model by seeking to enhance Chicago youth’s connection to their histories and serving as a catalyst for youth-led social change today.”

The original Freedom School was founded in 1964 in Mississippi to address racial inequalities in the educational system at the time.

Recently, CFS received a five-year, general operating grant from the Cricket Island Foundation.

“If you look at the field of youth led social change, there isn’t anyone doing what CFS is doing,” says Liz Sak, Executive Director of Cricket Island Foundation. “We believe they are an anchor institution that has the potential to change the field.”

Lorraine Marasigan, Program Officer at Cricket Island, adds, “There is a healthy and productive youth and adult partnership. (The youth) are involved in the curriculum. They are on the board (of directors).”

CFS co-founder Alex Poeter also stresses the intergenerational aspect of the program.

“Young people and adults can work together based on mutual respect and equal decision making power,” Poeter says. “If you’re serious about sustaining long term social change, young people need to be involved.”

One Freedom Fellow is involved in addressing the issue of gang violence in her community. Nadia Dawson, a 15-year-old sophomore at Providence St. Mel High School, is currently polling her neighbors and others in the area to learn more about how they are affected by gang violence and what can be done. And, she believes she will make a difference.

“Some of (my friends) think it’s not going to work,” she says. “They’re wrong.”

To apply to be a 2009 Freedom Fellow, go to the organization's website at The application deadline is May 1.