Equity & Justice Institute Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools® program demonstrates the power of partnerships.
A morning assembly called “Harambee” (meaning “all pull together” in Swahili) opened the day at the Equity & Justice Institute Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools® program. Rising first- through eighth-grade students, known as the program’s “scholars,” gathered in Roth Hall. They heard announcements, practiced morning meditation and listened as special guests read books featuring diverse identities and stories. At the end of the assembly, the scholars rose to their feet to sing the CDF Freedom Schools “anthem,” Labi Siffre’s “Something Inside So Strong.” As the children sang the lyrics—“I know that I can make it”—the dedicated work of numerous community partners reverberated throughout the room.
Inspired by the Mississippi Freedom Summer project of 1964, the CDF Freedom Schools program aims to empower young people by promoting literacy, civic engagement and social action. Thanks to the generosity of multiple donors, including lead gifts from funding partner Pacific Western Bank and the Office of Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, the program is free of charge at Crossroads.
“Since our founding, Crossroads School has always been concerned about access and equity in education,” explained Head of School Bob Riddle.
According to Equity & Justice Institute Founding Director Derric J. Johnson, the CDF Freedom Schools program’s success at Crossroads “centers on the premise of collective impact strategies”—in other words, “bringing disparate agencies together to create a cohesive program.”
Two of the key community partners this summer were Virginia Avenue Park and Santa Monica College. Located less than a mile from the School, Virginia Avenue Park offers free programs and services to families in the Pico neighborhood, the most diverse community in the city of Santa Monica. A few years ago, Carla Fantozzi, the park’s principal supervisor of its Housing and Human Services Division, helped connect parents in the community who were concerned about their children’s learning loss over the summer with Crossroads. Initially, Crossroads offered the School’s annual summer programs to the neighboring students at no cost. This past year, the School instead proposed the CDF Freedom Schools program to the Pico families.
“I was overjoyed,” recalls Carla. “I knew that this would be a program that could really address some of the inequities that a lot of our families have faced educationally and bring more cultural resources as well.”
Over fifty neighborhood families signed up for the program. Dr. Shirley Compton, a member of the Virginia Avenue Park Advisory Board and founder of the Santa Monica-based nonprofit Global Citizens Leadership, served as the executive director of the Equity & Justice Institute CDF Freedom Schools program; Janeen Jackson, Crossroads’ Middle and Upper School arts coordinator, served as the site administrator.
To hire instructors—who are called “servant leader” interns, a reference to the term used by civil rights activist Ella Baker—the Equity & Justice Institute partnered with Santa Monica College. After posting the job opportunity to students in their Black Collegians and Adelante (meaning “Ahead” in Spanish, a Latinx student group) programs, they received more than 100 applicants for only seven available servant leader intern positions. It was an “overwhelming response,” says Black Collegians Program Leader Sherri Bradford. “[The Santa Monica College students] found it was a way to give back as students of color themselves wanting to be very much involved in the student population that you’re serving here through the [CDF Freedom Schools program].”
Over six weeks, the scholars and servant leader interns filled Crossroads’ Middle School classrooms. They engaged in an integrated reading curriculum featuring books by and about people of color, cooperative learning activities and—like the Freedom School students of the 1960s—lessons on social justice movements. Weekly workshops with representatives from community partner Snap Inc. supplemented the program. During the first and final weeks, Diane Manuel, the founder and director of the organization Create Success Lab, conducted scholar reading assessments, which enabled families to chart their children’s growth over the course of the summer.
In addition to these classroom experiences, the program also included two field trips. A partnership with the J. Paul Getty Museum led the scholars and servant leader interns on an excursion to the stunning mountaintop campus to view two exhibitions: “In Focus: Protest,” featuring photographs taken during various social movements; and “Photo Flux: Unshuttering LA,” showcasing works primarily by LA-based emerging artists of color.
“We’re trying to get kids to be able to see themselves within the works, see themselves within the reading, and connect that to their own lived experience,” said Derric. “So it keeps kids intentionally engaged, but also makes them more curious about all the things that exist out in the community, out in the world, in text, in the world of art, that relate to them.”
Marlon Turcios, one of the servant leader interns, reiterated, “It's important to expose students to art so that they know that they have creative outlets to be able to express how they feel about certain events and also so that they know that they can make a difference in the world, specifically through the use of creativity.”
The next week, the scholars and servant leader interns boarded the Expo Line on the Metro to visit the aquarium of the environmental advocacy group Heal the Bay in Santa Monica. The scholars learned how to protect the oceans and their inhabitants and interacted with live sea creatures under the guidance of marine biologists.
Another critical element in fostering the scholars’ growth was supporting and involving their families as well. Given that economic insecurity can directly impact a child’s performance in school, the Equity & Justice Institute collaborated with Pacific Western Bank and the nonprofit organization Haven Neighborhood Services to offer parents and community members a free financial wellness workshop, held in both English and Spanish, on a Saturday morning at Virginia Avenue Park.
At the conclusion of the six weeks, the scholars’ families and friends came to Crossroads to experience the Equity & Justice Institute CDF Freedom Schools program themselves. Each class of scholars presented research on the history and culture of a country of their choosing. They also shared their favorite books—which were among the books distributed to them weekly to build their home libraries—that they read over the summer. Servant leader interns then distributed certificates in a closing ceremony at the end of the day.
“Our teachers are so amazing because they help. They teach us so well,” said scholar Lelani Brandt after the ceremony.
Orit Abdul, a parent of two program scholars, reflected that her children “actually woke up everyday wanting to come to school.”
Parent Noelle Lewis added, “The Freedom School is a wonderful, one-of-a-kind, unicorn type of experience.”
The summer of 2021 was the inaugural offering in a three-year commitment for the Equity & Justice Institute to host the CDF Freedom Schools program. “It's my hope that many other independent schools will follow our lead and become a CDF Freedom Schools site one day,” Bob noted.
As the summer came to an end, another Harambee tradition echoed across the campus and to each of the partners in the surrounding community: the scholars cheering, "Good job! Good job! / Good job! Good job! / G-O-O-D J-O-B! / Good Job! Good Job!"