Ella Baker Child Policy Training Institute
Knoxville, TN and Clinton, TN
After a few days acclimating to our new life in Charlotte, we four Freedom School Servant Leader Interns (SLIs) stepped on a bus to Knoxville, TN in order to become part of the movement that is Freedom School, as well as learn about the curriculum we will deliver to our scholars this summer. I didn’t know what to expect from this gathering of almost 2,000 SLIs and various officials, but I was still surprised when, getting off the bus, I was greeted to the tune of “Walk Across That Crosswalk” a song developed about walking across the crosswalk to the dorms at University of Tennessee. It was a creation of the Ella Baker Trainers (EBT), a group of fifty young students who had completed two years as SLIs and then decided to become the teachers of the reading curriculum and generally keep everyone excited and enthusiastic about training. The “Crosswalk” cheer was only the beginning of my education on the dozens of cheers and chants that are an integral part of Freedom School.
It is nearly impossible to express everything that I experienced in my short time at the training institute because of how many activities were put into the long days and evenings. Rising early in order to get on the bus at 6:15 am, the first day involved classroom sessions on topics like Classroom Management and other issues important in maintaining a safe learning environment, all of which occurred at the Anderson County High School. Haley Farm, created by the celebrated author Alex Haley and now owned by the Children’s Defense Fund, was the site of Tuesday’s training. At the farm I took part in teambuilding exercises, got to use the rock-climbing wall, and heard Gloria Lewis-Randall speak about her experiences in the Birmingham Children’s March of 1963. She was one of the most inspiring and powerful speakers of the myriad presenters who attended the institute. Her life traces the exact track of the social change that Freedom School is all about, mainly that it begins as a child or teenager. Arrested at 15 because she stopped the rape of one of her friends by a white policeman, she stayed in a torturous jail until 16 when the protests had generally ended with the signing of the Civil Rights Act. It was truly an honor to hear her stories, which she only started to share in 1999 after many years of emotional healing. The rest of the week was spent on learning the methods of the Integrated Reading Curriculum that is the totem of Freedom Schools, and Saturday was Graduation Day.
The plenary sessions each evening along with the instruction on the delivery of the reading curriculum combined to create a motivational and enlightening training. It added to my understanding of both the macro issues of social justice and equity in education, and the micro issues of aiding each kid in learning as well as possible. The distinguished list of speakers that came to the stage in Knoxville included a Harvard dean, several CEOs, Harvard professors, founders of nonprofits like United We Dream, Reverends, a freed ex-death row inmate, the youngest ever city councilman of Stockton, California, and too many others to list. One of the most inspiring and cogent presenters came in the form of Daniel Beaty, an actor, poet and singer from NYC who did several recitations of poems and acts from his one-man play, all of which were focused around the issue of America’s slavery history and the plight of the black man in today’s society. The tide of inspirational messages and powerful rhetoric that rose from the podium during the week at the Knoxville Convention Center was almost overwhelming. It allowed me to realize, however, the importance and urgency of the work that will take place at many Freedom School sites in more than 90 cities across the country.