Freedom School looks to talk tough topics with teens

Hoping to inspire young people and talk straight with them about issues of race and poverty, St. Paul organizers from American Friends Service Committee are holding a two-day workshop for teens and young adults called Freedom School.

The two-day workshop will take place during winter break on Dec. 29 and 30 at the Sun Ray Library.

Not to be confused with the St. Paul Public Schools summer program by the same name, this Freedom School seeks to address the answers to questions such as “Why are so many people of color in prison?” and “Why are people poor?” with the goal of giving youths an intellectual framework for their experiences with racism and poverty.

The two-day free class is for young people ages 14-22. So far 35 people have signed up to take part in the school session, which is the first one put on by AFSC in St. Paul. The class is just about full.

According to AFSC’s website, the school “teaches young people about racism and how to organize to undo it.”

The workshop was held in Seattle and New Orleans, and was also offered in St. Louis this September, just a month after the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, by a police officer.

Game changer

Sharon Goens-Bradley, Healing Justice Program director for AFSC in St. Paul, said she’s hoping the school will help St. Paul youths better understand what institutionalized racism is and how it affects them.

“When we think about racism, most people think of it as a person-to-person issue,” she said, “but the bigger issue is that we have things embedded into systems and policies.

“Freedom School is really helpful in teaching them how to connect the dots and see some of the larger systemic issues.”

Chris Melendez, who also works for AFSC in St. Paul, helps organize a youth group out of the Sun Ray neighborhood called Young Mentors Group, or YMG for short.

Melendez was able to recruit several YMG participants for the workshop.

Melendez attended Freedom Schools in Seattle and St. Louis. In St. Louis especially, he said the young people were very engaged.

“It was a life-changing experience for me, one that I will never forget,” he said. “The tension in the air was thick.”

He said the kids there were engaged, and able to relate to what the school was teaching them about institutional racism.

Goens-Bradley said though this is the first edition of Freedom School in the Twin Cities, it won’t be the last -- AFSC is pursuing funding to put on additional schools, which would allow for two of the workshops per year.

“We’re really excited to bring this to St. Paul,” She said. “I know this is going to be a game changer.”

Plugging kids in

Dustin Washington, program director of the AFSC’s Freedom School in Seattle, will be flying out to help run the first St. Paul workshop. Washington has been working with AFSC for 15 years.

He’s been running the school in Seattle, with the hope of helping young people understand systemic poverty, he said.

While talking about big social issues with teens could seem daunting, Washington said they have responded positively at the workshops.

“When you talk honestly with kids, they get it,” he said. “They get it, in many ways, more easily than adults do. They have a hunger for this information.”

Washington said at the schools in Seattle, the class is typically at capacity.

Out of Freedom School, he said a number of young people end up joining a group called Youth Undoing Institutional Racism, a year-round organization put on by AFSC.

According to the AFSC website, “YUIR is a multi-racial, intergenerational community organizing group. YUIR is youth-focused and committed to promoting meaningful and sustained youth engagement in civic society.”

In short, Washington said the school can lead kids to become involved in social activism, as he’s seen in Seattle.

“That’s what I know is going to happen in St. Paul as well,” he said.

Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at Follow him on Twitter at @ESRPatrickLark.


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