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Another ‘Freedom Summer’

Kids learn about civil rights era in local program

(Published August 23, 1999)


Staff Writer

It’s just another busy afternoon at Sojourners Neighborhood Center. Five small children are draped on the steps of the three-story building, coloring and reading. Others are playing ball and hula-hoop. On the previous Friday, they were buzzing around, preparing and planning their activities for Peace Day.

Peace Day is a national event celebrated every August by "freedom schools" across the country. On this day of peace, the students at Sojourners Freedom School at 1323 Girard St. NW get to plan their own activities. This year, students spent most of the day creating posters, performing and competing in a hula hoop contest.

But the highlight at Sojourners Peace Day was a visit from U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., who participated in the 1961 freedom rides through the then-racially-segregated South and rose to prominence in the civil rights movement.

"When he kneeled down to speak to them, they were all over him," said director Marion Brown. "They just loved him."

Sojourners Freedom School is a six-week program during which about 50 students from ages 5-15 fill the center to learn about the civil rights movement through lessons in academic enrichment, conflict resolution, cultural awareness, recreation and community service.

The program, inspired by the legacy of 1960s freedom schools, was started in 1995 in collaboration with the Black Community Crusade for Children, an affiliate of the Children’s Defense Fund. Sojourners is one of 46 freedom schools in 22 cities.

Freedom Schools were first established during the "Freedom Summer" of 1964 in Mississippi to teach poor black citizens, who had been denied access to many public education programs, to read and write so they could participate in the political process.

Today in schools like Sojourners, promoting literacy remains an essential part of the curriculum.

"Throughout the day, all the children read and chant affirmations like ‘I love myself’ and ‘I am an African-American,’" said Paula Capers, the Sojourners’ children’s director.

Upon entering Sojourners, first floor visitors notice a colorful motif continues on the wall along the stairs, with Swahili proverbs scrawled over them.

On Wednesday in the late morning, the basement classrooms start to fill up with Level I students who settle down from being outside. Servant leader Marion Scotchmer announces that it’s "DEAR" (drop everything and read) time. Immediately the children get quiet and dive into their personally selected books and read silently for about 15 minutes.

On the wall behind them are several pictures of the same cutout figure, each clothed in different uniforms.

"This was during Week 5 when we talked about what they wanted to be when they grew up," Scotchmer said. The freedom school’s curriculum emphasizes English, foreign languages, art, creative writing, mathematics and science. The schedule focuses a lot on reading with reading time at 9:15 a.m. and DEAR time at 11:45 a.m.

The Freedom School daily schedule is almost like a normal school day, with breakfast at 8 a.m., lunchtime and then dismissal at 3 p.m. What makes the freedom school’s schedule different is Harambee Time. Harambee time is when students, staff and volunteers share ideas and stories about their culture and community. At about 10:15 a.m. is conflict management time, during which students learn skills to resolve conflicts creatively. At 1 p.m. it’s art/community service time, when children participate in planned music, dance and sports. This is usually followed by snack time at 2:45 p.m. Dismissal is at 3 p.m.

On the second floor are the Level II classes made up of students from ages 7-11. On the third floor, the Level III class is reading, listening to music and making bracelets.

"This is their chill-out time," said servant leader Yael Zakai. Past assignments also decorate Level III’s walls. "Last week they did family trees and family shields," she said, pointing towards the first wall near the door. Each student’s tree was distinct, and most of them were not drawn in the shape of a tree. One student did his in the shape of a lizard.

The kids also plan all their own fundraisers, events and trips. This summer they’ve been to a water park in Maryland, Six Flags amusement park and were invited to Howard University to perform. Capers said the children raised $2,800 when they held a fundraiser called "Kids in the Kitchen" for which they held an open house at the center and served spaghetti dinners to parents and others in the community.

"They prepared the menu, took orders, cooked, waited, sold the dinners," said Capers. "They even made cake."

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator