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Kimberly R. Daniel: Christian innovation must change the status quo to help the marginalized

Some modes of innovation focus more on helping existing institutions survive changes in the world rather than changing the world into a more equitable place.

Such innovation, argues Kimberly R. Daniel, isn’t Christian innovation.

“Christian innovation is a type of innovation that advances life,” Daniel says. “It results in healing of the world.”

Daniel and her co-author, Stephen Lewis, have written a resource titled “A Way out of No Way: An Approach to Christian Innovation” with this in mind.

In the book, they offer steps, lessons and examples from the many Christian social entrepreneurs they have met and trained over the past five years to show a mode of Christian innovation that does bring change.

A Way Out of No Way

Lewis is the president of the Forum for Theological Exploration, and Daniel is the senior director of communications at FTE and co-founder of an Atlanta-based startup accelerator.

Daniel spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Chris Karnadi about the resource and how readers can use it to identify what next steps might be for their ideas for Christian innovation. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: How did this book come about, and what inspired you to publish it?

Kimberly R. Daniel: Back in 2017, we began to host some small gatherings, which were really sparked by some questions that Stephen and I had. Questions like, “What do Christians from diverse communities think about Christian innovation?” or, “How have they been innovating?” or even, “What innovation have we and our ancestors experienced in our communities before this term was even coined?”

So at FTE, the Forum for Theological Exploration, where both of us are leaders, we hosted these small gatherings of entrepreneurs and asked them those questions — entrepreneurs, pastors, community leaders who were and still are designing and imagining new ways to help their particular communities, versed in their specific contexts.

By launching this five-city listening tour and launching a startup accelerator for early-stage, underrepresented entrepreneurs in 2017, we connected with more than 200 folks — innovators and leaders working at the intersections of faith, church community and business. In this, we learned that not all innovation done by Christians can legitimately claim to be Christian innovation.

Stephen and I both come from the Black community, which has lived on the underside of imperial progress and is well acquainted with frugal innovation, which we commonly call “making a way out of no way” — hence the title of the book.

So from these questions that we had to the small gatherings that we had to the accelerator program and our own lived experiences, we were inspired to write “A Way out of No Way,” because we don’t need any more innovation that gives economic opportunities that benefit just an elite minority.

We want this book to be pretty much a blueprint and a guide to practicing the type of innovation that addresses individual and systemic inequalities that fit the plight of everyday people, not the elite few.

F&L: In your view, what disqualifies something from actually being Christian innovation?

KRD: There are innovative and entrepreneurial endeavors that have nothing to do with the lived experience and the plight of people who are disenfranchised, who are socially vulnerable, who have minimal resources. These types of innovation just didn’t meet what we see as coming from being rooted in Jesus’ teachings and sticking to “the least of these.”

There are a lot of people who are seen as Christian innovators, but a lot of times, they primarily exist to either help their institutions navigate the cultural shifts or to change their institutions to be relevant and responsive to changes in society. So in these cases, innovation is a practice for Christians for the primary benefit of the institutions, their traditions and their programing.

While there is definitely importance in this type of innovation, given all the challenges that people and religious institutions have faced, especially over the past several years, this is insufficient to be understood as Christian innovation.

I think it’s a misconception that if Christian leaders effectively navigate their institutions through these difficult challenges and keep their institutions and people intact or they successfully transfer the institutions, that they’re deemed innovative. Yes, they may be deemed innovative, but when we’re talking about Christian innovation in particular, in our book we advocate for what’s rooted in Jesus’ teachings about God’s preferential starting place — to benefit the disenfranchised, socially vulnerable, underresourced and undervalued.

F&L: What are some models you’ve found that are truly Christian innovation?

KRD: If we’re talking about people who are doing innovation rooted in addressing these particular communities, that might be someone like Kit Evans-Ford, who went through the accelerator program in 2017 that Stephen and I co-founded.

She developed and launched and has a thriving business that she calls her ministry that is rooted in addressing women who are survivors of domestic violence and abuse. Her business ties into her own story and into her ancestors’ stories and is helping create a healing community for these women who have often been overlooked and who have just been trying to survive.

She is giving them a place and a space to thrive, giving them an opportunity to create some economic value by employing these women, giving them free services to help them heal as they move through their journeys. So whether that’s spiritual reflection or therapy or a chiropractor or coming together and having some studies with one another, she is providing this community center, and she’s providing a place to employ these women.

That’s one example. There are six steps in the book about how to do Christian innovation, and she’s tied to the last step, which we name “Do it,” when you’re actually implementing your solution. That’s the very last step. She has gone through all the steps, and she is doing the work for the benefit of a particular community.

lotion bottles
Bottles of lotion from Kit Evans-Ford’s business, Argrow’s House of Healing and Hope.Photo courtesy of Argrow’s House

Or another example might be LivFul, which was co-founded by Hogan Bassey, who is a Nigerian-born man who was experimenting with a solution to a problem that his particular community faced, which was malaria.

He had been infected with malaria four or more times by the time he was 10 years old, and so he started testing out an insect repellent that soon became the seed for LivFul, which initially offered this award-winning insect repellent to heal his community and also provide them with an opportunity to have access to it, because repellents were [not readily accessible] to them at the time.

He provided easy access to this insect repellent so that he could save lives and hopefully help people flourish. LivFul offers a lot more now, but that’s just a little highlight.

F&L: What do you hope readers would learn from the book?

KRD: We hope that through this book people are able to have concrete steps they can take and practices they can engage in to help them identify their next most faithful step in exploring innovation.

We want them to understand what Christian innovation truly is, and what we are advocating for, which again, like I’ve already said, is rooted in Jesus’ teachings, addressing those who are disenfranchised, undervalued, vulnerable in our families, in our communities and in our society.

That is very important, and we hope that the book serves as a blueprint for innovators, for people who may be innovators, people who are leaders, educators, and for communities, to create a more just world by developing solutions to stubborn social problems.

This book is really for people who are innovators — innovators who are within the church context or other forms of faith communities, people who are drawn toward social entrepreneurship and driven by their faith to make a positive impact on communities.

This book is for educators who are teaching the innovators who will come into our communities. This book is for communities in and of itself. We want people to be clear about the ways that they can faithfully do innovation that meets the needs and provides healing and opportunities for flourishing and empowers everyday people.

F&L: How should a reader use the six steps that you outline in the book to identify Christian innovation?

KRD: In every chapter, it begins with an overview of that particular step. I think someone who is already working on some type of innovative ministry or has an entrepreneurial venture that they’re trying to develop would get clear about whether that’s the step they’re at and the one they should focus on.

I think what is a benefit to this particular book is that in each step, you can go to the end with these interactive exercises that will give you some concrete and tangible practices and questions that you can consider that will help you refine what it is that you’re doing to make sure that you’re actually meeting the needs of people within your community. I would say to start there.

But in looking at the steps just broadly, it’s pretty clear that when you “Get curious,” you’re really starting with a question. You’re wondering why things are the way they are in order to develop a solution, whether it’s a ministry or a business venture. You’re getting curious about the problem, the need, the desire that you see within a particular community.

Then you’re moving from that and you “Make meaning” of what is coming up — what came up in your curiosity and what that might mean for these insights. Then you need to “Be open” to what emerges from God, what emerges from your community in order to further build out your ministry.

Then you just need to try it, experiment with it, develop something. Even if it’s not perfect, “Try this” to see if it even works, and then show that you can “Prove it” works, from hearing from the community. Ask and see if it’s actually making an impact in the way that you hope it does.

Once you prove it, just “Do it.” Looking at the highlights of each step, I think, will give people a sense of where they might need to focus, and then leveraging the interactive exercises that we have at the very end following Stephen’s theological reflections can be very helpful.

Rhiannon Giddens had never heard of Omar ibn Said until Nigel Redden, then the general director of Spoleto Festival USA, approached her about writing an opera based on an enslaved Muslim man who had lived in North Carolina.

The Grammy Award-winning musician was curious, and also slightly angry. Growing up in North Carolina, this was not part of the history she was taught, Giddens told a Charleston, South Carolina, audience at the festival this past spring.

Rhiannon Giddens
Rhiannon GiddensPhoto by Ebru Yildiz
Omar autobiography
Said’s handwritten autobiography was acquired by the Library of Congress in 2017.Photo courtesy of Spoleta Festival USA

Said was not included in history textbooks, or even in libraries, until the Library of Congress acquired his autobiography in 2017. The 15-page manuscript, penned nearly 200 years ago when Said was 61, is the only known surviving autobiography written in Arabic by an enslaved person in America. After several translations into English, the original manuscript lay forgotten for nearly a century in a dusty trunk in Virginia. Its recent rediscovery has sparked interest among academics — and creativity onstage.

The emergence of this man’s autobiography comes in a fraught season of reckoning over whose stories have been told and whose have been ignored in the narration of American history. At the same time, while some American Christians have begun to more fully acknowledge the faith’s role in racial oppression, others have come to more fully embrace a nationalist vision rooted in division and racism.

Omar opera
Said fled his first enslaver near Charleston. He was captured and enslaved, again, in North Carolina.Photo by William Struhs

The opera “Omar,” which premiered at Spoleto this past May, offers a window into the defining role Said’s faith played in his extraordinary life, undergirded by his own telling.

For Giddens, the invitation from Redden to bring the story to the stage was a welcome challenge. The multi-instrumentalist and classically trained opera singer is known for her genre-crossing talent — an Americana-roots-country-folk-classical mashup, plus a voice that knows no bounds and an intellect to match — all fueled by her passion for recovering and celebrating African American musical history.

The MacArthur fellow and co-founder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who in 2020 was named artistic director of the Silkroad Ensemble (her predecessor was Yo-Yo Ma), has embraced the fretless banjo in recent years, an instrument with African roots and ties to the kora.

Giddens’ songwriting has delved deep into narratives of her enslaved ancestors, imagining their lives and stories in heart-wrenching tunes like “At the Purchaser’s Option” on her acclaimed album “Freedom Highway,” nominated for Album of the Year at the 2017 Americana Music Honors & Awards. As her website says, she uses her art “to excavate the past and reveal bold truths about our present.”

Whose stories are silenced in your community? How can you discover these stories?

Omar opera
The opera comes at a time of reckoning over which voices are amplified in the telling of history and which are silenced or ignored.Photo by Leigh Webber

So re-imagining Said’s life, especially for the operatic stage, and especially for a premier music and arts festival, was right up Giddens’ alley. “Opera,” she said, “is a format for big stories.”

Big is one thing, but Giddens knew a project of this magnitude required a creative partner, and Michael Abels, a composer best known for his scores for the Jordan Peele films “Get Out,” “Us” and, most recently, “Nope,” was the partner she wanted. Though the two had never met, much less worked together, Abels jumped at the opportunity.

“Our collaboration was immediate, from our very first meeting,” said Abels, who embellished Giddens’ libretto and initial melodies with his orchestration. He and Giddens set about researching just who Said was and why and how his long-buried story of spiritual journey, religious integrity and tenacity could make compelling opera.

This was all in early 2018, shortly after the Library of Congress digitized Said’s autobiography, which initially sparked Redden’s idea for the opera. The plan was for the new work to debut at the 2020 Spoleto Festival USA, coinciding with its host city’s 350th anniversary and the anticipated opening of the International African American Museum.

The pandemic, however, delayed the production for two years. In the meantime, as Giddens and Abels and their production team continued to collaborate virtually, George Floyd was murdered, and the world, already in the midst of one pandemic, was riveted by the racial reckoning and unrest of another.

It was as if the tattered, yellowing daguerreotype of Said — an elegant elder in a black suit, his hand resting regally on a cane, his heavy brow and haunting eyes staring straight at us — was imploring, “Here I am. Here we all are. Listen up.”

What stories have you uncovered that need to be told “big”? Who in your community has the talent and audience to tell big stories? What does collaboration with other storytellers look like in your community?

Omar opera
Said was 37 when he was kidnapped from his home in what is now French Senegal in 1807.Photo by Leigh Webber

Who was Omar ibn Said?

While most people, like Giddens, had never heard of Said, Islamic scholar Hussein Rashid had.

Rashid, a Muslim American who earned a doctorate in Near Eastern studies from Harvard, has taught in higher education, including at Columbia University and Virginia Theological Seminary. He is a consultant on religious literacy and cultural competency, with a focus on Islam and popular culture.

“In the study of Islam in the United States, there are only a couple of early figures we have primary source documentation on, and one is Omar,” said Rashid, who provided historical and religious context to the opera’s creators.

What is known about the historical Said is slim, based on 15 or so texts, including letters and verses he inscribed, his autobiography, documents from the family who owned him in his later years, and other historical records.

“I wish to be seen in our land called Africa, in a place on the river,” Said wrote in a letter dated 1819. In his autobiography, he states that he was born in Futa Toro (now a part of French Senegal), “between the two rivers,” although the exact location remains unclear.

He learned Arabic from his uncle and was educated in Muslim schools, memorizing passages from the Quran. He was 37 when “infidels” attacked his village in 1807.

“A big army came, and they killed a lot of people,” he wrote. Said was sold to “a Christian man who bought me and walked me to the big ship in the big sea.”

After spending a month and a half at sea, a scene depicted in the opera by wrenching historical sketches of ship hulls stacked with human cargo, he arrived in Charleston at Gadsden’s Wharf — less than a mile from where his namesake opera would be staged. He was on one of the last slave ships to sail into the city before the trans-Atlantic slave trade was outlawed in 1808.

After his initial enslavement by a “wicked little man,” likely a rice plantation owner near Charleston, Said fled and escaped to Fayetteville, North Carolina. There he was caught and jailed.

Said used bits of charcoal to inscribe verses from the Quran on his cell walls. His exotic calligraphy, mysterious and untranslatable to the local white population, piqued the curiosity and interest of many, including the sheriff’s son-in-law, a wealthy planter named James Owen.

For the next two decades, Said lived and worked as a house servant for the Owen family.

“I continue in the hands of Jim Owen, who does not beat me, nor calls me bad names, nor subjects me to hunger, nakedness, or hard work,” his autobiography recounts.

Given his education, piety and position as an elder, Said was afforded special status. Owen, a devout Presbyterian, gave him an Arabic Bible and took him to church, where he was eventually baptized.

As the abolition movement gained traction and fears of slave uprisings spread, whites like Owen believed that successfully converting Africans to Christianity could justify slavery. When Said was given a tablet of cream-colored paper and asked to write his story, he understood the delicate line he was treading.

“I am Omar,” he wrote in his elegant script, opening his autobiography with lines from the Surah Al-Mulk.

“In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate. May God bless our Lord Muhammad …” These, too, are the opening lyrics of “Omar,” which Abels set to the pulsing, resonant, drum-heavy rhythm of the earliest known African melody that enslaved people brought to America — “a very deliberate choice,” Abels said.

As the curtain rises, elaborate Arabic script dances across a translucent scrim. The text takes center stage, both in the scene design and in the opera’s breathtaking costumes. Said’s handwriting transforms from a series of written characters to a main character. It is given life.

Who are the students of the peoples that make up your community? What can you learn about the heroes of the people’s faith, families and homelands?

Omar opera
Written when he was 61, Said’s manuscript is the only known surviving autobiography in Arabic by an enslaved person in America.Photo by Leigh Webber

Richness of the religious landscape

To scholars like Rashid, who serves on the advisory board of the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, one of numerous funders of the opera, Said is historically significant “because figures like Omar help disabuse the notion that enslaved people were ignorant savages,” he said. “He challenges the mythos of the good of enslavement.”

Said’s life and faith also shed light on the high percentage of Muslims — estimated at 1 in 5 enslaved Africans — who were in the United States.

“Omar’s text also demonstrates the reality of religious fluidity,” Rashid said, noting that he quoted from both the Quran and the Psalms. “Yes, he’s praising Jesus, but no, that doesn’t mean Omar converted. Jesus is revered as an important prophet in Islam.”

Rather, his referencing Christianity points to Said’s intelligence and resilience. He understood that, despite his elevated status, he still wrote as a vulnerable captive; he needed to please his master.

“Said was protecting himself,” said Muhammad Fraser-Rahim, an assistant professor at The Citadel and, like Rashid, a consultant to the opera team.

Said embodies the fact that “American religion expresses itself in many ways,” Fraser-Rahim said. “This isn’t whirling dervish Sufism. Being a Muslim from Senegal is different from being Muslim in Tunisia.”

Basing an opera on Said’s life “challenges this idea of Islam as ‘other’ and Muslims as ‘hyperboogey man,’ as has been prevalent post-9/11; it shows that, in fact, Muslims have been here all along, and their legacy has helped shape this country,” Fraser-Rahim said.

“What Rhiannon did and what the opera has done is offer these wonderful glimpses of the richness of our religious landscape. It contributes to our imagination of what American religion can be.”

And for Giddens and Abels, for the cast and audiences, it expands the landscape of what opera can be.

How does the viewpoint of the privileged hide the identity of people in your community? What does it look like to make the invisible visible?

Omar opera
The opera offers “glimpses of the richness of our religious landscape. It contributes to our imagination of what American religion can be.”Photo by Leigh Webber

Music as spiritual practice

Imagining the real Said and his life, his suffering, his faith, his understanding of this new world in which he was violently thrust was “a very spiritual process,” Giddens said in a talk about creating the opera. “We can only try to evoke the spirit of Omar [through] what we have of his, passed down to us.”

Abels shares similar beliefs about the creative process.

“Writing music is a spiritual practice,” he said. “Music comes from a higher power, and the best music never feels like you’re writing it, just transcribing it, so I’m trying to get myself out of the way. My assignment is to bring it to the world.

“‘Omar’ was and is just a really good example of that, because of the subject matter. I can have that same experience in writing a film score, but for ‘Omar,’ it is ultimately a spiritual journey. That’s what the piece is about.”

Abels’ score weaves Western, more European orchestration when characters like Owen, the plantation owner, are singing with music that draws on slave melodies, spirituals, ragtime, early jazz and music that came from the Muslim diaspora.

“That added a kind of peace to it,” Abels said. “When Omar was praying and centered in his faith, the music conveys the sense of spiritual grounding he felt. As a non-Muslim but one who understands how faith provides solace and grounding, that’s where I was coming from.”

Abels recounted watching members of the audience during the second night’s performance, especially a number of people wearing head coverings and Muslim clothing. At the end of the opera, the chorus leaves the stage and, while chanting, processes into the aisles.

“Their chanting starts small and grows, then dies away very slowly, a centuries-old technique called a circular canon, like a round. Very meditative, by design,” Abels said. “The theatrical side of me loves ending a performance with a bang, but Rhiannon and I felt this was not the time to do that.”

As he watched these audience members, it appeared to Abels by their hand gestures that some were worshipping.

“That they would feel this was a spiritual place to them said everything,” Abels said.

“Omar” opens next at LA Opera, Oct. 22-Nov. 13, 2022, and then May 4-7, 2023, at Boston Lyric Opera. The opera is co-commissioned and co-produced by Spoleto Festival USA and Carolina Performing Arts at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Additional co-commissioners include LA Opera, Boston Lyric Opera, San Francisco Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago.

What are the musical styles of your community? How do you listen to those styles, and what are you learning?

Questions to consider

  • Whose stories are silenced in your community? How can you discover these stories?
  • What stories have you uncovered that need to be told “big”? Who in your community has the talent and audience to tell big stories? What does collaboration with other storytellers look like in your community?
  • Who are the students of the peoples that make up your community? What can you learn about the heroes of the people’s faith, families and homelands?
  • How does the viewpoint of the privileged hide the identity of people in your community? What does it look like to make the invisible visible?
  • What are the musical styles of your community? How do you listen to those styles, and what are you learning?

While visiting Durham for job interviews in February 2015, I needed a haircut. I sought out the local Latino center, hoping to learn a bit about programs that I might support and to get a recommendation for a stylist as I scoped out the area.

Despite a rare snow, the center was open, although lightly staffed. Alex, the Central American facilitator of LGBTQ support services, greeted me kindly and gave me a brief tour, introducing me to the center’s work. When I asked for hairstylist recommendations, he pulled out a card and made a phone call.

“Yes, she is a woman,” I heard him say in Spanish. He gave me the address and directions and sent me on my way with a warm embrace.

The bells attached to the glass door rang as I pushed it open. Paco, a Mexican in his 40s, welcomed me warmly to the peluquería and then tastefully trimmed my short hair as we exchanged stories about each other’s families and day-to-day lives.

I continued making appointments with him for the next five years. I marveled at his social skills and styling talent while also gaining a sense of his insecurities and limited circles of trust.

When the pandemic began, I told Paco (whose name I have changed to protect his anonymity) that I would not be coming in for a while but would be sending him some money. I asked him to call if he needed me. It was as if we both understood that I was more than a customer; I was also a friend with documents and with mutual concern for his safety and well-being.

One day, some months later, he did call. I was gardening in the front yard and put the spade down to give him my full attention. Paco was worried, speaking fast. An immigration officer had come to his door, and now Paco was convinced he could be deported soon. He told me where to find his cash in his apartment and asked whether I would be willing to wire it to a cousin in Mexico if he were to be picked up.

Gratefully, his fears were not realized. He continues to work and live locally but with the precarity shared by an estimated 10.5 million of our Mexican siblings in the U.S., fully one-fourth of the U.S. foreign-born population.

How is this possible? Nothing more represents for me the fracture and pain of federal inaction than our lack of success at updating our immigration laws, a major public policy priority for my church for more than two decades. A recent Pew research survey found that 4 in 10 Latinos worry that they or someone close to them could be deported, even though only one-third of Latinos in the U.S. are immigrants.

Our nondocumented sisters and brothers are not “in the shadows” so much as in a cage of fear in a land where they give so much while often suffering wage theft or enduring harassment and threats.

Latinos, for a long time primarily clustered in nine states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York and Texas), are now dispersed throughout our nation, joining and leading us in worship, fixing our roads, remodeling and landscaping our houses, caring for our elderly and our children, finding scientific cures, gifting us in all of the arts, and solving our tech problems. As the Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC) and Prospera emphasize, Latinos are not taking jobs; they are creating jobs, yet “there is an increasing hostility toward immigrants in our workforce and in our communities.”

Advocates in some states are combatting hostility with welcome campaigns. In Nebraska, an effort entitled “We Are Home” shares the message “Immigrant Nebraskans are lights in our families and communities.”

The message continues: “Congress has not meaningfully updated our immigration laws in more than 35 years, causing unnecessary harm to local families and communities. It’s time for full inclusion of family and longtime community members.”

The FaithAction ID initiative and similar parish identification card programs bring together churches, nonprofits and police departments to foster greater security and avenues for immigrant participation. Efforts supporting dignified work are especially life-giving.

Immigrant entrepreneurs in rural communities are finding support with bilingual business development specialists at the Center for Rural Affairs, with links to banks where business owners can open accounts with an individual taxpayer identification number (ITIN) issued by the IRS to those with documents to prove their identity and foreign status.

In North Carolina, the Cooperativa Latin@ Credit Union offers microbusiness savings accounts for those with a government-issued ID from any country and a valid ITIN.

Groups like Prospera in Oakland, California, help enterprising immigrant women learn how to overcome internal and external barriers and launch successful cooperative enterprises. Interest in this business model is growing, according to the SELC. To fill the gap in bilingual legal and technical help, they are partnering with Prospera to offer training and resources, including this website with state-by-state legal information for cooperatives.

The SELC and Prospera have a vision of building a national ecosystem to support immigrant-owned cooperatives. “Why immigrant-owned cooperatives?” they ask. “To address the root causes of wealth inequality and institutional racism, we need to put ownership and control back in the hands of those most marginalized by the dominant economy.”

What would it look like if churches helped realize this vision and collaborated with community partners promoting kin-dom values? One exemplary effort is Omaha Catholic Charities’ immigrant microbusiness training and startup loan program. In 2020 it received an innovation challenge grant to share its training model and curriculum with six other Catholic Charities agencies across the U.S.

I pray that more of us in Christian leadership will seek out ways to support local immigrant businesses, prioritizing them and partnering for organizational vendor and service needs, including catering, translating and tech, while also staying attentive to — and participating in — needed advocacy for just and humane immigration reform.

As a personal solidarity exercise that might be a simple Christian practice for you also, consider this: Try a barber or hairdresser at a peluquería. Don’t do it to save money but to connect and to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God.

Nothing more represents for me the fracture and pain of federal inaction than our lack of success at updating our immigration laws, a major public policy priority for my church for more than two decades.


Suggestions for visiting a peluquería

  • Offer a greeting and request what you need: “Buenos dias. Deseo un corte de pelo por favor.” [Hello. I’d like a haircut, please.]
  • Wait for an answer or a motion of where to wait or sit.
  • If you want to know how much they charge, ask, “Cuanto cuesta?” (Brush up on your numbers before you go. “Quince” is 15. “Veinte” is 20. “Veinte y cinco” is 25.)
  • Demonstrate with your hands or a photo what kind of cut you would like.
  • Try to make some small talk if you know some Spanish or try a few questions in English and see whether you are understood and can converse a bit. Smiles will also go a long way.
  • At the end, give a big tip, even double the amount charged. Don’t get a cut there to save money but to connect with a sibling.

At an airy school site in southeast Washington, D.C., several children gather around an outdoor planter filled with espresso-colored dirt. It’s about 3:30 on a bright summer afternoon, and the students have been there since morning.

They began the day with harambee, a high-energy ritual that lets students pull together and celebrate themselves, before going into a sewing exercise and then a nutrition lesson. Now comes the gardening, where they learn a handy fact — how lavender can repel mosquitos — and start to grow their own plants.

As these students — known here as scholars — congregate, a college-age instructor (also known as a servant leader) watches over them while parents and other site staff linger outside and inside the school.

All of this is part of a Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools six-week summer session. And since CDF’s mission is “to ensure every child a healthy start, a head start, a fair start, a safe start and a moral start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities,” this program is key.

children's activity
Harambee is a high-energy start to the day as the scholars celebrate themselves and pull together.

In fact, CDF Freedom Schools, also offered as after-school programs, are the “heart and soul” of what the Children’s Defense Fund is doing for children and their well-being, said the Rev. Dr. Starsky Wilson, CDF’s president and chief executive officer. Through CDF’s partnerships and work with children, families and communities, Wilson said, the program “helps us to prioritize what we’re speaking about, what we’re advocating around, and the policies we believe families need to create the conditions for their children to thrive.”

A program with history

CDF has a record of helping communities. Civil rights pioneer Marian Wright Edelman, credited as the first Black woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar, founded the nonprofit in 1973 after dedicating her early career to defending the civil liberties of people who faced poverty and discrimination.

Today, the CDF Freedom Schools program is offered to students in kindergarten through 12th grade around the country in community centers, schools, juvenile justice centers, churches and other settings. In 2021, more than 7,200 scholars participated in programs in 26 states and 75 cities.

Freedom Schools have their origin in the Mississippi Freedom Summer project of 1964, which gathered college students to work for justice and voting rights for Black citizens. Back then, these college students volunteered to teach younger students traditional subjects like reading, math and science, along with Black history, constitutional rights and other topics not covered in Mississippi public schools, said Kristal Moore Clemons, the national director of CDF Freedom Schools.

How does your congregation nurture the holistic well-being of children and families in your community?

music class
Scholars practice a song to be performed at their end-of-summer celebration.

The early Freedom Schools were established to build the next generation of voters, Clemons said, noting that leaders thought that if they could “crack” Mississippi, they could do the same with other Southern states.

“Our faith-based partners have always played a role in the movement,” she said, explaining that most of the original Freedom Schools operated in churches or community centers.

CDF started its Freedom Schools program in 1995 to help children who lacked access to high-quality literacy programs. Each year, many students — especially those from historically disadvantaged groups — experience summer learning loss. Recent literature on this loss has been mixed, according to a 2017 Brookings Institution report, but one theory cited in the report suggests that lower-income students might learn less over the summer because “the flow of resources slows for students from disadvantaged backgrounds but not for students from advantaged backgrounds.”

To support students, the CDF model has five components: high-quality academic and character-building enrichment; parent and family involvement; civic engagement and social action; intergenerational servant leadership development; and nutrition, health and mental health.

How can partnering with a large national project like CDF’s Freedom Schools empower your faith community’s commitments to the young?

kids looking at a doll
Scholars play together between Freedom School activities.

Since its start, more than 169,000 children have experienced Freedom Schools, and more than 19,000 young adults and child advocates have been trained on the model, which offers a research-based and multicultural curriculum. The majority of students in 2021 identified as Black/African American (68.4%), with the second-most represented group identifying as Hispanic/Latino (13%).

Because the schools are free to families, parents and guardians don’t incur the expenses they might otherwise have for child care, camps or academic programs. This can be especially helpful in low-income communities.

A vital part of a big mission

School systems vary state to state, and there can be battles over what is offered in the classroom. For instance, some schools now are dealing with banned books and debates about critical race theory, among other issues, Clemons said.

Children also continue to face changes within the system, such as periods of distance learning and isolation, because of the COVID pandemic. Some students are dealing with news of school shootings and racial injustice as well.

“Every year, we choose a different issue that scholars across the country will organize around and take action on,” said Wilson, the CEO. “This year, we’ve chosen climate justice, because we recognize that the planet is a place that our young people will inherit and that climate justice is racial justice.”

How do the five components of CDF’s model speak to your faith community’s theological understanding of discipleship and the formation of children?

children with protest signs
During National Days of Social Action, scholars take on issues important to them and to their communities.

Scholars come together, discuss the issue and share their ideas for solutions on coordinated National Days of Social Action — and they’re allowed to dream, said Joy Masha, program director for the Washington, D.C., CDF Freedom Schools. Scholars might propose a rally, a call to action to a state council member or the creation of more programs for children in their community, among other means of advocacy.

Because educators may not be able to deviate from state curriculum requirements tied to testing, Freedom Schools historically have supplemented content that traditional teachers could not offer, Clemons said. That includes books featuring people of color — important since fewer than 27% of children’s books published in the United States feature nonwhite children, according to CDF — and educating scholars about figures in history.

How does the Freedom Schools model activate young people on issues that matter to them? Why might this matter to your church?

child holding books
Freedom Schools make sure their scholars have access to books that feature people of color. At the end of summer, they each take a stack of books home.

“We don’t want to be controversial. Freedom Schools are not here to break down the status quo. We’re here to be in community with people,” Clemons said.

“We’re here to show children that [if] you want to be a scientist, great. If you want to be a yoga instructor, great. If you want to be the next vice president — because we have books on Kamala Harris — you can do that.”

Some parents say they appreciate the programming and the ability to participate via weekly meetings. Rochelle Gibbons has two children enrolled in the D.C. summer program. If she were to send them to camp instead, they’d simply play, she said. But here they read and build relationships as scholars.

Another D.C. parent, Ashley Jones, said she also appreciates the model. Freedom Schools staff care about the children and the environment that families live in, she said, and teach children that they’re not too young to make a difference.

That lesson is big. Because children are listening. Processing current events. And sharing their thoughts.

child with book
Scholars at Freedom Schools across the country focused on the issue of climate justice this summer.

Gibbons’ daughter, Dyllon-Rose Gaskin, did just that after her mother spoke at a recent parent meeting in the classroom. The 10-year-old scholar said the program allows her to read books every day and discover new words.

“I learn a lot,” she said, explaining that she’s finding out “interesting stuff” in a fun way.

“Miss Joy has a strong voice, and it helps me speak up sometimes,” she said of Masha’s work at the site.

So what exactly would she speak up about? Dyllon-Rose simply said, “I would speak up about, like, gun violence and different things around the world, like homeless[ness].”

How does it feel to know about these issues as a child?

“People are getting killed … every day, and that’s sad, because people are losing their lives for no reason,” Dyllon-Rose said.

Looking toward a happier future, she shared her desire to be a teacher, a hand model, the vice president, a mayor and “a lot more.”

This kind of exchange, where scholars discuss a range of subjects, is not unusual.

After years of working in the space, Masha said she understands that age does not necessarily determine a child’s experience. Gun violence was the scholars’ issue for 2021.

“As we see more gun violence here in D.C., we know that we can have these conversations with our young people, because our model allows us to do that,” she said. “So if gun violence is a topic that young people want to not only talk about but address, then we explore that solution with them and help them put it into action.”

Within integrated reading curriculum lessons, Freedom Schools use books to explore particular issues and allow scholars to analyze each plot and connect it to the community. Schools also offer parents resources for talking with children about these issues.

Along with academics, scholars build relationships and learn they aren’t too young to make a difference through Freedom Schools.

The faith connection

To make an impact, CDF partners with various institutions and organizations. To run a program, would-be executive directors apply on CDF’s website and learn about the training, fiduciary and programmatic requirements that accepted sponsor organizations must maintain.

CDF recommends that, at a minimum, facilities be licensed to serve children. Programs then do their own fundraising to bring Freedom Schools sites to fruition, with CDF recommending that programs cover costs for at least 30 scholars.

Since faith communities have a long history of social action and advocacy work, this connection continues to resonate.

Wilson, who also serves on the Duke Divinity School board of visitors, references Jesus’ words with respect to CDF’s work and notes that defending children is “a religious commitment that is resonant with the call of the Christ.”

“For an audience of clergy, I say, ‘If Jesus did not walk among us, then Jesus has less capacity to connect with us,’” he said. “The God that I serve is one who took up flesh and walked with humanity.”

It is this walk that others also highlight.

Starsky Wilson
Freedom Schools are at the heart and soul of what CDF does for children and their well-being, according to the Rev. Starsky Wilson, CDF president and CEO.

The Rev. Dr. Van H. Moody II, founding pastor of The Worship Center Christian Church in Birmingham, Alabama, said his church has offered Freedom Schools for several years. He said children in communities of color may not have access to early childhood education, which can put them “behind the eight ball” when they start school. Added to this, summer learning loss can have cumulative effects. But Freedom Schools can help.

“It’s a beautiful program that really checks a lot of boxes that we’re passionate about,” Moody said, noting that it helps kids grow academically, helps them become more well-rounded because they gain a historical foundation, and helps empower them to become conscious changemakers.

His church began supporting the program through funds dedicated to missions, and in recent years has funded it via an endowment, along with public and private partnerships.

“Our faith informs us about how important it is for us to make sure that the next generation not only knows God but that they are prepared to continue to really stand on the shoulders of the preceding generation and to carry the mantle forward,” Moody said.

Birmingham has both a high murder rate and a high violence rate, and many kids are coming from communities where they haven’t seen themselves in a positive light. With these schools, the pastor said, scholars can see the possibilities of what they can be.

“In the Old Testament, the nation of Israel is often taught to talk about the goodness of God and their faith principles with their children and their children’s children,” Moody said. “For us, pouring into the next generation, making sure that the next generation is educated … and prepared to live their best life and affect society in a positive way is an extension of what we believe God has called us to do.”

What can your congregation learn from the Freedom Schools model of formation and community engagement?

Questions to consider

  • How does your congregation nurture the holistic well-being of children and families in your community?
  • How can partnering with a large national project like CDF’s Freedom Schools empower your faith community’s commitments to the young?
  • How do the five components of CDF’s model speak to your faith community’s theological understanding of discipleship and the formation of children?
  • How does the Freedom Schools model activate young people on issues that matter to them? Why might this matter to your church?
  • What can your congregation learn from the Freedom Schools model of formation and community engagement?