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Freedom Schools offer a summer of possibilities for the next generation

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.

children
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?

Earlier this year, I spoke to 150 mostly middle school youth at a winter retreat focusing on the Lord’s Prayer. The assembled youth were mostly white, mostly middle class and mostly looking forward to rambunctious free-time activities.

Before I arrived, I had prepared the first two sermons and thought through ideas for the remaining two. On Friday night, I preached about God’s holiness. On Saturday morning, the topic was God’s provision.

Later that morning, as I pondered daily bread and deliverance from evil for the remaining sermons, it hit me in a new way that these were young people, the same age as Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice. Most of the young people at this retreat didn’t look like Jordan, Trayvon and Tamir, but they might attend school with them. Or perhaps they attend schools intentionally built to keep out the Jordans, Trayvons and Tamirs.

I often pray for young people who have died or been brutalized in racially motivated violence. But I have observed that discussions about police brutality against black and brown people are rare in a white youth ministry context.

The more I learn about my own identity as a white Christian youth minister, the more I am convinced that these conversations with young white people lie at the core of my calling as a Christian. I’ve come to know a Jesus who interrupts violence with peace, and hate with love, who doesn’t sit idly by, overwhelmed by a challenge too big to overcome. In drawing closer to God, I have been called into that work of interruption alongside a community of faithful people.

So in that third sermon, I said that God cares about the black and brown young people in their schools and communities who are mistreated and maligned. I said that black and brown lives matter to God, and that God’s protection is made real when we act against mistreatment and the racism in our communities. We live the Lord’s Prayer when we speak and act against racial brutality.

While I had been passionate about the evils of racism in my country, that moment marked the beginning of my journey toward anti-racist youth ministry in the white church. I’m learning that this is not an identity to be achieved — or a place at which I will arrive all on my own.

Rather, anti-racist youth ministry in the white church is a daily practice of calling myself and my fellow white youth ministers to imagine a world in which the lives of black and brown youth are as valued as the lives of white youth, and to work with others in making that imagined world real.

It is a daily practice of vocal repentance of the cultural violence done against people of color in this country and in my community, and of the ways in which I’ve benefited from that violence. It is investing in and partnering with people of color to protect their lives and dismantle the systems that oppress them, allowing them to change me and the content and form of the programs I lead. It is asking my white friends who are also striving to be anti-racist to hold me accountable and challenge me to think bigger about our collective work to dismantle racism.

Since the sermon that awakened me to the work of becoming an anti-racist youth worker, I have been asking God how I might use my role as youth worker and leader of youth workers to empower real change in our culture, our communities and our churches.

How might God use me and the work of youth ministry to usher in the kingdom where daily bread, release from debt and deliverance from temptation and evil is not just for some but for all? How might white youth ministers like me actively partner with those who are hurting — listening and following their lead in transforming the world to be the kingdom of God we plead for in the Lord’s Prayer?

Praying the Lord’s Prayer is a call to a new way of being in the world. Today, in the United States, in our communities, in our churches, and even in our white youth ministries, we need a new way of being. We need to speak honestly about our histories, repent of and repair the harms inflicted, and live the prayers we speak.

The Rev. Richard Joyner prefers delivering his sermons in the garden. Dressed in jeans and boots and armed with gloves, Joyner is surrounded by rows of collards, peppers, eggplants and okra.

“This is the sermon,” he said, gesturing toward a field where youth from the impoverished rural North Carolina community of Conetoe are working, laughing and playing.

“This sermon out here — you can experience it here. You can experience it immediately in your kitchen, and you can experience it on your table, and you can experience it in your health.

“That’s real.”

For the last decade, Joyner, the pastor of Conetoe Chapel Missionary Baptist Church, has been toiling in the field, providing a gracious bounty for his congregation and community.

Rev. Richard JoynerHe founded the Conetoe Family Life Center, a nonprofit organization that encourages gardening, healthy eating habits and exercise for men, women and children suffering from chronic diseases and malnutrition. He’s also teaching the next generation of Conetoe residents how to feed themselves.

The 62-year-old Joyner had eulogized too many congregants who died from complications from diabetes, high blood pressure and other chronic ailments, he said. Many were men and women in their prime, folks in their 30s, 40s and 50s. He had watched their physical demise both as a pastor and as the director of pastoral care at a nearby hospital.

“We may not be able to afford medicine, but we can grow food,” he said. “The garden is a beautiful, spiritual sanctuary that we play in, eat in, educate in and change our lives in.”

He’s won several awards for his work, including the 2014 Purpose Prize, which recognizes social innovators older than 60.

Joyner is a scrappy preacher, willing to roll up his sleeves and help people with their immediate problems. He keeps a change of clothes in his car, prepared for whatever work that needs to be done.

“He’s sort of everywhere,” said the Rev. Allen T. Stanton, the rural church fellow at the Institute for Emerging Issues. In the late 1990s, Stanton’s father, Joe Stanton, worked with Joyner in homeless ministries in Rocky Mount, North Carolina.

“Rev. Joyner is at the hospital attending meetings, in downtown Rocky Mount working on community development — I don’t think he understands the profoundness of what he does. I have never met someone who embodies discipleship so selflessly,” the younger Stanton said.

Joyner’s mission right now is to feed the hungry — physically and spiritually. Conetoe (pronounced koh-NEE-tah) is a tiny community of 300 that has been designated a “food desert.” It’s about 25 miles from Rocky Mount, and 8 miles from the nearest grocery store — a long distance, especially if you don’t have a car.

Joyner says his mandate comes from Mathew 15:32: “Then Jesus called his disciples unto him, and said, I have compassion on the multitude, because they continue with me now three days, and have nothing to eat: and I will not send them away fasting, lest they faint in the way” (KJV).

His ministry isn’t just about health; it’s also about empowerment.

In what ways is your community or organization wealthier than it thinks it is?

“Spirituality is not complete until it reaches the whole person. … I think this community is wealthier than they think they are,” he said. “We have to reframe poverty. When the system talks about poverty, they start from what you don’t have. If you start from what I don’t have, you can’t help me build on what I do have.”

Identifying abundance

Joyner has a knack for identifying abundance in every form.

He has turned a bounty of borrowed land and a mostly youthful workforce into a small farm that harvests 50,000 pounds of produce per year, as well as 5,000 pounds of honey.

Conetoe residents are welcome to carry home as many sweet potatoes, eggplants and collards as they can harvest. Meanwhile, the operation also sells to local restaurants and stores. The produce is sold in Piggly Wiggly grocery stores in Edgecombe County, where Conetoe is located, and the honey in Lowes Foods stores as far away as the Research Triangle area.

With money from foundations and in-kind donations from businesses, Joyner gets seeds, supplies and equipment for the garden. Next, he recruits youth and retirees looking for something productive to do in the small town. The pastor knows his community on a first-name basis, along with their resources and skills. The organization has grown to the point that Joyner — who works at Nash Health Care hosital — needed help. Garrie Moore, a former administrator at East Carolina University, now serves as the executive director.

“He uses volunteers to do everything,” said Michele Cherry, the manager of grants and special projects for Vidant Edgecombe Hospital. Cherry has worked with the Conetoe Family Life Center for the past five years through Vidant’s grant program.

“He says the magic words, ‘I really need your help. This is what I am trying to do, and I know you have the skills and the talent to help us with that.’ When he approaches you like that, it’s hard to say no.”

The project began in 2005, when Joyner found three property owners willing to let him use their land for community gardens, which range in size from a quarter of an acre to 25 acres.

The first garden was on two acres located a quarter mile from the church. It belonged to someone who’d inherited it but now lived up North, Joyner said. Instead of paying someone to mow the property, the owner turned it over to Joyner’s operation.

“I find out about opportunities, and we collaborate with each other and make it work,” Joyner said.

Persuading the congregation

It took hard work — and not all of it in the garden. Church members initially opposed Joyner’s idea about starting a garden, Cherry said. “They are used to the pastor focusing on saving their souls, not what they are doing physically with their bodies,” she said.

Joyner had to persuade the elders of the church that their children needed to learn how to grow produce.

“He had to convince the parents and grandparents that their children needed to go and work in the fields,” Cherry said, explaining that the history of slave labor and sharecropping made many in the African-American community leery of the idea.

Joyner himself had to overcome his childhood memories of sharecropping. He grew up in Greenville, North Carolina, where his parents were sharecroppers. But he saw this as something different from the exploitative labor of the past. What he was proposing was not working for someone else. His congregation and the community would benefit by having locally grown produce to eat, he argued.

He also kept pointing out the harsh reality: “We’re not going to get a grocery store.”

To a congregation accustomed to serving up fried chicken, sugary drinks and collards cooked with ham hocks, Joyner kept emphasizing the same message after each funeral: church members needed to change their cooking practices and eating habits.

For a year, every third Sunday, a nutritionist from East Carolina University took over the pulpit and preached about eating better to change the health outcomes.

Who else besides the pastor or the leadership could be preaching a new message to your congregation, staff or organization?

“Now — in a local Baptist church — we do not serve fried foods as part of our dietary plan as a congregation and church,” Joyner said. “About 90 percent of the food served in our church comes from the garden.”

The children embraced the message first, and today more than 60 boys and girls of all ages plant vegetables and harvest honey.

They roam free among the rows of earth, planting and picking, running and playing and changing the trajectory of their lives. Some are motivated by personal loss.

Tationa Hyman got involved in Conetoe Family Life Center because she saw it as a way to save her 37-year-old father, who suffers from Type 2 diabetes. She especially loves working in the renovated school bus that houses the beehives.

Tobias Hopkins, 17, came to the garden for some of the same reasons. His two uncles and a cousin, at age 50 and younger, died of strokes. Joyner’s preaching has made the youth understand that these deaths might have been prevented by lifestyle changes.

“I eat all types of vegetables, including squash, cabbage and zucchini. I’ve learned how to prepare locally grown, fresh food,” Hopkins said.

He attended a summer program at the Conetoe Family Life Center, where culinary artists teach the youth how to cook flavorful food without adding fats and sodium. Throughout the church, handouts are available on topics ranging from portion size to green tea to sodium-free herbs and spices.

It’s all part of a ministry that has grown beyond a small church garden.

“He’s not just growing plants; he’s developing people,” Cherry said.

Entrepreneurship beyond the garden

Joyner has been working with youth programs for years. The Rev. Roy Gray of Cedar Hill Missionary Baptist Church in Williamston, North Carolina, has worked with Joyner for more than 25 years to give youth something productive to do.

Gray, a former Tarboro City Council member, recalls when Joyner was a Tarboro minister recruiting business owners to use their abandoned buildings for youth-run car washes.

“He keeps trying to make an impact for the youth,” Gray said.

This entrepreneurial streak has helped Joyner find and leverage partnerships all across eastern North Carolina.

“We don’t have everything we need,” Joyner said. But the blessings keep coming. “People keep telling us where more land is, where more equipment is. They keep coming out and helping us.”

Joyner is also able to capture the young people’s attention by introducing them to the world of entrepreneurship through the farm. The Conetoe children not only work in the fields; they also act as a sales force.

“All of the contracts were negotiated by the youth,” Joyner said. “They contact the store owners or managers and restock the shelves. … Kids learn how to do plant identification, soil testing. They are learning how to work together.”

For the children of Conetoe, this experience gives them a glimpse into the larger world, and exposes them to a more diverse group of people than they might otherwise meet.

“I don’t want them to be afraid of people who don’t look like them and talk like them,” Joyner said.

This work helps them develop leadership and social skills, as well as real-world experience in science, math and financial planning, he said. As they take part in running the business of the farm, Joyner hopes they’re preparing for life beyond it.

“He’s a visionary,” said Kahla Hall, the director of the Community Benefit Grants Program at Vidant Health. “He can see the big picture. As he goes along, it gets bigger for him. He gets started with one thing, and then he sees what that can lead to.”

Hopkins, a high school senior, thinks of Joyner as a father figure. “When my father stepped out, he stepped in financially and spiritually.”

Hopkins is just one of the many youth in the Conetoe community who see Joyner as someone who is willing to go to battle for them on every front.

“It’s about what he does. I’ve seen ministers say a lot of things but don’t follow up,” he said. “Rev. Joyner gets out of his suit on Sundays and gets out there in the garden and chops weeds.”

That’s his sermon — working in the garden with a new generation of healthy, active, hardworking youth.

“You have a whole community willing to grow itself out of poverty,” Joyner said. “It really makes sense to me. I’ve been a pastor a long time, and this is as spiritual as it gets.”

Questions to consider

Questions to consider

  • Joyner says the garden “is the sermon.” What does that mean to you? Are there places in your ministry — besides preaching — that function as “the sermon”?
  • In what ways is your community or organization wealthier than it thinks it is? How can your leaders and members discern where their wealth lies? How can they build on it?
  • At Joyner’s church, a nutritionist literally preached once a month for a year. Who else besides the pastor or the leadership could be preaching a new message to your congregation, staff or organization?
  • Part of the Conetoe Family Life Center’s mission is to teach young people to live healthier lives than their elders do. What investments could your organization make to improve the lives of the younger generation?
  • One of the youth said he respects Joyner because he “gets out of his suit on Sundays and gets out there in the garden and chops weeds.” Do you lead solely “from above?” How willing are you to be involved in the difficult, mundane day-to-day tasks of your church or organization?