How a Black Lives Matter leader started a 'freedom school' summer program for kids
Middle- and upper-income parents know that summers are an opportunity to give one's children the sort of well-rounded education that can enhance future college applications. Summer camp rosters fill up months in advance, and price tags for enrichment programs can run upwards of $500 a week. This is especially true in high-priced Southern California, where I live and where Jasmine Abdullah Richards started the Black Lives Matter Pasadena Freedom School, a free, three-days-a-week summer camp for children who live in her neighborhood.
"Freedom School is for the 'hood. It's for low-income families," she explained as we sat together on the Metro train heading from the Los Angeles-area suburb of Pasadena to the California African American Museum near downtown LA. We shouted to be heard by one another through our COVID-19 face masks and over the din of more than a dozen Black and Brown children aged 9 through 15 who were wearing their new Freedom School T-shirts and chatting animatedly with one another. Many had never before been on a train or left the borders of Pasadena. Interrupting our conversation, Richards warned the raucous and excited children to keep it down, yelling, "Hey, hey, hey, we gotta lower it down just a little bit."
Richards has led the Pasadena chapter of Black Lives Matter (BLM) since 2014, when I first met her alongside Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of BLM, for an in-person interview about the Ferguson uprising in Missouri. Both Cullors and Richards had just returned from Ferguson, where the latest chapter in the movement for racial justice was blazing into existence. Richards called that trip an "eye-opening experience," and said that "Black Lives Matter changed my life." A year later, she was confronting Pasadena police over their fatal shooting of a young Black man in her neighborhood named Kendrec McDade and protesting alongside McDade's mother, Anya Slaughter. She has since been on a mission to ensure no more mothers lose their children to police violence, and Freedom School is one effort to that end.
Seventeen-year-old Emoni Waiters and 20-year-old Amari Stewart are both graduates of the first session of Freedom School that Richards organized in 2018. Both young women are now working as camp counselors with Richards to guide a new generation of neighborhood kids and expose them to sights and sounds they might not otherwise have access to. Waiters confessed that before she attended the school, "I would just sit at the park and hang out. I would get into bad stuff." But then, "when Jasmine started the Freedom School, it was a way for me to get away and do nothing but positive things." Stewart had a similar experience. "It changed me a lot," she said. "Jasmine taught us how to speak to others so you can make a good first impression."
Indeed, 'Auntie Jasmine,' as the children call her, dished out sage advice to her camp attendees during the museum field trip every chance she got. While waiting for the train to arrive, she asked the kids, "So, how many of you know about gangs?" The mask she wore muffled her voice, and one little boy who mistook what she said responded excitedly, "oh, I got all games on my phone!" "G-A-N-G-S," Jasmine spelled out patiently, unmasking her face for a moment. An older Latino boy answered, "I don't know anything about gangs." "Yes, you do, Gustavo," she countered, looking him straight in the eye. "Let me tell you about my experience in gangs," she said and went on to share her own story.
Richards' family moved to Pasadena when she was seven, and she grew up north of the 210 freeway, where most of the city's low-income Black and Brown residents live and where Pasadena police officers routinely patrol. "My neighborhood was a 'zero-tolerance zone,' so even if we wanted to hang out in front of my apartment, we were considered a gang member," she told me. When she was 14, Richards' older brother, who eschewed gangs, was murdered in a drive-by shooting. The trauma of losing her brother left her reeling, and she spiraled into drug and alcohol abuse.
Getting involved in BLM changed everything, and today Richards is clean and sober and in a healthy relationship with herself and her partner. Freedom School "gives me purpose, it gives me life," she said. "I get them at a young, impressionable age when they can either go left or right, and if I have anything to do with it, I want them to go the right way." She sees her work with the school as central to her BLM-related activism, saying, "there is no revolution without the kids."
The obstacles arrayed against low-income Black and Brown children are immense. Many of the kids enrolled in Freedom School have had routine and terrifying encounters with the police in their neighborhood. Seventeen-year-old Runnit, a Freedom School attendee, is one of them. He said that Freedom School teaches kids, "that we're not supposed to be afraid when the police show up." He's grateful for the opportunities that the program has given him and his young cousin Jaden, who accompanied him on the museum trip. "She's [Richards has] been doing good stuff for our kids and taking them to places where kids can really be kids. We meet up at the park. We ride the bus safely as a group—we all got shirts on to show that we're in a group."
Learning how to interact with the police is part of Freedom School's curriculum. "Don't run, even if the police talk to you," said Richards to the kids during another one of her impromptu lectures on the train. "If you steal something, you stop with the thing you stole [indicates throwing it to the ground] and say, 'here, I don't even want it, take this shit back.' Don't ever run. Don't run, or they will shoot you." It was a version of "the talk" that generations of Black parents have had to give their children to best ensure their odds of survival, and an informal version of the "know your rights" trainings that Richards includes as part of the camp curriculum.
But Richards wants more than survival for her neighborhood children. "I want to get them to start lovin' on themselves and [teach them] how to iron out their own problems because all they see is gang-banging and stuff." On the choice of the California African American Museum, she said, "Representation matters. I want them to see stories of people like them."
Richards sees Freedom School as following in the tradition of the Black Panther Party's Breakfast Program. While she started the program in order to fill a void in Pasadena—city-run summer programs this year are not free of charge—the camp seems to have grown into a far more stimulating experience for the children than anything the city might be offering.
Eleven-year-old Jaden was buzzing with so much excitement about the prospect of visiting the museum that he could hardly stand still. "I came here today because my mom wanted me to know about my culture and my history, about what we did in the past," he said. Illustrating just how much impact Freedom School has already had on him, he expostulated, "all the white people, they raised us as slaves and let us pick cotton and they whipped us, and it was bad and hurtful. That's why we're here today to learn about everything that we have in our history."
Organizing programs like Freedom School costs money, and Richards, ever the innovator, has made something out of nothing, tapping into her own social network and her national reputation to raise thousands of dollars for the program. She earned that profile the hard way. In 2016 she made headlines for becoming the first African American ever to be convicted on a charge of "felony lynching" in connection with intervening in a police arrest in her neighborhood. Richards said she had been on the police's radar for months, facing constant harassment from officers.
Today she has turned the national reputation that the police inadvertently bestowed upon her into what she calls "social capital." Proud of what she has accomplished, she delighted in the fact that "tons of people are giving money, all my followers on Facebook, Instagram, just random people," as she asks them to "help me help my 'hood." Using the donations, she has purchased branded T-shirts for the camp enrollees to wear on field trips, train and museum tickets, and bathing suits for swim days. She is also paying the two Freedom School graduates, Waiters and Stewart, to be camp counselors.
Richards has bigger plans for her neighborhood kids beyond Freedom School. When Victor Gordo ran for Pasadena mayor last year, she met with him demanding that he act like a civil servant. "I told him, 'if we vote for you, bro, I need you to do something for our community.' So that's what he vowed to do." Gordo won the mayor's race and has agreed to work with Richards on a city-level apprenticeship program for graduating teens, such as Waiters, who will be attending a welding program at Pasadena City College in the fall. Not one to rest on her laurels, Richards said, "I told him, 'I'm not gonna stop the pressure on you. If you don't do these things, then you gotta go too.'"
In using all the tools at her disposal, including her political sensibility, life experiences, fundraising prowess, adeptness at holding politicians accountable, and the trust that her neighbors have placed in her, Richards offers a model for progressive change that places children at the forefront.
Sonali Kolhatkar is the founder, host and executive producer of "Rising Up With Sonali," a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute.
This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
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