Cody Sisco

How Free is Your School? A Visit to the Portland Freeskool

CurfewImagine a school with no classrooms. Imagine a curriculum flexible enough to include organic chemistry, acrobatics and bike repair. The teachers are sometimes younger than the students, nobody gets paid, and the students can talk back as much as they want. No, this isn't an Internet school. This is the Portland Freeskool.

The Freeskool is in a building called the Liberation Collective, sandwiched in downtown Portland, Oregon. The Liberation Collective is ground zero for progressive politics and punk/anarchist youth culture in Portland, and it provides a fitting home the Freeskool. The windows are full of t-shirts with slogans like "Hate is not a family value" and "Free Mumia!" Inside, two ratty couches and an old rug furnish the main meeting area. Records by Portland indie and punk bands are for sale, along side rows of homemade, cut and paste-style zines. The walls are lined with books and pamphlets on everything from anarcho-syndicalist activities in Spain during its Civil War to political manifestos advocating for a vegan diet.

"K.I.D.S. was born out of a passion to change the way that youth are treated and to reclaim kid pride."
One of the groups that meets in the Liberation Collective every Friday is K.I.D.S., the founding body of the Freeskool. K.I.D.S. came together in 1998 as a group of youth organized to resist curfews in Portland. Their "manifesto" reads: "K.I.D.S. was born out of a passion to change the way that youth are treated and to reclaim kid pride."

Over the last three years, K.I.D.S. has orchestrated direct actions to protest a new daytime curfew, held workshops, and organized and participated in several "youth liberation conferences" that promote recognition of what they call "youth oppression." In early 2000, they formed the Freeskool.

Recently, I drove up to Portland in April to attend a K.I.D.S. meeting and learn about the Freeskool. When I walked into the Liberation Collective, there were 12 people sitting on the couches, talking and eating pizza. The meeting started with the warm-up question: What has inspired you in the last week? When my turn came, I told them about the article I was writing and asked them for help and information. I was hoping they could help me make connections between the Freeskool and alternative schools in general. I was curious about how they operated, what philosophy they operated under, and how they managed to pull it all off.

It turns out that there are a number of freeschools around the country. Most are different from the Portland Freeskool, but similar in design. During the late 60's and early 70's freeschools popped up around the country. Parents dissatisfied with the state of public education got together and founded private schools that were "small, innovative, anti-traditional...[and] that based their teachings around notions of children's freedom, self-governance, and social justice," according to Tate Hausman, a graduate of the Department of Education at Brown University. Through conferences and newsletters, the freeschoolers built a movement that, at its peak, gained national prominence.

"According to the Freeskool, curfews, anti-skateboarding laws, police treatment of youth and the inferior legal status of minors are the instruments of what the call 'youth oppression.'"
The freeschool movement reached its peak in the early 70's and has declined since then. This might have been because things grew more conservatism through in the 70's and 80's, and it was difficult to operate radical freeschools, without broader community support. Now, only a handful of freeschools remain intact 30 years after the movement began; most have closed their doors, changed their motivating philosophies or become home-schooling resource centers.

Portland Freeskool is ideologically similar to the earlier freeschools, but its founders are only vaguely aware that there was a national freeschool movement. They see the Portland Freeskool as an outgrowth of a recent resurgence in youth activism, as well as young people's increasing awareness and "skepticism of society." K.I.D.S. also expects the number of freeschools to grow again. Already they are organizing a Freeskool Convergence with other freeschools that operate up and down the West Coast in Seattle, Vancouver and Santa Cruz.

Like many of the freeschools of the early 70's, the Portland Freeskool is dedicated to what its organizers call "non-oppression, non-coercive learning and self-government." According to the Freeskool, curfews, anti-skateboarding laws, police treatment of youth and the inferior legal status of minors are the instruments of what they call "youth oppression." Tyler, one of the Freeskool's founders, taught a workshop that "goes over how young people are institutionally oppressed" through mandatory education, political disenfranchisement, and parental control, and "recognizes youth oppression is not just a 'necessary thing.'"

The founders of the Freeskool looked closely at the social landscape, of their own community (Portland) and made connections between the way youth are mistreated and marginalized, and the oppression of other groups, like the poor people and ethnic and sexual minorities. In reading any of their literature, their radical philosophy becomes apparent. Their website links to a number of punk and anarchist groups and they are currently working with a local radio station to put youth on the air. In conjunction with their work on the Freeskool, K.I.D.S. is also planning to put out a zine compiling many different experiences about education.

"Many public high school students feel stuck in a system doesn't encourage critical thinking."
As K.I.D.S. members would point out, many public high school students feel stuck in a system doesn't encourage critical thinking. Ashley Fulk, a K.I.D.S. member said of his experience at a public high school, "I felt like the teachers were teaching the same curriculum that was regimented and all about repetition and regurgitation ... I felt like I learned more outside of class doing extra-curricular things like drama ... and through taking a couple classes at a community college."

By recording and gathering young people's stories of disillusionment and frustration with mainstream education, as well as inspiring stories about how some have taken their education into their own hands -- through zines and in conference settings -- the group clearly hopes to stir things up. But they also have a lot left to learn.

The Freeskool hopes to make concrete an ideal that any public high school student would tell you is impossible. It is an environment designed to facilitate learning, not to satisfy political neccessities. K.I.D.S. knows that attending public school, or other alternative schools, too often means accepting indifferent or hostile administrators, learning from inexperienced teachers, and coexisting with a restless and dis-empowered student body that for the most part has lost the desire to learn. They created the Freeskool so they would have a school that is fun, useful, and self-controlled.

Ryen, who has taught Spanish, Basque history and knitting at the Freeskool, calls the it "an antidote to regular school. The learning is self-directed. [It] operates under the idea that everyone knows different things and those things are worth sharing." The Freeskool is designed to be a way for people with knowledge and skills to share them with their community and have fun in the process.

The Freeskool is also anti-authoritarian. Not that the teacher's don't have experience and expertise, but learning is done in a cooperative environment. There is no age segregation or tests to split the students into groups of "accelerated" or "slow."

Even the most radical alternative schools often operate with a traditional sense of budgeting and fund raising. The Portland Freeskool, on the other hand seems to operate as if money didn't exist. It's free to attend classes, and the teachers volunteer. The Freeskool's only major expense is rent, which is covered by the Liberation Collective through the sale of t-shirts, records, vegan boots and zines. K.I.D.S. has also received grants from local private and state organizations that cover some of the basic overhead.

How can the Freeskool be legitimate without a real budget? How can it resist the influence of government, corporations and people who are heavily invested in our controlled and authoritarian system of education? How can it circumvent mandatory standardized curricula, school districts and state government and expectations that school will prepare you for a career? These are all questions the group is still grappling with. In blending education and activism, groups like K.I.D.S. and the Portland Freeskool face the challenge of staying anti-authoritarian while maintaining enough structure to meet their goals.

But most of the members are very proud of what the school is NOT. The Freeskool does not create jobs, but they don't support the standardized testing industry, the textbook industries, or many of the commercial aspects of the college recruitment industry. What the Freeskool does is offer a forum for people to share knowledge with each other, for the sake of learning.

If a student were to attend a school like the Freeskool full time with the intention of getting into a four year college, they may have difficult time. Many alternative schools offer written evaluations that are accepted by most universities, but the people who run K.I.D.S. don't appear to place much value on formal education. While K.I.D.S. can be applauded for their ideals of non-oppression, they can also be criticized for the lack of actual diversity in their membership. Most of the members are in their late teens and early twenties, live in Portland's suburbs, are white, and identify as queer. They have been less than successful in recruiting and reaching out to people of color and others who they say are allies with.

Tyler, one of K.I.D.S. founding members who also attends college in the area, admits this by saying, "We're nowhere near as diverse as the community around us." Moreover, this dilemma is common to many progressive and activist groups (See Ain't Gonna Let Segregation Turn Us Around).

Rather than accepting this situation, K.I.D.S. has decided to put the Freeskool on hiatus, so that it can get a broader coalition of groups involved in the Freeskool. Tyler says, "It's been a year since [the Freeskool] was started, so it's a really good time to reassess whether it has been as successful as we wanted and whether it's everything it should be ... The more people we have working on it, the better it's going to be, and the more people will be able to take advantage of it."

Ryen told me about the new plans for the Freeskool. "Bigger and better!" he said. "We want more classes, more community involvement, more spaces to hold classes."

To contact K.I.D.S., or to hear more about the evolution of the Portland Freeskool write to them at kids@kidspdx.org.

Building a Critical Resistance

Barbed WireDelano is a small town in California's Central Valley. Like other valley towns, most of Delano's residents make their living, one way or another, from agriculture. There is a small portion of Delano residents that work at North Kern State Prison, though not as many as the town was originally promised. In 1990 before North Kern was built, Delano's unemployment rate was 26%. Ten years and one prison later the town's unemployment rate was still 26%.

Now the California Department of Corrections (CDoC) is planning to build a second prison in Delano. This new prison, called Delano II, would house 5,000 prisoners, with almost half of the beds slated to be filled by youth convicted under Prop. 21, California's Juvenile Justice Initiative. Delano II would also create 1600 new jobs, but the CDoC estimates that only 72 of those will go to the citzens of Delano. For this and numerous other reasons, many activist organizations are challenging the construction of new prisons.

Critical Resistance (CR), based in Oakland, California, is building a national campaign to challenge what it calls "the prison industrial complex." Along with numerous other organizations such as the California Prison Moratorium Project and the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Jusitice, CR filed a widely publicized lawsuit under the California Environmental Quality Act to stop the construction of Delano II. But CR is not waiting to find out what the courts will decide, it is taking action to build an antiprison movement.

On February 10th, 2001 CR hosted a conference at California State University at Fresno called, "Joining Forces: Environmental Justice and the Fight Against Prison Expansion." The conference brought together activists from diverse backgrounds to talk about the ways the prison industrial complex was harming rural and urban communities and to strategize and plan for a prisonless future.

When I arrived, twenty-year-old Vanessa Agard-Jones was talking to a large room full of activists, students and concerned citizens. Vanessa is a coordinator at the Prison Activist Resource Center (PARC) in Oakland, and she helped organize the conference.

When asked about what drove her to become involved in organizing against prison expansion, Vanessa says, "The prison system in this country is about my community -- my people. On a basic level, as a black woman, I cannot ignore the degree to which state repression is directed at black and brown skinned people -- regardless." She continues, "Politically, as a black feminist, I'm steeped in a tradition of recognizing the connections between oppressions -- between white supremacy, patriarchy, sexism, homophobia, imperialism, capitalist exploitation, etc. -- and prisons make those connections brutally clear. We're talking about the belly of the beast when we talk about prisons in this country ... they are places that are part of a system that throws all of those social ills into high relief."

At 20, Vanessa is also the youngest conference organizer. She facilitated the third conference panel which was intended to focus on alternative economic development strategies for rural and urban communities. Vanessa searched for activists who were knowledgeable about communities affected by prison expansion and who "had done that kind of visionary thinking."

Vanessa found Ruth Wilson Gilmore, a professor in the Department of Geography at the University of California at Berkeley. Professor Gilmore focused on making connections between the urban and rural communities that were affected by prisons and how similarities in those communities made them "the same places, but different locations."

Vanessa didn't find anyone else, so she used an interesting strategy. She turned to the conference participants and asked them to get into groups and come up with a plan for the future of the movement.

One of the groups was ambitious and aimed to dismantle the CA Department of Corrections, while another was focused on organizing a march against Delano II. One group was made up entirely of students and youth. We brainstormed about the actions we could take on campus and agreed that some schools with financial ties to the private prison industry should focus on forcing school administrations to sever those ties (for an debate between a member of the Prison Moratorium Project and Sodexho Marriott executives, go to Radio4All) .

Another student asked, "What else can we do? What can other schools do?" Before the group tried to answer that question we looked at the challenges facing campus organizers, including the rapid turnover of group membership due to graduation and burnout, and the difficulties of sustaining momentum when leaders leave. The answer that gradually emerged was to spread around the responsibilities within the group so it wouldn't rely too heavily on one person. Also, it's vital to continually recruit new members and provide some sort of focus so that burnout isn't as much of a problem.

In regards to other actions and strategies, we agreed that students should not isolate themselves on campus. Creating partnerships and working together with local community organizations would increase the reach and effectiveness of campus groups. One of the ways to do this would be to organize conferences, film festivals, etc. Two students at the conference from UC Santa Cruz had done just that and urged other students to do the same.

By this time the conference was wrapping up and we realized that our group needed a concrete plan to present to the other groups. True to the spirit of our generation, we exchanged email addresses. Our plan was to start a discussion group around campus-organizing issues and to work together with other organizations on our campuses to plan events.

These ideas were warmly received by Vanessa and Professor Gilmore, as well as by the rest of the conference-goers. The adults there seemed to really appreciate the energy and idealism evident in the younger participants. Vanessa reflected that a partnership between those with experience and those new to activism could be very productive.

"I've been lucky to have a number of older mentors who have been engaged in this struggle for years and years and years. They've taught me to listen -- to understand that the struggle will be a long one -- that we all benefit from intergenerational dialogue and that we need to be wary of re-inventing the wheel. I think we need to be conscious of the legacy that we are all a part of and we need to take the time to learn not only from each other -- from this incredible youth energy -- but also from our elders."

If you'd like to be part of this discussion group, email Cody Sisco.

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