Ornate chandeliers hung from the Carter Chicago ceiling and shined brilliant warm light over Chicago Freedom School (CFS) educators, organizers, and staff. They were the first guests at Thursday’s (September 29) Moments of Justice Fundraising Gala, which was organized in part to honor CFS founder Mia Henry with the Legacy of Justice award. As the sun fell, past CFS fellows, sponsors, and welcomed guests, gathered in the open-walled venue and savored a night recognizing radical education, civic engagement and brilliance.
Before the end of the night, the Chicago Freedom School reached its $25,000 donation goal. Gala sponsors included BlueCross BlueShield of Illinois, Lululemon, the Field Foundation of Illinois, and the University of Chicago’s Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture. Most of CFS’s funding comes from private foundations and contributions from community members.
“For us, scaling is really being able to reflect on where we’re at collectively with our board, staff, youth leaders, and key stakeholders. We’re in the process of strategic visioning and ensuring that we’re living in our frameworks of anti-oppression, transformative justice, and healing justice,” Executive Director of the Chicago Freedom School, Tony Alvarado-Rivera said. “It’s more about how are we continuing to care for our staff, having equitable pay, and creating policies that reflect our values.”
The Chicago Freedom School was first envisioned in 2004 by the grassroots organizer, prison abolitionist, and educator Mariame Kaba. CFS takes inspiration from the Mississippi Freedom schools, which were organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1964. Similar to its predecessor, CFS was slated to be a summer intensive program to teach youth how to be politically active, specifically in Chicago.
2007 saw CFS’s first year of programming for youth committed to movement building through the Freedom Fellowship. The Freedom Fellowship is a 6-month intensive leadership program that teaches multiethnic youth between the ages of 14 and 21 social movement history, youth-led action strategies, and community organizing.
CFS approaches education through a framework that imagines liberation by transforming and contextualizing oppressive institutions like patriarchy, racism, and capitalism. Additionally, age hierarchies don’t define education. A past Freedom Fellow, Essence Jade-Gatheright, is 18 years old and demonstrates how intergenerational collaboration is an effective means to teach.
“We work in the shape of circles so that everyone is seen and heard. We’re not sitting at desks facing one person, and we’re facing each other and everyone is engaged,” Jade-Gatheright said. “I’m equally learning from others around me. I don’t know what I don’t know, they don’t know what they don’t know, and we’re all teaching each other and growing together.”
Through dominating political and economic institutions, Chicago Freedom School guides youth leaders to build stronger relationships, practice healing wellness, and address pressing issues facing Black and brown communities. For example, CFS is a Final Five core coalition member, which organizes to discontinue the five remaining Chicago youth prisons.
CFS’s newest training coordinator, Uche Ezejiofor, 21, talked about how students’ relationship with safety, agency, and actualization after they had completed this summer’s Freedom Fellowship.
“I felt in that moment that those youth genuinely felt safe in their skin because they were in our space,” Ezejiofor said. “A lot of young folks don’t have this opportunity because their ideas, thoughts, perspectives, and personalities are completely dismissed. The Chicago Freedom School gives youth the opportunity and space to grow into themselves and speak directly from their hearts.”
As of 2022, over 17,000 youth and adults have participated in CFS workshops and over 700 have participated in CFS’s core programs. In their 15 years of civic engagement and radical education, they have partnered with Chicago Public Schools, the Greater Chicago Food Depository, After School Matters, and Loyola University Chicago to name a few.
Although CFS’s anticapitalist and transformative justice lens sees growth as sustainability rather than expansion, funds will go toward investing in a new home for CFS and sustaining the quality of its programs. Some programs include the Freedom Fellowship, Project HealUs, and Northstar Liberation Education Collective.
The Chicago Freedom School’s board treasurer, Jane Palmer, was involved with the formation of CFS in 2005 and 2006. She also teaches at American University in the Department of Justice Law and Criminology. She helped shape the Chicago Freedom school when they still went by the Chicago Freedom Summer School.
“The Chicago Freedom School isn’t a traditional school. It’s rooted in the principles of liberatory education, where everyone’s an expert,” Palmer said. “The people affected by an extreme should be the ones helping to do what needs to happen to make their schools, homes, communities, and worlds better.”
Currently, CFS functions out of an office floor that’s on the corner of South State Street and East Balbo Drive. The floor has a kitchen stocked with snacks and produce, a lounge room with bean bag chairs and couches, and one of its two bathrooms has a shower. Their office space closes at around 5 p.m., yet it’s functionally a 24-hour safe space. That means that any time youth and students need a haven to feel safe, seen, and secure, the Chicago Freedom School will hold space.