Leroi Newbold interviewed by Shabina Lafleur-Gangji
Shabina: What is the Black Lives Matter Toronto Freedom School?
Leroi: #BlackLivesMatter Freedom School is a 3 week long summer program for children aged 4 to 10 years. The program is designed to support children and families living and growing in a reality of witnessing police violence in our communities. The program is designed for children who have witnessed their siblings being carded in their neighbourhoods, were watching the news when two Scarborough children were held at gunpoint by seven police officers because they were “mistaken for someone else”. Our youth and our children hear conversations about when Aiyana Jones was killed inside of her home; when Tamir Rice was killed in a playground near his home; when a teenage girl was assaulted by a police officer at her desk at Spring Valley High School in South Carolina; when a 13 year old Toronto girl was prevented from entering her classroom because her hair was styled in an afro. But children don’t get the opportunity to deconstruct these realities in their classrooms, because the realities that Black children are forced to endure are often deemed “not age appropriate” for the larger population, or public school teachers are not sure how to engage with these realities in age appropriate and empowering ways.
Freedom school is a project of BlackLivesMatter – Toronto, but it is also part of a larger movement for community self-determination. We have the right and also a need to control the political education of our children. We have a need to teach our children that our communities are valuable, and they are sacred. We are grounded in the belief that Black children are capable of complex political thought and political analysis, and that they are a valuable part of our Black liberation movements. In our communities, people of all ages are affected by police violence and mass incarceration, and children are profoundly affected. We want them by our sides as we confront these realities, as we fight back, and we want to hear their voices as we imagine news was to shape our society.
S: Why is this kind of education and experience necessary for Black youth?
L: #BlackLivesMatter Freedom School is meant to be an intervention into the messaging that Black children receive daily about the disposability of their lives. Our children need a way to understand and respond to the political realities being faced by their families and communities. When we don’t understand something, we internalize it…and Black children are asking themselves: “Why was I kicked out of class?”, “Why was I suspended for a minor infraction like swearing, when non-Black kids do much worse and are not suspended?”, “Why do police treat us this way, and when the police take a Black child’s life, why is that not illegal?” We cannot shelter our children from these realities; all we can do is let them know that they are not alone in combating them. It is necessary to teach our children the value of their lives, and that we will fight for them with everything with have in us.
Beyond our public school system’s failure to academically prepare our children, our public schools are not invested in humanizing, self-affirming, queer positive educational opportunities for Black children in the GTA. Black parents do not feel that our children are being taught self-love, and a passion for justice and liberation through their formal education. Our public schools are not measuring up to our children’s transformative potential.
S: What kind of programming can people expect?
L: We will be teaching children that: your Black life matters, and you must demonstrate to your peers that their Black lives matter by protecting their dignity. The things you didn’t learn in school: The BlackLivesMatter Movement, Marie Joseph Angelique, Marsha P. Johnson and the Stonewall Riots, the Memphis garbage strikes, Nanny Maroon and the Maroons, The Bussa Revolution in Barbados, The Haitian Revolution, Soweto Uprisings….global perspectives on Black Liberation. But they will learn about it all using engaging child friendly resources like claymation, video animation, augmented realities etc.
The children will also learn about Black pride. We are having Najla Nubyanluv come in to share her new children’s book, I Love Being Black. We are having people come in to teach the connections between capoeira and Black liberation, dancehall and Black liberation, drumming and Black liberation. We are having community artists come in to teach the kids about the Black arts movement and do printmaking with the children. We will be taking the children to 6 Nations and to the Black Farmer’s Network so that they can better understand the land we live on, develop a commitment to decolonization, and learn about our history as plant based healers. We are cooking for the children everyday…we are cooking with the children too. We are cooking Joumou soup that Haitians cook to celebrate their Independence from the French. We are also teaching the children how to plan and execute an action against state violence. In fact freedom school will culminate in this.
S: How does the Freedom School fit within a transformative justice framework?
L: One of the things we know is that our school system focuses obsessively on productivity. It teaches our children to be workers…especially our Black students. If our Black children’s personhood, or the things they are going through in their everyday lives interferes with that productivity or the productivity of others: they are suspended, they are expelled, or they are put in behavioral programs to “correct their behaviour” so that they can become productive as per the priorities of a Capitalist state. Our children are not encouraged to spend time checking in with themselves about their feelings and their needs. They do not have the space to be vulnerable or even emotional. They are not encouraged to demand that the conditions of their education transform to meet their needs.
Transformative Justice is the belief that we need to adjust systemic power to create space for transformative practices. Instead of dealing with student conduct using escalating punishments, we will be transforming the conditions that affect student conduct…for example engagement, appropriate cultural framework, and representation. The content of Freedom School programming came from parent and youth visioning, not from a top down process. Also, when we address conduct issues in Freedom School we will be asking questions like: “Why do you think you acted this way?”, “How do you feel you are treated by the person you harmed?”, “Do you feel you have everything you need to be successful here?”, “How can we support you to acquire the resources you need to be successful here?”, “In what ways do you feel powerful?”, “What can we do to add to that power?”
Leroi Newbold is an artist, community organizer and an educator at Canada’s first public Africentric school
Shabina is a community herbalist and organizer working towards the liberation of all people.