When George Floyd was killed in May, it felt like a flashback. Police have killed dozens of Black people in this same exact way, and the victims’ names immediately came to mind — names from a list that is devastating both in length and familiarity. But the response this time was different. Twenty-four hours after Floyd was killed, demonstrations against police brutality erupted in a half-dozen U.S. cities. By the following week, they had taken over the globe.
And what to do with all this social unrest? As a parent, how do you talk to your Black kid about the marches, memorials, silent rallies, toppled monuments, labour strikes, riots, looting, curfews, tear gas and rubber bullets? How to explain to a child, still somewhat insulated by youthful innocence, where all of this was coming from? How to carefully answer the question: Why is the world uprising now?
“Having those conversations with my children was just too much for me to bear alone,” Dr. Rachel Zellars, an assistant professor of social justice and community studies at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, told HuffPost Canada. The protests had quickly taken hold in Nova Scotia, a province already known for racist street checks and documented incidents of police bias. “As a single mother, I needed tools and support to help three teenagers understand what was happening.”
Zellars moved quickly. She enrolled her three kids in the Chicago Freedom School to take an online, non-credit program for youth aged 12 to 17 that would focus on subjects like the history of policing in the US, its connection to mass incarceration and the prison-abolition movement. Calls to “defund the police” were swiftly becoming a popular chorus among demonstrators, and the course would help her kids to contextualize the phrase within a history of abolition advocacy, so they could make sense of what that truly meant.
When her kids finished the program in June, Zellars had an epiphany. “I immediately thought that we needed something like it here, in Canada,” she said. “We live in Halifax. We live in a community that has, at its centre, the oldest Black population and history in Canada. So I wanted to develop something that was akin to that Chicago Freedom School program, but was focused heavily on our local realities.”
By late August, the African Nova Scotian Freedom School, which she co-founded with several other educators and facilitators, had already graduated its first class of 25 students.
A brief history of Freedom Schools
They called it the “Freedom Summer.” It was 1964 in Mississippi and, if the Civil Rights Movement was to actually achieve any of its goals, organizers figured Black youth ought to be properly educated.
The Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954 saw justices rule unanimously that segregated public schools were unconstitutional, but the promise of quality education to all citizens had certainly not been kept. Mississippi, for example, was spending an average of four times as much on white pupils as on their Black counterparts; the curriculum at Black public schools was closely monitored to ensure certain histories (1860 to 1875, the period of the Civil War and Reconstruction) and certain politics (abolition, for example, or the Civil Rights Movement) weren’t being taught.
Watch: How Canadian schools can better support their Black students. Story continues below.
And so, through the laboured efforts of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, 41 Freedom Schools opened to serve close to 2,500 students. The juncture had two key foci: to counter the “sharecropper education” Black students were getting in underfunded public schools ― of reading, writing, arithmetic, history and civics ― and to prepare these students to bloom into agents of social change, equipped to politically advocate on their own behalf as registered voters, elected officials and organizers. It was from this well of history that the idea for a Freedom School in Nova Scotia sprang.
This new incarnation of the Freedom School is the second in Canada. Toronto has the first. In 2016, Black Lives Matter Toronto did some crowdfunding to open a Freedom School offering a three-week, queer-positive program designed to teach youth those Black Canadian and diasporic histories that never make it into traditional curricula. But the Maritimes had never seen its own localized version: one that could speak directly to the neglected stories of a people who, before the 1960s, formed nearly 40 per cent of Canada’s Black population.
An environment where Black students are centered
Apart from its small role in social studies classes from primary school through junior high, Nova Scotia’s curriculum offers no mandatory courses on Black Nova Scotian history, let alone anything that might help students to make sense of the social upheaval that has blossomed around the world these past months.
Antonio Jackson, a 17-year-old Haligonian student in twelfth grade, says he went through all of elementary school without learning a single thing in class about Black Canadian history. And just last year, students at his high school needed to persuade the principal to excuse them from class for a single day in February so they could have guest speakers come in for Black History Month.
“Our children are taught very condensed and untruthful narratives about the experiences of Black people in this place.”
Registering this vacuum in the provincial education system and the gravity of the unfolding revolution, Zellars dreamed up an online program for African Nova Scotian youth that would focus on “our current political moment,” as well as the other stories that aren’t covered in schools.
“Our children are taught very condensed and untruthful narratives about the experiences of Black people in this place, and what it was like to live here when we arrived,” she said. “We wanted to create an environment where Black children could be centered, and come out knowing their histories, with the confidence to lead in their communities.”
Canada has a penchant for self-flattery. We are accustomed to hearing narratives that present the country in a particularly heroic light — narratives that retell the 32-year history of the Underground Railroad while ignoring the two century-long history of slavery in this very same country. One of the Freedom School’s greatest ambitions would be to not shy away from these uncomfortable truths, but rather to return the stifled histories of Black Canadians to young Black students.
So Zellars called up her mentor, Lynn Jones — an activist and chair of Nova Scotia’s chapter of the Global Afrikan Congress — both to seek guidance and to brainstorm a “dream team” of educators for the project. One of the people Jones suggested was Wendie L. Wilson, who, three days after Zellars made contact, was able to organize a group call with all seven Canadian educators who would become the staff at the African Nova Scotian Freedom School: Zellars, Wilson, El Jones, Malik Adams, Karen Hudson, Marsha Hudson-Ash, Venessa Brooks and Rashida Symonds.
How representation among teachers makes a difference
“I remember being that age,” says Wilson. “And what excited me about this school was the possibility of giving these students an opportunity that I never had. I didn’t even have a Black educator until I was doing my Masters. And even just the opportunity to have an educator who looks like you, who shares a similar history, language and culture is huge. That’s what is afforded to most kids every day, and they don’t have to think about it.”
Having that sense of representation among your educators does make a difference. Karen Hudson, for example, earned national recognition last year when she introduced an Africentric math program to students at Auburn Drive High School, through a model that introduced cultural dimensions to the discipline and quickly saw a rise in both enrolment and grade average. “It helped to reshape the classroom and create a sense of belonging among students,” she said. “We wanted to do the same sort of thing with the Freedom School.”
Wilson says Black Canadians can still be churned through twelve years of schooling, plus postsecondary education, without seeing a single lesson about their own history. It can make them feel invisible and confused. “I used to be scared even walking out in the street or going to the gas station nearby because of the colour of my skin, and because I was never taught much about racism,” says Jackson. When George Floyd died and the protests started up in Canada, it occurred to him how little he understood about the long and complicated history that led to this particular moment.
The school opened in August and saw a month of free online classes that happened twice a week, on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. (Zellars organized a GoFundMe campaign to help raise enough funds to pay educators and facilitators a salary, as well as to cover educational materials for students and to cover the cost of a gift at the end of the program: a freedom box of items from locally owned Black businesses.) Students learned about Black Canadian history and culture, policing, abolition, transformative leadership, resistance, and activism.
“It wasn’t sugarcoated, and I liked that,” said Jackson. He says he has a better understanding not only of his history and his culture, but also some of the more theoretical teachings behind the abolitionist movement and how it informs the present. “Me being 17 and knowing some of these things really helped me a lot, and got me to realize all the things they don’t teach us in school.”
Imagining a better future
Some of the concepts these students are exploring are heavy. There are adults in North America who know very little about colonialism, slavery, mass incarceration, and the relationship between the three. Many can’t even begin to parse the idea of abolishing prisons, because they’ve never thought about the world that way. What the Freedom School tries to do is introduce new ways of thinking about the world. The prison-abolition movement is, at its core, a demanding exercise of imagination. It asks us to think through why we consider prisons to be a fixed feature of our societies, why we choose to respond to problems by reproducing the cruelty and conditions that may have caused them.
“Our people have always dreamed in brilliant capacities that far exceeded the conditions of our lives. And so we must, too, as we honour them.”
“This very last class, I taught students that the priority of white supremacy is to kill the Black imagination,” Zellars said. She relayed to the class the story of a free Black woman she’s currently researching ― a woman who, in the late 1700s, was brought from Boston to Halifax to be brutalized and enslaved. And though she was impoverished and illiterate, this woman still knew to hire a lawyer and managed to petition the court on multiple occasions for her freedom. “She believed in a freedom for herself that exceeded the conditions of her life,” Zellars said. “Our people have always dreamed in brilliant capacities that far exceeded the conditions of our lives. And so we must, too, as we honour them.”
This imagination begins, Zellars said, with education. But here in Canada, our education is already afflicted by “systemic silence” on matters of slavery. Just a couple of years ago, parents in Quebec raised concerns about the ways textbooks were framing the stories of enslaved people. The sale and auction of enslaved Africans and Indigenous people is a story that does not often make it into our textbooks, in spite of ample archival evidence illustrating all of it. “In my fifteen years as a university professor,” educator and art historian Charmaine Nelson wrote in 2017, “I have yet to come across one student who has entered my classroom already knowing that slavery existed here.”
And just this week in the U.S., frustrated by newfound attempts to have American schoolchildren grapple more fully with the legacy of racism and slavery in the United States, President Donald Trump announced plans to push for a more “patriotic education” — education that would instead, encouraged by an executive order, “teach our children about the miracle of American history.”
The most urgent work right now, Zellars says, is to begin creating the conditions for a different world from the one we’ve all inherited. “The entry point into that conversation is through the refusal to let your imagination be killed. A better world will remain a crazy dream unless we come together in spaces of community, where we can teach and learn from each other.”