Khoa Nguyen speaks on the Freedom School panel at City Hall on Aug. 2nd.  Source: The Seattle Channel.

On a thick, balmy August day, Seattle City Hall is packed with officials, community members and the press. This time, they gathered to hear the insights of eight young panelists, ages 16 to 20.

“You all have been talking about the different systems,” said Enrique Gonzales, an adult community leader posing his question to the panelists. “The juvenile justice system, the school system …  these systems seem to function compartmentalized. How do you get systems to talk to one another?”

Andrea Lopez-Diaz, a 19-year-old Mexican-American panelist, took ahold of her mic.

“They are speaking, but they’re having the wrong conversation,” she pointed out. “Systems of expulsion and suspension are setting youth up for incarceration. Police, instead of [surveillancing] schools, need to have conversations with kids about staying out of prisons.”

The panel presentation was the culmination of this year’s 22nd Tyree Scott Freedom School that welcomed 25 students this year, including the incisive Lopez-Diaz. A program of the American Friends Service Committee’s Community Justice Program run by Director Dustin Washington, the Freedom School is a twice-annual free program that convenes young adults for eight days to examine institutional racism and structural poverty, learn their rights with the police, review activism history and discuss what sort of issues of inequity impact youth of color in Seattle.

Participants of Freedom School this summer took a field trip to Seattle’s Chinatown-International District to learn about Asian Pacific American history, and to the King County Courthouse to meet Lisa Daugaard, the director of the Defender Association. In addition to running in the summer, the Freedom School also holds sessions during Seattle students’ winter breaks.

Today’s Freedom School stands on the shoulders of the 1964 Freedom Summer, where young people fought against harassment, beatings and death under the Mississippi sky for their own and future generations’ rights.

In the summer of 2013, Freedom School carries forward a legacy and operates in a new context of growing discontent around institutional racism. This, as of late, has been heightened by nationwide protests around George Zimmerman’s “not guilty” verdict and Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, and U.S. Court Judge Shira Sheindlin deeming the New York Police Department’s “stop-and-frisk” tactics unconstitutional and an act of “indirect racial profiling.” Momentum is also building around criticism of corporate education reform that often leaves poor youth of color behind. The Atlantic calls this a “Coming Revolution in Public Education.”

During these urgent times, Tyree Scott Freedom School validates student experiences with racism and ties it with the structural context that students can see reflected widely in enduring racial gaps in food security and income, and racial disproportionality in school discipline and juvenile detention.

Freedom School mentor James Fontanos, a 20-year-old Filipino American, said he left high school in his sophomore year because “life got in the way of school.”

“Freedom School gives people a perspective that they don’t teach at school, but that they need growing up,” he said.

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