The fifth entry in the Black Panther Party’s (BPP) 10-point platform reads, “We want education for our people that exposes the true nature of this decadent American society. We want education that teaches us our true history and our role in the present-day society.” The seventh is an all too familiar demand for “an immediate end to police brutality and murder of Black people.”
Founded in 1966, the BPP ran a number of community-oriented programs, from free breakfasts for kids to accompanying seniors afraid of being mugged at night. Its approach to police violence involved carrying guns while observing law-enforcement; this tactic has lived on most vibrantly in the popular consciousness. But children were an integral aspect of the BPP’s project. Yet merely ensuring their success within the white-controlled educational system wouldn’t do. It’s what inspired the group to launch liberation schools for youth of colour.
Fifty years later, a similar motivation guides LeRoi Newbold, a member of the Black Lives Matter Toronto (BLMTO) steering committee and director of the group’s own Freedom School. The school began in July 2016, bringing in 20 kids for three weeks of arts-focused education on Black history, political resistance, and state violence.
In late October 2016, Newbold was finishing preparations for a Halloween party that would allow the kids to dress up as important historical and modern Black figures—from Marsha P. Johnson, a Black trans woman whose central role in the Stonewall Rebellion is often ignored, to Dutty Boukman, a Jamaican fighter in the Haitian Revolution. As with the Freedom School’s curriculum, the party was designed to integrate learning with play. “There’s a lot of pretty violent things happening to Black kids and Black youth in education,” Newbold says, “in terms of being channeled into behavioural classes, kind of culturally inappropriate and disengaging curriculum.”
Dropout rates for Black students in Toronto are significantly higher than for other racial demographics, as are suspension and expulsion rates. Newbold, who works at the Toronto District School Board’s Africentric Alternative School, points to those stats as evidence of the school system’s failure, and evidence that a community-involved approach is needed. Newbold hopes to impart three key lessons through the Freedom School: that Black children know their lives matter, that they are capable of complex thought and analysis, and that they will be victorious in the battles against hatred and bigotry. Newbold, for example, teaches kids that resistance works, from the founding of Haiti, which started as a slave revolt, to future victories over oppression. Combined, these lessons provide a way of seeing oneself and the world both as it is and as it can be: a process to unpack what’s happening in many of their lives, a foundation of self-love, and an optimism borne of historical precedent.
Freedom School was developed with significant direction from parents, and places a premium on community and parental involvement. In return, Newbold said the project has received mostly positive support, though not from all corners. For one, when Newbold approached an all-girls’ school about using their space, administration suggested the children wouldn’t be able to grasp the “abstract concepts” in the curriculum.
But children are more than capable of understanding complex ideas if given the proper tools, Newbold noted. Most importantly, many of the concepts that school called abstract—classism, trans feminism, Black liberation, police violence—are already affecting kids across Toronto. To Newbold, that makes it all the more vital to provide children with space to understand the world around them.
Arts-based teaching at Freedom School is engaging, a necessary tactic for any educational approach. And it allows the kids to be kids, to have fun and use their imaginations. They used stop-motion animation in a lesson about the Haitian Revolution, and capoeira lessons to talk about the Malê Revolt in Brazil.
Some teachers who may be white and middle-class fail to see how outside factors affect the children in their care, expecting their charges to come into each day with a full stomach and uncluttered mind, which is simply not the case for many children. Creating an educational space that considers those other factors, and plans for them, is among Newbold’s long-term goals.
The Black Panther Party’s school program lived on past the party itself, and Newbold said they have similar goals for the longevity of Freedom School. In the short term they want to show young people that they are a valued group in the fight for liberation, welcome and necessary. Over a longer timeline, Newbold said they want to create more alternative educational models in Canada.
“I constantly hear about how ‘Black kids are not doing as well in education because parents aren’t as available,’ or we don’t have the resources in our community. These are not the reasons we’re not being successful,” Newbold says, pointing to failures on the part of educators. They want to change that.