I grew up about twenty miles outside of New York City in a middle-class town that is reported as having a school district that is 92.66% white. And so, it will probably not be all that surprising to hear that I did not have any friends of color until my freshman year of college. I met two of my best college friends Vincent, who is a white Latinx, and Lewis, who is a Black Latinx, in a Short Fiction class in my first semester.
Sometime in the spring semester I invited Vincent and Lewis to come back to my hometown. On our way back down to college later that day, Vincent, who was driving, was pulled over by a police officer. The officer leaned in the window and asked Vincent, “Why were you doing 25 in a 45 mile per hour zone?” to which Vincent boldly replied, “You were following me, and I’m afraid of cops.” The police officer continued to question him, asking what he was doing in this town. At some point, I pulled out my driver’s license to show the officer that this was my hometown and that these were my friends who were visiting. My white-faced identification may well have been our “get out of jail free” card. Regardless, it was my very first conscious experience of my white privilege and is a memory that has stayed with me closely these twenty-five years since.
Many years after college, when I was looking to move out of that same town, I looked up and down the east coast of the United States to find an environment that supports Self-Directed Education for my children. I remember diversity being one of the main factors in my family’s reasoning for ultimately choosing Brooklyn and specifically the Brooklyn Free School as our new home. For my children to have a full, healthy education, their upbringing needed to be in an environment where there was cultural, ethnic, racial and economic diversity—and not just as some token of inclusion on the census checkbox, but for them to really grow, understand, care and be a part of multitudes of wordly perspectives and the huge, glorious array of people that comprise it.
The privilege that can come from choosing a self-directed educational path for one’s children has honestly been my own biggest struggle with this method of education and child rearing. I am speaking of the kind of privilege that can come from being a white, educated, middle-class man from a suburban town as I am. It is so much easier for white-privileged people to be able to choose Self-Directed Education as an alternative means of educating their children. More than once, I have heard a Black or Brown person say that it is one thing for me to let my, say, nine year old “choose to not read just yet” and quite another for their dark skinned child to be seen as “illiterate.”
The History of Race and Self-Directed Education
The history of Self-Directed Education in the context of race and racial freedom in the United States began during the civil rights movement. In 1932, a man named Myles Horton opened the Highlander Folk School in New Market, Tennessee after researching and visiting the folk schools of Denmark. Horton set about to create an education center for activist movement leaders with a philosophy that “oppressed people know the answers to their own problems and the ‘teacher’s job is to get them talking about those problems, to raise and sharpen questions, and to trust people to come up with the answers.'”1 Most notably, Rosa Parks attended Highlander just months prior to famously refusing to give up her seat, which led to the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955.
Of significance, especially to the history of Self-Directed Education, but less well-known in a broader context, was a gentleman named Esau Jenkins, who also attended Highlander. Highlander helped inspire him to open his own school in 1948, called The Progressive Club. Along with Myles Horton and some others in the community, Jenkins ultimately opened a number of citizenship schools on John’s Island in South Carolina, “37 citizenship schools opened on the South Carolina islands and mainland by 1961.”2 He originally started his school as a voter registration training center for illiterate Black adults:
The ‘white man’ required Blacks to read and interpret complicated sections of the Constitution of South Carolina before they were allowed to vote. The ‘white man’ had the system of domination structured so that Blacks were systematically excluded from the opportunities to learn to read and write. Jenkins decided that he would teach them.1
Soon enough they were helping their community to “read, write, vote, and change society” through “their own concrete experiences.”1 Cleverly, they decided “to use a nonteacher, because anyone trained as a teacher would probably revert to traditional schoolroom methods.”1 And so, a beautician (a person whose job is to do hair styling, manicures, and other beauty treatments) named Bernice Robinson became the first citizenship nonteacher. Their methods— starting with addressing the needs of the oppressed people and “asking the participants what they wished to learn”— fit directly into what would eventually be termed Self-Directed Education.
Nearly twenty years after The Progressive Club opened and ten years after Brown v. Board of Education declared segregated Black and white schools unconstitutional, another group of civil rights schools called the Freedom Schools opened with locations mostly in the South. In 1964, the average white student was getting $81.66 per year in taxes toward their education in Mississippi and the average Black student only $21.77.3 Concerned by this racist discrepancy, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee activist, Charles Cobb started the Freedom Schools “in order to to organize African Americans to achieve social, political and economic equality in the United States:”2
In the matter of classroom procedure, questioning is the vital tool. It is meaningless to flood the student with information he cannot understand; questioning is the path to enlightenment.... The value of the Freedom Schools will derive mainly from what the teachers are able to elicit from the students in terms of comprehension and expression of their experiences.3
It was around this same time that the radical education pioneer, A. S. Neill published his book Summerhill, A Radical Approach to Child Rearing in the United States and it started having an influence on the Hippie counterculture movement of the 1960s and 1970s. One person the book significantly impacted was Mary Leue, a mother whose son was struggling in the public school system of inner-city Albany, the capital of New York State. She pulled her son out of school and began homeschooling him along with a small group of other children. Soon Leue and the young people she was working with decided to convert their group into a school. When Leue wrote to Neill for advice on “how to make a similar school for working-class children, he replied that ‘she would be mad to try.'”4 She went ahead anyway and in 1969 she and the small group of students she was working with founded the Albany Free School, which now claims to be the oldest independent, inner-city alternative school in the United States.
The writer and activist Jonathan Kozol has been a long-time proponent of improving the inner-city school systems. He criticized the class and race divide of the American school system, and has been skeptical of the mostly white middle-class free school movement of the 1960s. Leue acted on Kozol’s advice that free schools should “develop some sort of business enterprise so that they wouldn’t be tuition dependent and therefore accessible only to middle-class children.”5 She and the school community bought multiple run-down buildings in the neighborhood of the school and began living in them as a cooperative community.
To this day, the rent from those buildings has provided low or free tuition to a large portion of the students at The Albany Free School, allowing for a large majority of low-income inner-city children to attend the school, with nearly eighty percent being “eligible for reduced-price meals in the public schools”6 and just under fifty percent of the students being non-white.7 The Albany Free School has served as a model for new, inner-city schools focused on social justice and anti-racism, such as the Brooklyn Free School, the Chicago Free School, and the Philly Free School.
Contemporary SDE Models that Address Racial Diversity
I interviewed multiple people in the Self-Directed Education movement for this article, including my colleague at the Alliance for Self-Directed Education, Akilah Richards. Akilah is a Black unschooling mother who writes and podcasts about her family’s experiences. For them, unschooling is a method for self-liberation and decolonizing education. In asking Akilah about white privilege in Self-Directed Education, Akilah explained to me:
The assumption is that we’re talking about organizations like an Agile Learning Center or Sudbury School. Those are the ones you hear about when you say privileged, but Self-Directed Education communities exist in several forms. Those are just two... There are many SDE communities that are created not as a business model and not from frustrated teachers coming out of public schools but from family members... who see [Self-Directed Education] as a viable solution because they collaborate. The model isn’t based on tuition; it is based on all different sorts of compensation... not just money.
One example of such a community Akilah gave was the Anna Julia Cooper Learning & Liberation Center,
...which is organized as a cooperative... and is primarily low-income Black and Latinx folk in a very specific part of Atlanta that has been actively opposing gentrification that has been creeping up in that area. For those families, having their children in an SDE space is how they remedy the financial divide, where they can’t send them to something like a Sudbury or they wouldn’t even if they could because of the issues of whiteness.
Akilah described to me her family’s situation living within this model:
We have other people who are single mothers and single fathers who we are in a community [with]. We can pick up their kid and because they’re at home we can drop all our kids off at their house for four hours while we meet with clients or do whatever and then pick them back up. And no money is exchanged, but there is plenty of value. So we need to broaden our perspective on what SDE is to not just include the super white spaces where they’re called formal schools.
This gift economy of local community caring for one another harks back to the concept of the village raising the child. When I asked Akilah how one would go about finding such a group in one’s area, she answered, “You find out about them by becoming involved in local homeschooling groups. So many of those include a lot of self-directed folks who just call themselves homeschoolers either because they’re required to or because it’s safer than saying what you actually do.”
I also interviewed some students and parents at the New York City Agile Learning Center to get their take on building a diverse Self-Directed Education culture that cultivates unbiased and nondiscriminatory people. Fourteen-year-old Timo remarked about conventional schooling:
A lot of kids... don’t have much freedom. I think that that doesn’t feel good and oftentimes they’re forced to do things that they really don’t like to do, like sit in that class that they’re not interested in. I think that that can be really draining and make people have less space for compassion.
In contrast to that, Timo says of the Agile Learning Center, “I think that people here are more connected to each other. So it’s kind of harder to dehumanize someone.” He continues:
We do a lot of things throughout the day and we have a lot of routine practices that help people stay more connected, like Spawn Point. People get a little insight into what other people are doing with their time. That’s nice. There are people that you get to see every morning.
Twelve-year-old Douglas continues to discuss this idea of familiarity helping to develop compassion at their school, “Letting people talk with each other about their problems and letting them work their way through it can be really good.” Being a part of a diverse community has “helped me be more fair and be more equal in my decisions. Being in a diverse environment helps you hear all sorts of opinions for things.”
Xander attends the Agile Learning Center with Timo and Douglas. I interviewed his mother Diane Tinsley, who is a woman of color and serves on the Community Education Council for District 5 (Harlem) in New York City. She told me about how she describes the school to conventional schooling parents:
I explain to parents that it’s an unschooling process for your whole family. Your child for the first time has the freedom to discover who they want to be and what they are capable of. We had to wait until adulthood to figure this out and some of us are still struggling. Fortunately, Xander joined ALC with a strong idea of who he wants to be, and while I’ve been struggling on my own to support [that idea], we’ve both found a school community that supports him.
Diane’s explanation, as well as those of the students above, brings us back to this notion that community, caring, developing familiarity, and resolving issues together is what creates an understanding and a bond between people that is strong enough to fend off the fear and ignorance that can develop into discrimination. And unschooling cooperatives and self-directed learning centers provide and foster such qualities and experiences more so than their conventional schooling counterparts do.
This is because the young people in an SDE environment are confronted with one another’s opinions and sometimes come into conflict. This is a good thing because, in this setting, they then get to have a dialogue and have plenty of opportunity and time to come to resolutions together rather than be handed one-sided solutions from a top-down authority. Coming face to face with otherness in a non-hierarchical atmosphere—most especially in a non-hierarchical atmosphere—helps children grow up celebrating it rather than fearing it. This togetherness is the start of learning acceptance and abolishing all kinds of discrimination.
Abolishing Racism in Practice
Beyond just recording what SDE communities have done and are doing, I wanted to learn more on how to move towards a practical approach of abolishing racism and bigotry through the environments young people grow up in. And so, I asked the interviewees if they had any advice.
In the context of Agile Learning Centers, Diane suggested as a start,
Akilah’s children Marley and Sage were also recently at an Agile Learning Center, “The reason that we are in Atlanta is because Marley and Sage wanted to go to Heartwood Agile Learning Center.” And like Diane, Akilah explains that it is important to have adults of color in leadership positions, modeling not just for the young people in the community but also for the white adults in the community:
You have to have Black leadership in these spaces, that’s how you solve it. Because the Black leadership and leadership of color can work to the specifics — because of course there are no prescriptions — you can work through the specifics with the benefit of those perspectives. And with someone who’s going to see certain biases and have certain lived experiences that will lend themselves to it in a way that you can’t. So you have to stop the white savior complex of ‘just tell me how and then we’ll fix that’ and ‘everyone is fine and safe.’
Akilah then mentioned Anthony Galloway as one Black leader who is doing just this. Anthony is a Lead Facilitator and Co-Director at Heartwood, the ALC Akilah’s daughters attended for the 2017-2018 school year. He and I initially met at an Agile Learning Facilitator training I spoke at two years ago. I reached out to him and asked him several questions. I started by asking about the potential of SDE helping children develop an open, non-discriminatory sense of being. He responded:
Members of the oppressive class tend to have the option to opt in or out of learning about how they uphold discrimination and prejudice. If they can and do opt out then SDE is failing in this regard.
Just because you aren’t teaching discriminatory practices doesn’t mean they aren’t being learned. Just because a person is not themselves discriminatory, does not mean that they may not uphold, feed, and benefit from institutions and systems that are. It’s not enough to not teach your child to be a bigot. You have to work and counter the lessons they are learning from the world. You have to teach them to see and question these bigger mechanisms at play.
I then asked what advice he has for people of color in an SDE environment. He imparted this to me:
My advice: unlearn your oppression. Not just yours but the build up of internalized racism and destructive coping mechanisms you inherited from generations of Black people who were surviving under the weight of racism. Take it slowly and work at this everyday. Never quit, it will be a lifelong process. The desecration spanned lifetimes; our rebuilding won’t be finished in just one. Surround yourself with others who are liberating their families. The violence was enacted against our entire community. Our healing must be communal as well. Question why you/we do what you/we do. Don’t pass on your fears and anxieties to your children. Realize the risks of rebellion so that you are making an informed decision. Give yourself a rest and forgive yourself when you fail. Do not put the entire community on your back. Again, our reconstruction must be a communal effort.
Why: Black youth and Black people, in general, have for so long been denied the ability to consent. Even now, somewhere a young person of color is being made to learn a Eurocentric history, and their cultural heritage is being hidden away and undervalued. Because of poverty they might be forced to attend a school that opts to deny the realities of what they are lacking and fetishizes their ability to at least physically, if not mentally, survive an oppressive system. Give them the chance and practice of making their own decisions. Give them the chance to determine what’s important for themselves. Give them the chance to create a future instead of riding the wake of and existing as human capital for the hegemony. For Black people, SDE rejects and invalidates the seeming benefits of white proximity. It is one of the only kinds of liberation that matters.
And lastly, I asked what advice he had for administrators, facilitators, classmates, friends, and parents in the community in supporting children of color transitioning into an SDE environment. He suggested:
- Educating yourself on the fullness of their experience will be key. But without relying on the free labor of the oppressed to guide you through. We all should be compensating Black writers, creators, thinkers, scholars, etc. for their work. For the physical, mental, emotional labor inherited and put in that allows us to create. This means not making that student or family be responsible for all of white people’s learning, which will never be finished.
- Be vigilant of white saviorism.
- Hear and listen.
- Make sure efforts for people of color center and are led by people of color.
- Understand that people of color might want a different version of SDE than what liberal white people are used to performing. It’s okay to opt in to structured learning experiences. It’s okay to want assignments and feedback.
- Understand that SDE has a different value for people of color.
- At some point there may be something (a conversation, a policy, a decision, etc.) that will be anti-Black and anti-poor and it will not be direct or apparent. It’ll be an undertone, some aspect that is heavily correlated to class and race. Be vigilant and listen deeply because it’s moments like these where racism and classism breed unnoticed.
- It’s not enough for them to be IN the space. Young Black people must feel comfortable in the space, they must feel that they belong, and they must have some ownership. Their experiences mustn’t be invalidated and perspectives not undervalued.
Anthony notes of our conventional schooling system:
Our present day public education system and post-secondary education is inherently oppressive. It’s anti-Black. It’s anti-poor. It’s anti-woman. It is not meant to empower. It is not meant to liberate. It pathologizes and confines. It’s a pyramid scheme that guards against widespread access to resources, knowledge, power, and wealth.
If this is so, then what can I do to counter this? My thought was that I could write about it, help raise awareness of the issue and perhaps reveal some ways in which Self-Directed Education can help abolish racism. As a white man setting about to write this, I asked Akilah in frankness if she felt I should be writing this article. She replied:
I think yes, especially if you’re not positioning it as you giving us the answers to our problem here. You’re talking about your experiences as a member of the community of people who believe in what I call “raising free people,” who are contributing to liberation in the world and helping to dismantle the foolishness I would call government. And so, I feel like it is fine, particularly if you’re not coming from the perspective of solving it for people who can’t solve it themselves.
So I have tried to step back and listen to people of color for them to lead me and us toward the abolishment of racism in education. And I humbly remain a part of this community, doing my part to try to raise free people.
 Morris, Aldon D., The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change. The Free Press, 1986.
 Civil Rights Women Leaders of the Carolinas, “The Highlander Folk School.” https://ncwomenofcivilrights.wordpress.com/septima-clark/highlander-and-citizenship-schools/. Accessed date June 2, 2018
 Wikipedia, “Freedom Schools.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_Schools. Accessed date June 2, 2018
 Education & Democracy, “Freedom School Data.” http://www.educationanddemocracy.org/FSCfiles/B_14_FSchoolData.htm. Accessed date June 2, 2018
 Wikipedia, “Albany Free School.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albany_Free_School. Accessed date June 2, 2018
 be you. “Albany Free School,” https://redefineschool.com/albany-free-school/. Accessed date June 2, 2018
 Niche. “The Free School,” https://www.niche.com/k12/the-free-school-albany-ny/. Accessed date June 2, 2018