“You’re basically saying, ‘Oh so, I get to choose whether I walk through the door or whether you’re gonna drag me through the door. And I get to choose which experience I have.’ And so, there are these ways of kind of giving the illusion of choice if you don’t really look at this as a human rights issue.”
I have had the pleasure of meeting Jim Flannery in person a couple of times. In our conversations, I became fascinated with Jim’s ability to connect human rights in the mental health field with children’s rights, schooling, and his work in Self-Directed Education. And so, I asked Jim if I could interview him. Below are video and audio recordings of that interview as well as a transcript of the conversation that we had last Wednesday, May 8th, 2019.
Video Footage of the Interview
Audio Footage of the Interview
A Transcript of the Interview
Jim Flannery: There you go man, we’re live, we’re doing it, it’s real.
Alexander Khost: Awesome. Well thank you so much for doing this interview. If maybe you could just say a quick who you are first and then we’ll go from there?
JF: Sure. My name is Jim Flannery, and I imagine the reason that we’re doing this is because of my work in the Peer Unschooling Network, which I created a couple of years ago that went away. There’s been sort of multiple iterations of this project over time. But I am the creator of what’s called the Peer Unschooling Network or as the cool kids are calling it PUN [https://peerunschooling.net].
AK: Great thanks. So if– just to start– if you could tell us a little bit about how you came to discover a Self-Directed Education.
JF: Sure. My first exposure to Self-Directed Education would probably be when I was a senior in college. I was studying biomedical engineering, and I took a class in my senior year called Intellectual Assets. And it was the least engineering-y class that I that I remember taking. And it was about creativity and inventing and entrepreneurship. And then, I took that class, and it was in that class– you know when you’re senior in college you start thinking about you know what am I going to do with my life... what am I going to do– and it was in that class that I realized that I wanted to be an inventor. And in that class I also learned that in modern times to be an inventor means being an entrepreneur. And so I decided that’s what I want to do I want to be an entrepreneur.
And me and a classmate decided we were going to start a business. And at the time we didn’t even know what it was going to be. We just took the things we learned in this class and that kind of Edisonian method of creating where you’re like we’re gonna have a bunch of brainstorming sessions and come up with ideas and then afterwards we’ll narrow down to the best ideas and then we’ll select one and we’ll run with it. And we started this business and we were– there was no instruction manual on this. Nowadays there are more resources out there for startup companies yet you’re still jumping out of an airplane and inventing a parachute on your way down no matter what. And so we were trying to find out and how to do this and find our path and we had to find all the resources. We would– you know, I remember my last semester of college choosing my classes based on what I thought would be the best way of leveraging my credits and my degree towards our business. I took a electromagnetic class and a photonics class because because this business was related to light and biology and so I took those classes.
I remember going and seeing flyers on the wall for talks lectures workshops that were going on. And I would go to those because they were related to what we were working on and reaching out to professors and asking questions. And even there was some researchers in Australia that had published some articles related to our field– really our whole company was based off of the research that they had done in academia, and we were trying to commercialize it. And we’re trying– you know, there were these papers that were published in these books and we were trying to figure out how to get access to them because they were in these fairly obscure journals and they were like the Estonia Journal of Engineering and these things.
So we were seeking out all this information trying to figure it out. And it was a mess because we didn’t know what we were doing. We were having so much fun right. So much fun. And we were learning so much, and we– it was this blend of having more fun and learning more– and I remember being like, “Why the hell did we wait so long to do this?” What is going on here? Why why did we wait all the way up till we graduated. Because what you soon realize is well wait a minute. I didn’t actually need a college degree to do what we’re doing. We didn’t, you know– no one’s– it’s not our credentials– it’s this mindset of going for it and figuring out as you go along. It was a real mindset change, and I really felt frustrated that why wasn’t my whole education like this? And that doesn’t mean that my whole education needs to be about a startup company or a business. I just mean this idea of creating something and learning as you’re going and seeking out information and finding mentors and advisors and coaches... why wasn’t it always like this or at least I didn’t have an option for it to be like this? And that was when I first really kind of started thinking about why wasn’t my education self-directed? Why didn’t I have this option?
AK: Okay, so then, did you start looking up Self-Directed Education or what?
JF: Oh okay, so that was my first time doing what I would call Self-Directed Education, but I didn’t know that it was a thing, right? So I got involved in a couple of different startups. The first one was called A & J Biomedics– that’s the one me and my college classmate Alex started. And then I was involved in starting one called American Relight, which was in the LED lighting business. And after that one closed I got– well, actually it didn’t close– we acquired another business. When those two businesses came together, I was considered no longer a necessary part of the business. And so, I was basically kicked out of that company. And I became really turned off by a few different things: I got frustrated with startup, you know, like that felt really, really bad– to get kicked out of this thing that I kind of helped start. It hurt a lot.
And I got really frustrated with technology, and I– what specifically frustrated me was thinking about how much time and energy so many people like me and other folks were putting into using technology as the tool to save the world. You know LED lighting, we’re going to go in, we are going to revolutionize the energy space by saving the world by reducing energy consumption and you know... we’re great, we’re where the heroes in lab coats... whatever you want to call it. And I realized, well you know we had a client that we we relit the property with LEDs and the guy said, “You know, I love the new lights that you guys put in the building. Ever since they went in, my energy bill went down so much, I leave the lights on all the time.” And I was like, enough. That really pissed me off. And that was this kind of realization: well wait a minute, if we just taught people to turn the light off when they’re not using it, we don’t even need this fancy new technology.
You know, all the energy that goes into researching how to make an LED chips: you have researchers in academia figuring out how to generate light; and you’ve got engineers deciding how to take this light source and turn it into an actual fixture; you’ve got people mining the earth for minerals that are gonna be used to create these chips in these lamps; you’ve got manufacturing in China where they actually assemble and make these lamps; then they put it on a boat and move it across the Pacific Ocean to the United States; and then it’s on trucks going all around the United States bringing these light bulbs around; you had guys like me going out selling these things; contractors are also installing. I’m like, what a waste of all this energy when we could just do something with education. So I got turned off with the tech stuff; I want to do something that was more meaningful, and I looked at education. And that was when I said, “Okay what could be done differently in school?” Let me go back to what was valuable to me, and what I saw at the end of my education, doing entrepreneurship and being self-directed. And so, I knew that in the beginning that I wanted to get involved in education in a way that allowed the young people to be self-directed, and be the ones driving the ship. I needed to know what school was like as a teacher though. So I went and I taught high school physics for a semester so I could learn.
All right, first off, I had been out of high school for, I don’t know, maybe eight years at that point? Maybe things had changed? I had never been a teacher. I didn’t know what that position was like, and I wanted to learn. And so I went in there knowing, in a way that– and maybe that hurt the experience, like kind of knowing that I was a little cynical towards it– and sure enough, it was, in a lot of ways, it was worse than I expected.
And so I left, and I ended up starting a company called Open Source High, but actually it was never formally organized as a company; you could just call it a project called Open Source High, which was about getting kids to make videos teaching each other. And my idea was, if kids are making videos teaching each other, it’s basically Khan Academy but kids make the videos, that if that was going on– where kids were making videos teaching each other– then that would somehow show that they’re doing self-directed learning, and they didn’t need the teacher necessarily. And it was not as direct as it should have been. It was a fun project. I think I got turned off because, a lot of people, when I told them let’s make it so kids don’t need school, you know, they thought I was a crazy person. And sometimes when people tell you you’re crazy it’s a compliment. And sometimes when people tell you you’re crazy, you get a little nervous.
And you know I’ve had some experiences with both sides of being called crazy, and I got a little nervous. So I probably was less... you know, I skirted away from being so open about “let’s help kids not need school.” And Open Source High, it was a cool, fun project that a lot of... great content and educational, interesting, creative, unique videos kids made. But it turned into school, where I was running contests and kids were making videos for the contests and then we were choosing winners. It evolved into that.
And I got really frustrated, decided I was going to step back and re-evaluate, and around the same time some people from the unschooling world reached out to me. And I had been going– actually to where I am right now– I’m in western Massachusetts at Valley Venture Mentors right now, and I had gone through their program. I had been introduced to people at North Star, which is a self-directed learning center that’s part of the Liberated Learners Network. And there’s also LightHouse, which is in Holyoke Massachusetts. So, I started seeing these alternative learning centers then someone at North Star introduced me to the people over at Sudbury Valley. Then I got to see Sudbury Valley. And then I went to an unschooling conference, and I was like, “Oh my God! I don’t need to invent this thing.” People had been doing this for years.
You know, the inventor that– you know, that person that wanted me to be an inventor, wanted to create the thing that let kids not need school. And I’m like I don’t need to invent anything. They’ve been doing this since the 60s, and then, if you read Peter Gray’s work you’re like, wait a minute people have been doing this since the beginning of mankind school is just as brief little thing in history.
And so, then it changed a lot for me because seeing that this already existed, that I didn’t need to invent it– think about all the barriers that– the barriers shifted from being, “Is this possible?” to, “Wow, how do we take what already exists and make it affordable and accessible to anybody that wants to learn like this?” And so, it really changed everything for me. And that was when I created the Peer Unschooling Network– that was the shift.
AK: Yes, I was just about to ask so did that: so, what did you learn from Open Source High that then made you pick up PUN? And can you tell us a little bit about how then you opened that up and where you are with it now?
JF: Okay. So, there were a lot of lessons learned from Open Source High. First off, I mean two lessons learned as an example of self-directed learning and inaction: I had build websites when I was a kid... for fun. And then when I made Open Source High, I had to re-learn the latest technology on how to build websites. And so, I had to go back to being a self directed learner on how to build websites. And I was– I got to be good enough at it that I was then able to make a living and support myself as a web developer and web designer. So, I went from this thing that I was passionate about as a kid, and then I had this project Open Source High. So it’s as a lesson learned like, hey, I went back to being, you know, I started earning a living doing this thing I was passionate about the same thing has happened with making videos.
I made a small number of videos for Open Source High. I made a handful of physics comedy sketches as examples of what I thought the website would be, you know, what I thought was cool educational stuff. And then I would make announcement videos teaching or announcing like we would run a contest and that kind of thing. And so I learned how to make videos from doing that and that involved a lot of going people I was friends with that had done it before, getting lots of help, reaching out, you know, finding... just finding mentors, finding people with more experience to pass on their ideas with me, playing and experimenting. And I then, actually made, you know, not my primary source of income, but I made money now as– I guess you would call it– a videographer, making videos. So those are lessons learned in practicing self-directed learning.
Then there were lessons learned about like Open Source High and what worked and what didn’t. One of the things I realized was that it attracted kids that liked making videos; it wasn’t necessarily for everybody. It was a niche of kids that liked making videos, but that doesn’t necessarily create a community of self-directed learners– it was really, really niche. It wasn’t a space that was open to everybody that wanted to do self-directed learning. And it made it really inaccessible if you weren’t interested in making videos. And so, it was really limiting in that it was focused on making cool videos.
Because if the whole idea is, you know, finding ways to connect people so they can help one another and find resources, and network, and share ideas, and work on projects together, you don’t need to make a video to do that. Someone can just talk to you, and have a video call, or a chat room, and send you a link to a website, or a book that they like. There are so many different ways that people can share ideas that the video was really a limiting thing.
Another thing that I realized was that there wasn’t a community being made at Open Source High. It was turning into this thing where they were submitting videos to me, and then I was choosing which ones were the best and giving away prizes. And I didn’t want it to be that. I tried all these different ways of doing it and then they kept asking me, you know, telling me we want it done this way. We think this is the most fair. We think this is the most fun. Can we just do it this way? And I’d do what they asked for kind of thing, and I didn’t like that– it felt like school. They weren’t really engaging with one another as a community, it was me engaging with them. So that was another piece that was learned there.
What else, lessons that were learned? Well, so as PUN started to get going, I did... I wouldn’t call it customer interviews, that’s like a jargon that we use in kind of startup worlds, but there was a panel discussion at an unschooling conference. And it was a bunch of teen unschoolers, and people were asking them questions, you could ask them anything. And I asked them some fun questions like, “If you could wave a magic wand and change anything about your unschooling experience, what would you change?” If you could... that was a big one. And, “What were your favorite things about being an unschooler? And what are your least favorite things?” And so, I started to learn in the unschooling world what are things that young people need that they don’t have available. What do they wish they had. What could make their world better?
And my hope was, okay, if ultimately the goal is to help the kids that are in school– there’s tons of them, you know, there’s 13 million teens in America about and worldwide, there’s many many more– how do you help all these folks become empowered and have the tools to do self-directed learning? Well, if you look at people that are already doing it, you can learn a lot of things from how they’re already living that life, and how they’re doing it. But then there’s this question of how do you build that bridge between the two? And even how do you scale that? Like, how do you make it so that you can do that on a large scale? Like I said, my dream is how do you make it affordable and accessible to everybody.
And so, I looked at it that if I could create something online that would connect all of the unschoolers– because when they said what they wish there was– they said they wished that there were more unschoolers. They wish there were more kids like them. They wished that– they said they wish that people understood unschooling more because there’s a lot of misunderstandings, and so, some of these kids get judgment towards them because they are different. They’re doing a different thing and they feel criticism or judgment.
And so, you know, I thought okay, if there’s a world where those kids are all connected and it’s normalized to do unschooling, that would solve some of their problems, and I then, you know, afterwards I hung out with a lot of these kids, and they were describing how cool it would be to have your own city. Wouldn’t it be cool if you had your own city of unschoolers, and what would it look like if, you know, how would you create a city? And so we’re having all these conversations that were really cool and creative about what would it look like? And one of the debates was should there be adults and young people mixed together on the website? And they were like Well part of the culture of unschooling is is age mixing and connecting everybody.
But some of them said, well wait a minute you know we want to have our own space. There’s plenty of spaces for adults. We want to have ours. So they were debating about what the proper way to do it is, and what was really cool was they came up and they said, “Oh, well, why don’t we start off with... We want the culture to be really youthful, and we want young people to feel welcome. So why don’t we start off really focusing on young people and then when it gets to be larger then we can invite more people in.”
They wanted to see this community and they thought of it like a city that if you went and wanted to create a city. You’d find all the coolest most interesting people and bring them all together in one place, and then, anyone who came through could stay and visit and become a member of your city. But you wanted to kind of seed it with a culture. And so it was really based on all these ideas and discussions that I had with these teens at this conference. And my hope was that if this place existed online that all the unschoolers were hanging out, then if I was giving a talk or wrote a book or was even just having a conversation with a teen that was in school, and I was describing all these wild amazing things that unschoolers are doing with their lives, instead of looking at me like I’m making shit up, I could say hey, if you want to meet some of them, you can go talk to them on this website. They’re real people. I wanted to build that bridge between the two places. That was kind of the segue that moved into PUN becoming what it was.
AK: You described a lot about communities and sort of the difference between academic learning and self-directed learning. A lot of the language you were using was talking about cities and building community. I really appreciated that. Would you say that that’s kind of a... would you describe PUN as a community?
JF: Oh yes, so there’s a few things you bring up that are really good points. In terms of a lesson that was learned, when I created Open Source High, I thought I was building a learning platform, right? When PUN became the focus, I realized this is not a learning platform. This is a online community or a social platform that is for people that are interested in learning. But it is important to not focus it on being a learning tool or a learning platform. It’s about having community. And that was a huge shift for me because it makes, it changes the priorities, and the values, and the order, and the way that you make decisions when you think about what’s the priority here. And I think about North Star, their expression or maybe it’s the whole Liberated Learners Network where they say, you know, “learning is natural and school is optional.” And so, that was a huge thing with PUN was that it’s a learning community a community of learners. It’s not a learning platform. And that was a big kind of shift, and what I think has been valuable is being at some conferences where young people have gotten to speak about their experiences.
I remember being at AERO last spring when it was at Work Space. And there was a panel of North Star students, and they talked about their experiences before they came to North Star and then after. And then there was a panel of Work Space students, and they talked about life before Work Space, and then what it was like being at Work Space. And if you listen to the young people– and I think it’s important that we listen to them and not dismiss what they have to say. That’s really like– if anything– that is likely to the ethos of this is, listen to them and don’t dismiss their opinions and ideas. Prioritize their ideas. If you listen to what they said they didn’t really talk about learning. They really talked about that they were unhappy, they didn’t have friends, they didn’t have connections, they felt like they were different, they didn’t feel like they fit in in their community, at their school, and then they came to this new place. And they felt like they were connected with people, they made friends, they felt like they fit in, they felt like they found their tribe. They used different expressions like that. That will always be the first thing that they’ll talk about is that. And then they’ll say, “Oh and now that I’m here and I feel good, now I’m working on all of these fascinating things.” And it’s important because the priority is the community and the well-being of the individual. It’s about connections and people.
What do we all want to make a living for? Well, you know, schools didn’t... like, so we make money we have. Why do we want all this stuff? Why do we want food shelter and why? Why do we want these things? So that then we can spend time with people and have connections and friends. Having a bunch of money and all this stuff is useless if you don’t have any friends or connections or people to share it with. What is your priority. And so community is the priority. And I saw that play out and then I remember– you know, I’ve been a digital nomad the last four years, three and a half, four years, which I am thinking of, actually, in a big way. Because as a traveler, I’ve felt like I don’t have much of a community. And I kind of want to, I’m strongly thinking about going back to staying in one place because of that, for myself, because of wanting community.
But in my travels, it was visiting Asheville, North Carolina where I think I went there shortly after that unschooling conference where we were talking about creating a city. And then I was in Asheville, and I was like, this place is the coolest. And I was like, if I was going to create a city, it would be like this. And I almost feel bad because here I am talking about how cool it is in the podcast or interview (however this is going to turn out), and I know that people like me saying that kind of stuff then drives more people to Asheville. And more people are moving there, and everyone’s saying it’s ruining the city because all these people keep moving there, but–.
AK: It’s all, it’s all your fault, Jim.
JF: Yeah, it’s like completely my fault, and I’m contributing to it. But that idea of community, when I was there I felt really at home, welcomed. I felt like I fit in there. I felt all those things that these people describe. And I feel a little bit of that in Western Massachusetts, not as much as Asheville, but my family’s in Connecticut... so, you know even in me– I’m, you know, I’m not different than these young people. I’m different in some ways but the ultimate core things that we all need and want in life are not that different. So the community to me is first, and then, learning happens.
AK: To shift for a minute, maybe talk about those people that sometimes are shunned from community. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your experience working in the mental health field. And what brought you to that.
Sure. What brought me to working in the mental health field was my own experiences in the mental health system. So I mentioned, when I was twenty two, that that was when I started that company with a classmate of mine. And we... the company didn’t necessarily work out, but we got funded pretty quick and our trajectory felt really fast.
I graduated college, let’s say, May of 2008. In August, had shook hands, at least, a handshake deal with two different investors. You know, the documents might not have been signed, that money might have been might not have been wired yet, but like, had agreements to have two investors. You know we went out to raise one hundred thousand dollars and within three or four months we had raised three hundred thousand dollars– way more money than we expected. The trajectory was really, really high.
And then at that time I was– like I mentioned, being 22– there we’re not as many resources available for people that we’re launching startups. And these were new, this was a newer space. Even when we were negotiating the lab space at Boston University, no one had ever done this before, that wanted to rent lab space at their university for a startup like this. So they didn’t have like paper– it took forever to find the right people. So, what I’m getting out of here is that I didn’t have support and community of people to talk to about what I was going through. I didn’t have connections of people that understood this that had been through it, that could tell me hey it’s OK, it’s gonna be all right, don’t worry, this is normal, that’s normal. I didn’t have people that I could really connect to in a way.
And it started to– the pressure and the stress– really got to me and it took over, and I wasn’t sleeping. And then a lot of different things went on. I mean, it’s a tidal wave of a storm. And I ended up... my family– and actually my some friends of mine reached out to my family and told them that they were worried about me. And my family sort of coerced or tricked me or whatever phrase– I don’t hold it against them– but they got me to go to a hospital to get some sort of an evaluation done. And I don’t hold it against my friends for it for calling them and saying like, you know something’s wrong, I don’t hold that against them. In fact, god damn those are good friends. That is a hard phone call to make, to call a friend’s parents, to say you’re worried. Those are good friends.
And then my parents, you know, they didn’t know what was going on. They didn’t know how to do it. And like, even my family, they weren’t necessarily... they were people I could talk to a lot about stuff, but they didn’t have experience with startup companies and people investors and technology in this way. Not that they didn’t know about business like my dad had owned a bar for many years. My brother-in-law and my sister, they have a heating and air conditioning company. They don’t know about business but there was different pressures.
And I ended up going to hospital to get this evaluation. And while I was in there, you know, the next thing you know they told me that I can’t leave. What do you mean I can’t leave? I got places to be, you know, South Park comes on at 10, I gotta get out of here. And they told me like you can’t leave. And next thing you know I’m getting tied down to a table, they’re shooting me up with drugs, and you know, I ended up being locked up for 10 days. And a... lot of... you know, call it trauma for for lack of a better word. Maybe that is the right word. I’m not sure. It was a very traumatic experience to be locked up and go through that. And I got a lot of things that were told to me by doctors that were not necessarily true and a lot of force, you know, it’s really– you’re not allowed to leave until you comply. It’s like... there are similarities between [it and] school. I used to have a joke in my comedy routines about schools, mental hospitals, prisons and nursing homes, something like that. And the similarities between them, and that you can’t really tell which one you’re in.
And it was through those experiences, and since then I had other– three more experiences in these psychiatric hospitals... And so, that experience of going through that and wanting to make it so that other people don’t have to go through that... Or even, me myself to go through it again, to make something change. And I feel like that’s why I am interested in the education thing. So that one day, [when] I have kids, that they have opportunities to learn and in a different way than I did. And in a way, I wish these opportunities were there for me when I was a kid. So yeah, I got a little off the rails there; I forget.
AK: No, no, that was exactly I was going to ask you. Your experience in mental health and having been locked up and the comparison that you’re giving to schooling and just talking about people’s mental health, their rights and how they’re compared to children’s rights. And I know you’ve done a little bit– you’ve testified for some people before. Could you tell us maybe a little bit about your comparison or what what your thoughts are between people with mental health and the rights that you have as compared to children’s rights within a school or an institution?
JF: Yeah, yeah, okay. So, you know how I said before that when, you know, when I think about PUN or creating a learning center, I think about the community first and then the learning, right? Similarly when I think about the activism in the education space or in the mental health space I look at it really as as a human rights or a civil rights thing first, right? Because you kind of have to figure out what are the values or what are we basing our decisions on, right? Because otherwise you kind of get this... you get nominal gestures. And that’s a concern that I have is that, you know, self-directed learning will be viewed as– and this is how I came to it, as a great thing, as an educational tool without really getting into the underlying kind of human rights side of it. And so then people will think, “Oh how can we use self-directed learning in, you know, with quotes around it in a coercive compulsory schooling thing?” And you’ll get these weird things that they will call self-directed learning even though it’s still compulsory and coercive schooling. Ift’s not coming from a real area that’s rooted in like respecting the rights of young people. And similarly, in the mental health space, you might be giving people the impression that they’re having choices but if they were not really you know then you get into coercion.
I mean, this is this is a great example. When you get to a psychiatric hospital and you’re there trying to get you on one of these 72 hour holds, these type of things. They will say to you, listen you are either going to be involuntarily committed into this hospital or you can voluntarily commit yourself and sign this form. And they say, you know, you can choose, you get to choose whether you are being voluntarily here or in voluntarily here. Either way you’re not walking out the door. But we will let you choose.
And so you get this, you know– it’s the illusion of choice– you don’t get to choose what you’re having. You know, you’re basically saying, “Oh so, I get to choose whether I walk through the door or whether you’re gonna drag me through the door. And I get to choose which experience I have.” And so, there are these ways of kind of giving the illusion of choice if you don’t really look at this as a human rights issue.
So, in the mental health space, if you are deemed to be a danger to yourself or to others– and that doesn’t mean homicidal or suicidal– it can mean those things, but the those definitions are really, really stretched. So like, when I got locked up, I was never suicidal or homicidal when I’ve been locked up. They considered me a risk to myself because I was making bad decisions or more like weird decisions or acting unusual in a way that maybe could get me hurt.
And people were concerned about me. And that’s, you know, it’s okay. It’s just strange that the way that they treat you is with like, you know, tying you down locking you up and drugging you. But that, if they deem you to be a danger to yourself or a danger to others or this gray area that is in between them, you could really get all your rights taken away. You don’t get to make decisions at all about yourself to the point that they can even give you a conservator or a guardian who is the one that then is the one making decisions about you and you get the legal status of a child where you have an adult that is assigned to you. And in one case, I believe that if it’s a guardian it’s kind of like you chose to have– in one case you are choosing to elect somebody to be your person that makes your decisions and the other case the state, the government is assigning somebody to you to make decisions on your behalf.
But fundamentally you are a child, in that you don’t get to make your own decisions. Somebody else is making them for you. And we do the same thing over here with children. In fact the analogy that we use is they’re treating you like a child because you don’t get to make decisions. So with children, we don’t even shy away from we just say we’re treating you like a child, and we don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. We’re going to make all these decisions for you. And it’s it’s really unfortunate that we take that and we say that we’re doing it on behalf of you. You know, we do it for your own good. We are doing it to protect you. We are doing it to help you whether you are a child and we don’t believe you can make the decisions and we will take your right to make decisions away on your behalf because we love you and care about you or the mental health space that we believe you’re making bad decisions so we will take your right away to make decisions because, you know, we’re doing this for you are good.
Those are the very common things. And really, what’s frustrating about this type of discrimination is that it’s so openly talked about. People all the time will not be shy or shameful or they won’t whisper or anything like that when they talk about limiting the rights of children. They’ll talk openly that, “Yeah kids, of course kids should be forced to go to school. Why would they not be forced to go to school? They can’t make decisions on their own.”
They talk similarly about people in the mental health system, especially if you start talking about people who have been labeled as schizophrenia, labeled as schizophrenic, or labeled as schizoaffective or bipolar. People openly say, “Oh yeah, of course we should lock those people up they’re dangerous.” Or, “Of course we should lock them up they’re crazy.” And they don’t, you know, with other forms of discrimination a lot of times people at least whisper and look around to make sure nobody’s there when they’re being... I could say assholes on the show, right? Yeah when they’re being assholes they look around and whisper to see if people are there or something. But they just openly and unabashedly will talk about people like that. And it’s it’s pretty pervasive
AK: That’s a type of language that seems to be used within civil rights, within all oppressed communities that “less than human,” that we’re “allowed to control you.”
AK: To hopefully bring the upbeat side of it, what do you see works with Self-Directed Education? How are you and how is PUN and the [other] projects that you’re working on moving in a positive way to help with human rights and children’s rights and mental health rights?
JF: Sure, so what I’ve what I have found with PUN is that most of the people on there that have benefited the most have been people that are new to unschooling in that they have made the decision to do it, their parents have been on board, and they have become unschoolers and they are just taking that leap. And so, they’re trying to navigate it. They’re new to it. They’re trying to make maybe new friends or make, you know, figure out this this new world. Those are the people that have benefited the most from it. That I think it’s– as a tool of making connections and friendships between people that are self-directed learners, that seems to have been the most valuable thing for people at that moment in their journey. For those that have been doing unschooling or a variation of self-directed learning for many years, I have, something that I’ve learned is they don’t seem to need PUN that much because they’re social and they’re the are opportunities. They’ve got like the world is very very open to them, and I don’t think that they have as much trouble finding connections and opportunities that they wouldn’t end up PUN. I think that they’ve, in time they’ve started to see opportunity everywhere they look. And so I haven’t found as many of them attracted to the site.
There have been people that have come through that are in school and that are interested and want to do self-directed learning and are trying to maybe convince their parents or trying to work on a project on the side and find other people to work on something with. So this kind of this spectrum of who’s gotten the most out of being a part of the community. And another thing that’s happened– it was interesting– there [were] a few teens that were on PUN a lot. They were on there all the time and then they sort of disappeared. And I remember thinking myself, “Oh jeez, I guess this didn’t serve them as well. If they stop using it.” You know? But then they came back on later on and I got to find out that actually quite the opposite was the case. They became such good friends that one of them actually they relocated they moved into the area where those people live and now they hang out in real life not on the website as much. And they’re doing all sorts of fun things in their life. They don’t need the website as their meeting place anymore.
And the same thing happened with a couple of teens that were really into gaming. They were on PUN all the time and then they started doing online gaming and they would talk and use things like Discord, and so, they didn’t need that connection anymore. It was a good meeting place but they didn’t, you know, they didn’t need it. It’s kind of like being, you know, it’s a meeting place. But once you’ve kind of had these connections you could take them out to other places in the world. You don’t need to keep hanging around, you know, you need to keep hanging out at the same place that you met. And so it’s– I had thought– oh, maybe it didn’t succeed or maybe it wasn’t helpful. And then I turned out I learned, “Oh wow, this was actually more helpful than I realized!” People relocated to be near their friends and these kinds of things. So that was really kind of exciting to see, that sort of like switch and change.
Another one that comes to mind is a teen that started a YouTube channel. He started this YouTube channel which was about unschooling. He was doing a youtube channel about being an unschooled teen. And I remember being so excited that there was a teenager making videos talking about their unschooling experience. And, you know, I got really excited about that because like that’s the whole idea was like having young people share with other young people. And they were really good. I thought, he he didn’t seem to believe that they were good. And then he ended up taking his whole channel down and switching to a whole other project. And it was he’d like change the theme of this channel. And then he moved down to the next thing. And I remember talking to him about his decision making process of what he got out of doing that. And then what was missing from it for him. And why he made the decision to switch over to a different aspect. And then he ended up going on to apply to Praxis. He wanted to create a channel that would be really appealing to people at Praxis, I think it was, because he was gonna apply there.
And then he started getting into web development and he was asking me questions about you know doing web development. And then quickly then he started learning well he goes it seems like there’s a lot of tools out there to make websites that you don’t necessarily need to learn all about programming because you can make a lot of stuff with these different tools. He’s like, now I want to learn about the marketing side of it. And I was like, these are things that I learned in my own path as a, you know, now– I didn’t quite learn that when I was 14, 15. We were still coding everything with HTML back then. But now, I had learned that stuff maybe three years ago, and he’s like going through that process and navigating what he’s interested in. So that stuff is really cool for me to see the pivots that people take and their rationale.
There’s another girl that... she reached out to me doing the old trick that a lot of unschoolers do where she reached out and asked me if she could volunteer with me or get an apprenticeship with me as a web developer. She wanted to get some– she had been learning to code and she wanted some practical experience and she offered to be a volunteer or an apprentice to me. And I said, I was like, “Listen, I... I can help you, but I’m really, really busy, and I don’t feel like I can make the big commitment to light be your coach. And like, I do have projects that I’m working on for clients of mine that...” I’m like, I don’t know. I was nervous about trusting someone. And I was like, “If you’re good at it, I want you to be paid. I want you to make money. So like, let’s do this. Why don’t you... I’ll come up with a few things for you to do, and you can try to work on them on your own. And then if you’re asking me, you know– and I’ll pay you to do it, you know. I’ll pay you as a contractor, and I’ll pay you to work. And then if it turns into me being your coach, then maybe we’ll have to work out something where I’m teaching you. And maybe I’m doing, you know, I’m your teacher pro bono and then we’ll work something out.” And I never ended up being her teacher. She just took the– occasionally I’d give her a tip or send her a link to a website or a– But, she ended up asking to be an apprentice and immediately she ends up working, doing work for me. And for the last two years she’s probably, I don’t know maybe on average down like 10 hours a week of work doing different web development things for clients of mine.
And I’ve talked with her about her journey on her own projects and things that she’s been trying to do, jobs she’s been going after, and kind of navigating her life. And now she’s trying to move to Salt Lake City to get a job working with the company that makes Canvas which is like it’s kind of like Blackboard. So it’s like software that universities uses as a learning management system. So I joke, and I say like, “Oh you want to go work for–” I think it’s called Instructure? I’m like, “Oh so you want to go work within Instructure to create the thing that I tried to build when I originally was like making Open Source High?” Sort of like, in a joking way. And it’s really fun and fulfilling to see these different things that people go after. And I love it. I think it’s cool to see people thriving in doing the things they love doing.
AK: Those are some nice stories. Thank you. I wanted to ask you– I have two more questions for you. Before we go, I definitely want to check in about your experience, what you do and why you do it in comedy. Your work as a comedian.
JF: Well, you’ve picked a good day to ask that question. It’s been, this has been an interesting week of navigating the the impact of being a comedian. And someone that does– I got into... Let me sidetrack: I got into doing standup comedy initially because I thought it would be a tool to raise awareness about things in the mental health system. When I was a teen, I actually did comedy what I did it once.
When I was a teenager, I really wanted to be a comedian. I grew up listening to like Chris Rock and George Carlin and David Patel and Dane Cook, and I was like, I want to do this. And I spent all this time writing these jokes, and I put together a five minute routine. And then my my dad actually gave me a ride– me and a friend– he drove us to Boston. It’s like two hours away to go to an open mike. And I needed, I think I needed a ride because I was under age to have a driver’s license, and I was also underage to be at a club. So my dad is with me and we go in at night performed. And I hated it. I hated the performing experience. It was not fun, and I was like wait a minute, it was supposed to be that the writing is the work and then the performing is supposed to be the fun part. And it was not. It was like like utter disappointment.
So, was it was ten years later that I decided I wanted to do it, and I had a different purpose now. Before it was I just wanted to be a comedian because it was cool and it was awesome and fun. Now it was I had this other purpose. And I’m actually, I’m very– in a lot of ways talking to you about it, I’ve no problem with it. It’s a point of discomfort for me because in the world of comedy to be someone that’s doing comedy because you’re using it as a tool for social change is sort of frowned upon. It’s considered to be not a pure reason to be doing comedy and that you end up becoming a preacher instead of a comedian, and that you’re just up there trying to get your message across or you’re on your soapbox. So it’s important that the stuff is funny for it to be useful. But I got into it because of the mental health stuff.
And then as I was doing comedy it, you know, I didn’t only talk about that. I did talk about the things that are going on and what you’re interested in that. I found I was doing more and more material about education and the school system. So that that kind of evolved, and I’ve been doing that for six years now, and now it just finally sort of started to bite me in the ass a little bit. I’ve been out doing the comedy that I do is, you know, I mentioned my influences of people like Chris Rock or David Patel or Dave Chappelle or George Carlin, these guys. You know, their style of comedy, I always thought that it might be a problem working in education when people would see the type of comedy I do. And that people might attack me for that, that, “Jeez, this guy’s working with kids and he’s up there on stage talking about all of this crazy stuff.” That’s not a good person. You know, that there’d be criticism.
And actually, it started to come in and in the mental health space. Which in a way, sort of makes perfect sense that that is a group that would be particularly sensitive and not like jokes... And not that they don’t like jokes. That’s a group of people that have really been traumatized in a lot of severe, significant ways. So, I don’t know– I’d be dismissive if I said that they can’t take a joke or some shit like that. The truth is that they’ve really been traumatized in a lot of severe ways. And so, to hear jokes about certain subjects can bring up and make them relive and re-experience or revisit some things they went through that they may not have enjoyed. And they may not like it very much that I’m up there on stage laughing and joking about it. And that has been a little bit problematic lately, but that’s a growing pain and a learning experience and something, you know?
And doing my self-directed learning of comedy, you know? It’s also self-directed thing and reaching out to mentors and coaches, “Oh, how do you navigate this this role of being a public figure?” and, “Hey, you know, I work in these different spaces, and I want to do these things that I love and I’m passionate about, and I want to help people in these different ways.” So, I’ve been reaching out to all sorts of different people, like a friend of mine that’s sort of a celebrity in the poker world, “Hey, you know, you’re like a big public figure and you’ve dealt with people criticize you and conflict like how do you how do you navigate that? What do you do? How do you deal with it? How does it impact your family? You know, when people are criticizing you publicly on the Internet. And shit, your darn family’s reading these things– you know how do you navigate that?” And entrepreneurs and business people or people in politics. I’ve reached out to people to ask them how do I navigate these things and learn from it? I would say I don’t have like any famous comedian friends to reach out to.
So, I use the tools I’ve got, and I reach out to people that have some sort of shared experience to learn from. And I’m sounding down because, like I mentioned, this week spent an awkward week and the Internet for me. But there’s been a lot of positive that have come out from a lot of people have reached out both in the mental health space and the education space. They really like and appreciate what I’ve done. And last year I did a lot of shows specifically for teens that were– that was even like a whole self-directed experience of like, “Okay, how do I create a space where I can do comedy shows for teenagers because they are excluded from being at comedy venues?” They’re not allowed. Most of them are all 21 plus or 18 plus. How do you create a space that allows them to be at a comedy show and also allows me to not feel like I need to do a G rated type of like– how do I create that and navigate it and promote it and learn how to do these things?
So, there’s a lot of self-directed learning there. And I did like Q & A sessions at the end. So I talk about all these wild things and these comedy stories, and I would kind of take the mask of the performer off. And I would answer questions that they had and that was a really cool way of bringing self-directed learning ideas to people that had never heard of this stuff before. And so there’s there’s some really great things that went on there. And I’m proud of it and happy about it.
AK: That’s great. Thank you. Last question: so what’s next? What are you excited about?
JF: Sure. There’s two things that I’m really... that are I’m pretty stoked about and both of these worlds the mental health world and the education world. In the mental health world, there’s a video series that I worked on that is called Voices for Choices. That is– it’s a series of 13 videos. If you watch it from beginning to end it’s like a documentary about people that have not had a choice in their mental health treatment. And it talks about forced involuntary psychiatric treatment. It talks about alternatives and then organizing and activism. And I worked really closely with an amazing editor and associate producer on it, Sherri Compton. She’s got a journalism background and a video editing background. And she really pieced these interviews– like I did all these interviews with different people that had gone through this and she pieced it all together in a really really great way. So it’s it’s done. It’s going to be released, and I’m excited about that. So that’s the mental health side and then the education side. This summer we are doing the Create+Connect Program. So I partnered up with Original Path, and we are actually right now, like I guess I don’t know when this is going to be published but applications are open until May 20th. If you go to peerunschooling.net you can apply if you are a young person between the age of thirteen and twenty-five. You can be an unschooler or you can be a Sudbury school student, you can be an Agile Learning Center student. You can be anybody that you want to be, a public school student, private school student homeschool student, it doesn’t not matter. College students–whoever you are– you could even be a young working professional that’s twenty-three. Anyone who’s interested in working in an independent project that is something of your passion and your liking, you can sign up, and over the summer it’ll be a twelve week program where we will connect you with either a mentor who can kind of be your coach and help you bring your project to fruition, or a partner if you’re not necessarily looking for a mentor but you want to have an ally someone else to work on it with, or if you want to mentor somebody else. So like let’s say you have an expertise in something and you want to pass on some of your wisdom to somebody else. You can sign up for that program and it is free. It’s an online program that we’re doing it again you can sign up at peerunschooling.net.
It’s called Create+Connect and that I’m really excited about because that I feel like with PUN is... when PUN was created there was a little bit of a create the space and then let people do with it what they want. And with Create+Connect what we do is we found a bunch of people that had this interest and so we’re having more intention around doing a program that has a plan and an objective and a purpose to it.
And we know we did surveys and found out exactly what it is that people wanted, and what they wanted to look like, and what do they want to work on, and that kind of thing. And so, I’m really excited about what that will be when there is some intention brought to that space. So, I’m pretty I’m pretty excited about both of those things going on this summer. Yeah. That’s very much looking forward to that.
AK: It sounds great. I hope you’ll follow up with us at the end of the summer and maybe let us know how it went?
JF: Yeah absolutely. I’ll come back on as a guest here. You could just– I think what we may do is have them, you know, give them the option of posting videos about their, you know, so we’ll post videos on PUN where you can see kind of what they went on their journey, each team or group created something so they can kind of share it if they want.
AK: Nice. Well thanks so much Jim. I really appreciate the opportunity to interview you and find out a bit more and to be able to share with everyone.
JF: Yeah, no. Hey, thank you. I appreciate your your interest and your curiosity and asking questions about things that I love talking about. It’s a lot of fun for me.
Please note, after the interview, Jim wrote to me:
I also wanted to include a correction when we got into a technical legal subject: a conservator is someone the state appoints to take control of your property and financial decisions. A guardian is someone who takes control over your body (makes decisions about forced drugging, for example). Guardians/conservators are assigned by the state. A power of attorney is where where you declare someone to make decisions for you.
So a power of attorney should be able to override a hospital’s decision about forced-drugging, but can’t override decisions about you being locked up to begin with. Though, in practice, the court will often revoke your power of attorney if they don’t agree with the psychiatrists. Worse yet, if your guardian/conservator/power of attorney decides you should be forcibly drugged, the court actually considers that voluntary, even if its against the patient’s wishes.