Five Lessons A 10-Year-Old Learned From Black Lives Matters' Freedom School

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Five Lessons A 10-Year-Old Learned From Black Lives Matters’ Freedom School

Respecting Blackness and understanding systemic racism were among lessons learned at the summer camp.

A photo posted by Zahra (@zzspacemonster) on

While other fourth graders had the summer off, Zahra spent hers protesting detainee conditions, quizzing the founders of an international social justice movement, and learning Capoeira. When she wasn’t, she was hanging out with newfound friends also enrolled in Black Lives Matter Toronto Coalition’s Freedom School. Taking its name from alternative free schooling offered in the United States post-segregation, Freedom School was mostly known as a free summer camp for kids ages four to 10 that used arts to teach a Black-positive curriculum. What may have been overlooked about the Freedom School was how it embraced an early LGBTQ education. Funded by BLMTO and a crowdfunding campaign that raised more than $15,000, Freedom School called itself a queer-positive and trans-feminist summer camp, spearheaded by Toronto Africentric School teacher LeRoi NewBold. A BLMTO steering committee member and a former Gladstone Hotel queer night organizer, Newbold’s initiative was welcoming of queer and trans students. “My brothers, sisters, and siblings are kings, queens, and non-binary royalty and their Black lives matter,” reads Freedom School’s code of conduct. In turn, this signalled to queer-positive Black families that this summer program would celebrate their children’s identities wholeheartedly.

A photo posted by Victoria Herrera (@victoriana_herrera) on

Of Black and Indigenous background, Zahra is proof that the personal is political. Her mother Victoria Herrera is a trainer and community educator for an Indigenous non-profit.

As someone both Latinx and Indigenous who grew up in Texas, Herrera’s education rarely featured who she was positively. When she was told of the Freedom School, she leapt at the chance to enrol her daughter.

“When I had Zahra, I was very aware that representation was important,” Herrera says. “This was something she did on her own, I gave her the choice and she wanted to do it. I felt really proud, she grew up a lot. It was three weeks, but it seemed like she grew up a lot in that time.”

Waking up at 6:30 a.m. for three weeks might have been a dreary reminder of September for others, but for Zahra those 15 summer days taught her five valuable lessons.

“I like snacks and lunches!”

Any kid who says lunch is their favourite class of the day is certain to have access to more than just the typical cafeteria staples. West African and Caribbean hot lunches were served daily for kids, with black-eyed peas, roti, and fried chicken enthusiastically liked by Zahra. Students spent lunchtime slurping Haitian soup joumou, wolfing down hominy porridge, and gobbling veggie patties.

While appreciating a good meal might seem unrelated to learning to love yourself, it’s especially important when many people of colour have lunchtime horror stories of being ridiculed for their hot non-Wonder Bread meals.

“Everybody should be respected.”

Gender pronouns were explicitly discussed in the camp’s early days.

“If someone uses she or him or they, we call them that,” Zahra says.

This is not a new lesson for Zahra, who joins her mom in Pride marches and has known people who use gender-neutral pronouns.

“For us, we’ve always been involved. Zahra grew up surrounded by with queer and trans people,” Herrera says.

This respect was reiterated during field trips. Students brewed herbal tea and learned about Indigenous food values while visiting a community garden at the Six Nations farmers market, located in Ohsweken, Ontario and of the Grand River Territory.

At Neshama, an accessible playground in midtown Oriole Park, students touched ringing pipes and swung on saucers. They would later learn that everything they played with was to make playing more inclusive for kids, and other basic tenets of disability justice. (This spurred students to create their own accessible playgrounds, out of jynx wood.)

“[It’s all] normalizing what should be normal,” Herrera says.

“I learned about Nanny Maroon and Blue Mountain.”

Freedom School didn’t shy away from historical icons. Zahra names Nanny Maroon as a notable figure for rescuing more than 1,000 enslaved Black people. She also retells how Maroon and her brothers escaped being sold and set up a base in Jamaica’s Blue Mountains.

“Political prisoners should be freed.”

“The police should apologize to any Black person they put in jail for no reason,” reads a demand scrawled by a Freedom School graduate on a poster.

To cap off the summer camp, caped Freedom School graduates made headlines for protesting in front of the U.S. Embassy in late July. They stood there after learning that detained migrants in Lindsay, Ontario, were on a hunger strike. They also learned about various unjust arrests, including that of Jasmine Abdullah, a queer Black Lives Matter activist in the U.S. who was convicted of “felony lynching” after pulling someone out of police custody during a protest (a crime that was historically used to prevent white mobs from lynching and murdering Black individuals).

A photo posted by Victoria Herrera (@victoriana_herrera) on

The protest hits close to home for Zahra and Herrera. Herrera is the daughter of an undocumented migrant, who was deported and incarcerated. Zahra’s met her grandfather, but their conversation has been limited; she can say “Hola” (hello) and “Bebo leche” (I drink milk) to him, for now.  

“Blackness is not scary. It’s beautiful.”

Towards the end of Torontoist‘s conversation with Zahra, the 10-year-old says this. While young, she has already learned an implicitly negative stereotype about Blackness, one that she has decided to correct. Freedom School was part of that decision. Herrera remembers it starting from day one, when she dropped Zahra off for the first time and being greeted by a wall of Black dolls.

  A video posted by Victoria Herrera (@victoriana_herrera) on

“They’re Black people from the community, one of the parents made them,” Zahra adds.

Throughout the program, Zahra has contributed to a collage celebrating darkness, danced with friends, and drew superheroes that looked like her—in a program that encouraged her to do so, respecting where she came from and where she was headed.

Out of all the opportunities, field trips, meals, and dances, Zahra had only one thing on her mind when asked what she would miss most of all: “I’m going to miss my beautiful Black friends and teachers,” Zahra says. “That’s it!”

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