Interview with Mia Henry

AREA Chicago interviews Mia Henry, the Director of Youth Led Social Change at the Chicago Freedom School (CFS), an exciting new city-wide initiative to provide political and cultural education for Chicago teenagers. The CFS is based on a legacy of “Freedom Schools” developed in 1964 to address racial segregation and economic inequality in the US South. This summer was CFS’ inaugural summer freedom school and 45 Chicago youth attended 6 weeks of classes and programs. This interview will deal with some reflections from this summer’s work as well as some of the ideas for new directions that have emerged since the inception of CFS. For more info see Interviewed by Daniel Tucker.

AREA: This past July you launched the first summer of CFS. The themes that the students explored were (according to your promotional materials) Leadership Development, Socio-political Consciousness and Analysis, Relationships and Identity, Movement Strategy and Research and Documentation. The focus “areas of inquiry” included: Visual Arts, Music, Performing Arts, Media Arts, Sports, and Holistic Health. Within this structure, how did the summer program work? What did it look like on a given day or overall through the whole six weeks? How much flexibility was built in to accommodate the students?

MH: Each youth took two courses from the six “areas of inquiry.” The first course was in the morning from 10–12:30pm and the second was in the afternoon, 1:30–4pm. The youth had different teachers for the M/W and T/Th courses that approached the area from a unique standpoint. From 4–5pm we had various workshops like salsa dancing, financial education, safer sex, etc. For lunch we served food from a healthy food catering company.
    Students who had summer school or other jobs in the morning came only for the afternoon class.
    The first week was dedicated to community building and answering our essential questions:
—What are my identities?
—What is community
—What is a system?
—How do we use systems?
—How do we change systems?

The fourth week we went on a retreat where we returned to these questions and started creating personal mission statements. The purpose of the first week was to help students start to see themselves as part of a group, to understand the assets of that group and to think in terms of “we.” The purpose of the fourth week was to help students return to what makes them unique individuals and how their personal passions can be used to create social change.

AREA: How will you evaluate this summer’s CFS? Is there a way to evaluate a project like this that is reflective of its political and cultural goals (i.e. leadership development, political consciousness, social movement participation)? How will that inform future directions of programming? Were there any major surprises of what really worked well or what kinds of formats or content really didn’t resonate with students?

MH: We believe strongly in the value of evaluation. For this reason, CFS hired CURL—Loyola’s Center for Urban Research and Learning—to design an exhaustive evaluation for the summer program. It consists of observations and surveys for instructors, staff and youth. We also asked youth to complete a mid-summer evaluation form during the retreat. We also had an evaluation survey for the staff training week and for the Civil Rights Institutes.

AREA: Will CFS programs catalyze youth to initiate their own self-organized projects outside of the CFS structure?

MH: Absolutely. CFS will continue to train youth throughout the year every month on topics relating to the political and cultural goals you mentioned in an earlier question. A number of youth have already started projects and CFS will serve as a support to them as they develop.

AREA: It is often said that young people do not understand how social movements actually work. If they are lucky they might get a bit of history on the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, a bit on Cuba or a small unit on the Civil Rights movement. It is rare that they would have any detailed accounts of the infrastructure, education, media or political consciousness required to actually change things in history. In what ways in CFS going to demystify the social and political movements of the past for the young people you work with? Is this connected to a strategy to get the students to participate actively in contemporary social movements?

MH: Youth are not only invited, but are asked to help facilitate some of our Communiversity events, which seek to engage intergenerational audiences in the study of past movements and discussions on what we can learn from them. Communiversity will officially begin in March 2008, but as a pre-cursor to the launch of this initiative, CFS is hosting two film festivals on Chicano! and Eyes on the Prize II. Youth from the summer will preview each film in order to prepare to facilitate post-screening discussions. During the summer, the youth participated in Civil Rights Institutes every Friday for the purpose of connecting the strategies of past movements to the issues they want to tackle today.

Anyone who is interested in helping plan communiversity should contact Melissa Spatz at womenandgirlscan [at] gmail [.] com