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Children's Defense Fund Trains New Activists


Thousands of kids around the country are spending their summer in Freedom School. It's a mission of the Children's Defense Fund modeled after a program established during the civil rights movement. The goal is to provide educational enrichment in low-income communities and to grow a new generation of activists. Here's NPR's Debbie Elliott.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: The seeds for Freedom School are planted here in the hills of rural east Tennessee on a sprawling farm once owned by "Roots" author Alex Haley.


ELLIOT: A creek meanders through the 150-acre property. There are porch-wrapped farmhouses, an apple orchard, a fishing pond, a cantilever barn library and a chapel in the shape of an ark.

MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN: Everybody needs beauty.

ELLIOT: Children's Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman is sitting in a rocking chair on the farmhouse porch, granting a rare interview and access to the farm she bought 25 years ago as a training ground for what she calls servant leaders. Haley Farm hearkens to the Highlander Folk School where leaders of the civil rights movement trained in the 1950s. Edelman calls this home to a new social justice movement.

WRIGHT EDELMAN: A modern movement that goes beyond the civil rights movement that ends poverty and that seeks to see, can we be an inclusive country? And with all of our diverse people, there should not be any poor children in America.

ELLIOT: Edelman worked with Martin Luther King Jr. on the Poor People's Campaign before founding the Children's Defense Fund. In the last 45 years, the organization has pushed child-focused policy, including Head Start and the Children's Health Insurance Program. Now, on Haley Farm, the focus is on movement-building.

WRIGHT EDELMAN: Good morning, Freedom Schools.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: (Singing) G-O-O-D-M-O-R-N-I-N-G. Good morning. Good morning.

ELLIOT: More than 1,300 teenagers and young adults are gathered under a giant tent in a pasture. They're here to train to go back into their communities to run a summer enrichment program designed to keep school-age kids safe and still learning.

Edelman takes inspiration from her work as a civil rights attorney during Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964.

WRIGHT EDELMAN: My first Freedom School was - that I visited - was in Greenwood, Miss., and an old oak tree with rocking chairs like the ones here at the farm, and Pete Seeger was singing "Little Boxes, Little Boxes" (ph).

ELLIOT: Each day starts with a high-energy motivational routine called harambee which, in Swahili, means pull together.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Now let me hear you say read aloud.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Say read aloud.


ELLIOT: It includes chants, cheers, spiritual songs, readings and history lessons about the civil rights movement, the same activities these trainees will replicate in their classrooms back home.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Oh, everybody got to sing.



ELLIOT: Here as so-called servant leader interns are young college students from Edelman's hometown, Bennettsville, S.C. They attended Freedom Schools as kids and are now ready to lead them. Twenty-two-year-old Maya Covington says it's empowering to think of her new role in relation to the civil rights movement.

MAYA COVINGTON: Wow. These people really paved the way for us to be able to do this for these kids.

ELLIOT: The key theme is making a difference at home and in the broader world. It has the interns from Bennettsville thinking about how they might have an impact - LaKevia Dismal.

LAKEVIA DISMAL: You have the opportunity to be free. Like, you don't have to worry about judgment. Or you don't have to worry about someone treating you less than. And if you come from a place of poverty, you can still feel like you're able to better someone else's life since we are dealing with children. Sometimes children come from homes that aren't the best. And it's like, when they come to school and they have good educators, they'll feel like, OK, someone loves me, so I do have a shot at life.

ELLIOT: The cornerstone of Freedom School is a rigorous reading curriculum that results in some 70,000 books going home with students each summer. CDF says it has demonstrated measurable improvements in reading comprehension. This summer, 12,000 students in 28 states are enrolled. The schools are run in churches, schools, even juvenile detention facilities. Participants have gone on to become local leaders and educators.

JASMINE BROWN: A lot of what Freedom Schools has taught me, I use it in the classroom, and it works.

ELLIOT: South Carolina guidance counselor Jasmine Brown, now 28, started going to Freedom School when she was just 5 years old. She worked summers as a site coordinator for Freedom Schools, in part, she says, because the promise of the civil rights movement has yet to be fulfilled.

BROWN: That's why Freedom Schools are still relevant because there's still change that needs to happen, leveling the playing field, equality for everyone.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: So Freedom School, how you feeling?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Fantastic, terrific...

ELLIOT: At a school outside Bennettsville, S.C., the interns I met at Haley Farm in Tennessee, Maya Covington and LaKevia Dismal, are celebrating the morning harambee routine with their fifth and sixth-grade students.

COVINGTON: (Singing) One, two, three, four - let me see you find a book.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: (Singing) What did you say?

COVINGTON: (Singing) I said let me see you find a book.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: (Singing) What did you say?

COVINGTON: (Singing) I said let me see you find a book.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: (Singing) Find a book. Find, find a book.

ELLIOT: Covington says she's bonded with her 11 students.

COVINGTON: I feel like I'm making a really big difference in my class because they - they're like getting so close, and then they're getting close to me. They're like, Ms. Maya, can we call you after CDF is over? Like, can we keep in touch with you?

DISMAL: Good afternoon, everybody.

ELLIOT: In the classroom next door, LaKevia Dismal's students are scattered in groups around poster boards.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: We need a colored pencil. We need a couple of colored pencils.

ELLIOT: They're making signs to illustrate a book they've just read about immigrant workers banding together to demand fair wages.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Now we're going to make a poster boy about - saying how we can have equal rights.

ELLIOT: Dismal says they're learning to advocate for themselves.

DISMAL: I'm glad that they're able to have a voice. I feel like, oh, my input matters.

ELLIOT: That's how to create tomorrow's leaders, says Max Lesko, executive director of the Children's Defense Fund.

MAX LESKO: Learning from a young age the power one can have in their own life in which they live but also taking ownership over that future - so I think there's incredible power there.

ELLIOT: Marian Wright Edelman calls it putting meat on hope's bones.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Bennettsville, S.C.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: (Singing) It's Wednesday at harambee, and Freedom School's in the house. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.