By Trey Walk, Jackson Center Northside Neighborhood Initiative (NNI) Intern
Ms. Clem Self speaks to CHCCS principals during a Freedom Tour, 9 October 9 2018
This October, a group of twenty principals from local schools visited the Marian Cheek Jackson Center and found themselves immersed in the social justice tradition of the Northside neighborhood.
I stood with Kari, another MCJC intern, beside the historic Hargraves Center and watched as the principals gathered around to hear neighborhood civil rights history from Ms. Clementine Self, who grew up in Northside and is featured in a Jim Wallace photo of the Chapel Rights civil rights movement that hangs in the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, DC. Their group, diverse in age, race, and gender, listened with fascination as she spoke of the brave young people who strategized sit-ins and marches. She spoke of the community that raised them, and the heartbeat they left behind that still can be felt pumping in Northside today.
Kari, myself, and the rest of the MCJC staff instructed the principals to make Freedom Signs with the posters, bright scented markers, and stickers we had laid out on the picnic tables. This is an activity our education team and community mentors have led dozens of Chapel Hill and Carrboro students through. We give them a poster board and marker and instruct them to make a sign with the simple prompt, “What does freedom look like to you?”
The activity, short and simple, is powerful and demanding. We asked the principals, and the students and this community, to imagine a more just world. We are asking them to put language to what freedom looks like. We are asking them to think about the beloved community, and how we might get there.
The principals eagerly made the signs with lots of colors and stickers. Next, they marched up Roberson Street to St. Joseph’s CME where they sang freedom songs.
“Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around
Turn me around
Turn me around
Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around
Turn me around
I’m gonna keep on walkin’
Keep on talkin’
Marching into freedom land”
Before the principals left, Kari and I went around cleaning up materials and reading their signs. I couldn’t help but notice many of them said the same words: “choice” and “voice.”
These are both words that are loaded in contemporary debates around education reform, so it is interesting that the principals believe both choice and voice play a role in freedom. Reflecting on this pattern, a series of questions emerged. What does it mean for African American families, whose schooling needs have been historically neglected, to have meaningful choice when it comes to schooling for their children? In Chapel Hill, where the achievement gap is central in conversations about education reform, what role might voice and choice play in creating a more fair system?
I don’t intend to weigh in on ongoing debates that are beyond my experience and expertise. I do hope to ask hard questions about the different interpretations of the freedom signs made on that day. I wondered, reading the signs, if we all mean the same things when we say “choice” and “voice.” Maybe we are using the same words, but mean different things.
Northside has long been a community of builders, educators, and freedom fighters. As we think about our schools and what might be a more just education system for the children in this neighborhood, we have to find ways to come to consensus on what freedom looks like for us. As principals, parents, and neighbors think about the future of Chapel Hill-Carrboro City schools, we must remember that the Northside freedom fighters and students showed us the way. Imagination is one of the gifts they passed down to this community. In the words of Miss Ella Baker, a civil rights organizer and educator: “We have to find out who we are, where we have come from, and where we are going.”