Like everyone I’ve had my share of events and experiences that changed my life; the day I got married, the birth of our firstborn, establishing the church I pastor, and the week I spent in Clinton, Tennessee.
Yeah, I know someone is thinking, Clinton, Tennessee? Let me explain.
It wouldn’t be hyperbole if I said there’s literally next to nothing in Clinton, Tennessee except a traffic light, gas station, Waffle House and, of course, Walmart.
According to the 2020 census, Clinton has a population a little over 10,000 and a per capita income of $17,730. A look at some of its other demographics would lead one to surmise that the town isn’t exactly the hotbed of racial diversity, equity or cultural inclusivity.
However, Clinton, Tennessee does have one thing that no other place in the world has — the Alex Haley Farm. That’s exactly where I spent one week during the summer of 2014, as part of the numerous weeklong residential intensives required to complete my doctoral degree.
Haley Farm is a beautiful 157-acre farm that once belonged to Pulitzer Prize-winner Alex Haley, author of “Roots.”
The farm was purchased by the Children’s Defense Fund in 1994 and is now a warm, welcoming countryside retreat, consisting of guest cottages, a chapel designed by architect Maya Lin, meeting lodges and the Langston Hughes Library — a private, non circulating 5,000 volume reference library housing the largest collection of the poet’s works.
The farm’s serene setting is an ideal environment to connect with nature, recharge one’s physical and spiritual batteries and brainstorm strategies. It is frequented by community organizers, scholars, religious leaders, activists, authors and policy makers.
The farm is the primary training ground for the Children’s Defense Fund’s flagship initiative, Freedom Schools. My fellow graduate students and I were fortunate enough to be there while 3,500 mostly Black college students from around the country were there being trained in the implementation of the Freedom School model.
Inspired by the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project of 1964, when community leaders organized Black Americans to register to vote, the Freedom School initiative helps historically marginalized students in grades K-12 fall in love with themselves and learning.
It also nurtures skills in areas of conflict resolution, civic engagement and social action. This six weeks intense summer opportunity is designed to improve reading, language skills and interpersonal relationships, and strengthen families.
It also works to connect children to medical and other needed social services and develop in all participants the skills needed to improve conditions for children and families in their communities.
In addition to the Integrated Reading Curriculum, a culturally relevant and responsive curriculum, the very nomenclature, pedagogy and practices used in Freedom Schools embodies the freedom, liberation and hope every student needs to self-actualize and thrive.
For example, in Freedom Schools students are called scholars and their college-enrolled instructors are called servant leader interns. Moreover, the gathering time that starts each morning is called “harambe,” a Swahili word that means let’s pull together.
Harambe is a time when scholars are led by servant leader interns in cheers and chants, listen to guest readers, recognize and affirm their fellow scholars, and then sing the motivational “Something Inside So Strong,” a song written by Libri Siffre in 1984.
So just imagine being a 42-year-old man of Black African heritage, an American citizen well on your journey to consciousness yet in many ways still held hostage by the bitter memories of being raised in a predominately white rural racially segregated town, and a product of predominately white public schools, now standing amid 3,500 Black college students from all over the country and all beautiful shades of Blackness. College students from Howard and Harvard, Morehouse and Michigan State and a host of other educational institutions and all singing “Something Inside So Strong.”
“The higher you build your barriers
The taller I become
The farther you take my rights away
The faster I will run
You can deny me
You can decide to turn your face away
No matter, cos there’s….
Something inside so strong.”
I have mentally revisited this experience several times. Each time I make a rather futile attempt to put into words exactly what I felt and experienced seeing thousands of brilliant, beautiful Black college thinkers at the Alex Haley Farm seeing each other and making each other be seen, and the closest I’ve come is a quote from Pauli Murray, “hope is a song in a weary throat.”
This experience was not only foundational to my doctoral dissertation on dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline, but also the impetus for the Resurrected Community Development Corporation. It established the James Lawson Freedom School in the Lehigh Valley, in partnership with the Children’s Defense Fund.
Imagine, at the age of 42 a Black graduate student from Pennsylvania went to Clinton, Tennessee and for the first time looked into a mirror and saw himself.
Freedom Schools do exactly that — help students who’ve been made invisible by forces seen and unseen see themselves and the world around them.
If you want to help put flesh on hope, I invite you to join the Lehigh Valley’s Freedom School Movement. Harambe.
Rev. Dr. Gregory J. Edwards is president and CEO of the Resurrected Community Development Corp. and founder of James Lawson Freedom Schools of the Lehigh Valley.