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Baltimore activists form a freedom school board
"No education, no life"

December 1, 2006 | Page 4

IN OCTOBER, Baltimore City students and supporters picked up the torch of the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party (MFDP) and established the Maryland Freedom Board of Education (MFBE).

Just as the MFDP grew out of an attempt to combat the racist power structure in Mississippi that undermined a majority Black population, so, too, did the MFBE. It comes from the desire of students to challenge the state of Maryland to give the Baltimore public school system, which serves a majority Black student population, the $1.1 billion that state courts say it owes.

On October 13, high school and college students as well as teachers and advocates set up tables and gave presentations at various high schools as part of the Freedom Fall campaign to heighten awareness among students about who is to blame for their substandard education and what students are doing about it. The campaign was symbolized with a red "X" and the slogan "No education, no life."

For the most part, the activities were well received, but at the Baltimore Freedom Academy (BFA), where students staged a sit-in to protest the underfunding of their school system, 50 students were suspended for participating in the action.

On their Web site, BFA says its aim "is to provide an environment that cultivates young adults who will emerge dedicated to serving their families and their communities and prepared to be informed problem-solvers and effective advocates for positive social change."

How can students become effective advocates for social change if they're punished for challenging the status quo?

As people gathered near the corner of Greenmount Avenue and North Avenue the next day, red Xs and "No education, no life" buttons could be seen emblazoned on chests, arms, backs and backpacks. Placards with an X over Baltimore's empty "Believe" logo on one side, and the slogan on the other, captured the mood which echoed Fanny Lou Hamer's statement: "I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired. We must stand up for our freedom."

High school students dominated the microphone at the rally with an eloquence that begged the question: If they're this passionate and articulate after having been denied a quality education, how much more dynamic and adept could they be if they were armed with the resources that they deserve?

The students ended the rally with stirring spoken word pieces that artfully connected the history of their movement, the state's neglect of the students and crimes of poverty so common in their communities. Then they led us into the streets, chanting, "No education, no life!"

We marched a few blocks, just past the Baltimore City Board of Education building, to the Seventh Baptist Church on the corner of St. Paul Street and North Avenue, where the organizational work of formally establishing the MFBE would be done.

Chris Goodman, one of the head organizers of Freedom Fall, discussed the article in the state constitution that they used to create the MFBE, wrapping it up with an impromptu call and response reading of "Article 6," which read like the beginning of the declaration of independence: "Wherefore, whenever the ends of government are perverted, and public liberty manifestly endangered, and all other means of redress are ineffectual, the People wmay, and of right ought to, reform the old, or establish a new government; the doctrine of non-resistance against arbitrary power and oppression is absurd, slavish and destructive of the good and happiness of mankind."

The students also explained how the state was found to owe the city school system $1.1 billion. In the 2003 Bradford decision, Judge Kaplan found that the state owed the city schools $800 million. The state, having not paid the schools the money, was subsequently found delinquent and the sum now stands at $1.1 billion, a debt made more odious by the fact that the state currently has a $2 billion surplus.

The slate of 13 board members representing various schools and organizations was proposed and voted upon by all in attendance. It included students, a teacher and activists like Betty Robinson, who had participated in Freedom Summer back in 1964.

Robinson spoke of her experiences in those months and the gravity of the risks associated with the work, not just for those registering voters and setting up freedom schools, but for the Blacks who lived in Mississippi and would remain there after Freedom Summer was over. She spoke of what she has seen other students around the country doing to establish freedom schools in recent years, and said that Baltimore students seem to be at the front of that movement.

Another veteran of Freedom Summer and the MFDP was Bob Moses, who founded the student-led Baltimore Algebra Project, the main force behind the MFBE. The newly elected board opened the floor to testimonials, and people in the audience shared their experiences in the school system and pledged their support for the MFBE.

Students, radical teachers, activists and members of the Nation of Islam stepped to the mic. I spoke about my experience as a teacher, where, one year, the principal of my school told teachers at a faculty meeting half way through the school year that once the remaining paper ran out, we would have to purchase our own if we wanted to make copies for the students. I also proposed that the board pass a resolution condemning the suspension of the 50 students at the BFA and discuss possible actions to show our support.

Alex Bennet was the last speaker from the floor, and he expanded the scope of the discussion, addressing the fact that the issues facing students in Baltimore are systemic and rooted in an economic system that would rather spend billions on weapons and racist wars than funding education as a weapon to fight racism or funding health care, welfare and a living wage.

The MFBE proposed a budget for how the $1.1 billion would be spent over the next 10 years, allocating various amounts for hiring new teachers and bringing their numerous inadequate resources up to par. They gave this proposal with the caveat that significantly greater funding would be needed to sustain their suggested improvements and lift the city schools to a quality of education all students deserve. They demanded that whoever is elected governor in November fully fund the school system.

Disabled Navy veteran and Green Party candidate for governor Ed Boyd addressed the board and promised to support them if elected, noting the conspicuous absence of his opponents on such an important occasion, not to mention the absence of the mainstream media. The MFBE and the Baltimore Education Advocates, a coalition comprised of the Baltimore Algebra Project and various other teachers and activists, will continue to meet at the same church Wednesday evenings at 5:30 p.m.

Chris Goodman, who was elected president of the MFBE, spoke about the lessons he had learned in this struggle, having gone to school board meetings and to the state house in Annapolis, demonstrating outside then inside both, and still not being heard. Then he decided that he and his fellow students would have to rely on each other, because the people who were supposed to represent their interests wouldn't even give them the time of day.

Many individuals and organizations on the left would do well to learn the lessons that this powerful 18-year-old has so clearly grasped and applied.
Kevin James, Baltimore

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