These Facebook posts will be five years old this July, a span that can seem remarkably short considering all that has happened between these historic messages and the rise of Black Lives Matter, the now-international grassroots movement fighting anti-Black racism and demanding transformation in the treatment of Black communities.
Activists janaya khan and Yusra Khogali co-founded the Toronto chapter of Black Lives Matter (BLMTO) in 2014 following the police shooting of Jermaine Carby, and as Honoured Group of the 2016 Toronto Pride Parade, famously halted the parade in protest until a list of demands for Pride Toronto were met, changes which are still seen in Pride two years later.
Though media focuses more on protests, BLMTO also runs programs and initiatives that improve and enrich lives in the Black communities of Toronto, particularly in the area of education. One such program is BLMTO Freedom School – a three-week summer program designed to teach children 4-10 queer-positive Black Canadian and diasporic history and resistance to anti-Black racism. The school received Foundation Rainbow Grants from Community One in both 2016 and 2018.
“We wanted to create somewhere that could ground Black children in love and teach them about political education, so resistance to anti-Black racism in past generations and current,” said educator and Freedom School Coordinator LeRoi Newbold. “What’s kind of unique about the project is that it’s run by Black LGBTQ people in positions of leadership, especially Black LGBTQ youth, and it’s the only project that exists in the city that teaches Black liberation to children from a queer-positive, trans-feminist lens. So being able to pilot that kind of work in Black-affirmative education has been amazing.”
As we wait for a new provincial government to take the helm, one that has discussed rolling back Ontario’s sex education update and the LGBTQ elements it included, BLMTO Freedom School is offering their students a more in-depth look at queer history and culture than what is even currently offered in Toronto schools.
“What they come out with is a tremendous amount of learning for such a short time,” said Newbold. “Kids come out of the program talking about who Marsha P. Johnson was, what the ballroom scene was like in New York, and at the conclusion of the program they have their own art show. In the first year of the program it was at BAND Gallery, which is a Black-owned, Black-run gallery in Parkdale, and watching them be able to show their work in a professional gallery and invite the community to come and see it was really incredible.”
The vision of the Freedom School requires funding streams that are not readily available in Ontario’s education system, as opposed to that of the U.S. where charter schools are allowed to form curriculum independent of district school requirements. Newbold noted that the structure of the Rainbow Grants program was especially helpful to them, allowing BLMTO to apply with backing from the registered charity Children’s Peace Theatre, and allowing political work to be funded – something many grant programs prohibit.
“The contributions of individual donors and Community One and foundations were really crucial,” said Newbold. “[The Rainbow Grant] goes into making the program accessible for marginalized Black communities. A lot of Black communities in Toronto, when we first started approaching parents about it, they didn’t know what a summer camp was, because those types of experiences aren’t really accessible. That funding makes it possible for working-poor Black families to have access to not just to child care, but very rich programming that speaks to their actual experiences. The funding goes to free busing, free lunches, free snacks and making sure that all programming is at no cost to the community.”
Newbold and BLMTO are continuing to build out educational initiatives, most recently designing a transformative justice discipline model in response to the disproportionate types and rates of discipline between Black students and their peers. The program looks at alternative punishments that will better serve the students. Unsurprisingly, the focus on self-affirming experiences in education has had a positive effect on Freedom School students.
“Kids tell us that this was their favourite school,” said Newbold. “It’s one of the most inspiring projects that we work on because we’re able to see what is possible for our Black kids and youth outside of a system that has a lot of restraints and barriers. We’re able to see the brilliance and engagement and ingenuity and creativity of our kids in another setting, and that gives us a lot of energy to be able to go back and make interventions that are necessary into the system, and it also gives us a place where we can do research about what are the best practices of Black education.”