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Freedom Dreaming is Freedom Fighting

June 16, 2021

By Ky’Eisha Penn, Staff Attorney

Photo by Clay Banks via Unsplash

Juneteenth is a day that we come together to celebrate the emancipation of Black people enslaved in and by our very nation. From 1619 to 2021–much has changed, but our fight for liberation from oppressive systems remain the same.

As Freedom Day approaches, I reflect on the liberation struggle my ancestors endured and how their determination fuels me. I reflect on the life of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. I reflect on the failed educational system and this country’s racist allegiance to white supremacist ideology that brought me into this work. I reflect on my journey and decision to receive my legal training at what used to be the only institution in the country that offered Black people an opportunity to obtain a legal education–Howard University School of Law.

Howard’s hallways that speak the praises of legends past like Pauli Murray, Thurgood Marshall, Charlotte E. Ray, and Charles Hamilton Houston, kept me grounded in purpose. When things became difficult, I reminded myself of Trayvon and how, had his school not had such discretionary school discipline practices, like zero-tolerance policies that effectively push students out of school, he would not have been in Sanford, FL at that time and may still be here.  The circumstances surrounding his murder brought me into the organizing space where my work with Dream Defenders helped to expose my passion for social justice, particularly in the area of education. Being in community with young people fighting for a reality that we had yet begun to actualize, was the first time that I ever imagined that we could dream of a world better than the one we inherited–one that we had a voice and hand in creating.

This is the work that I am privileged to engage in at Advancement Project National Office. Every day, we fight to make the world we dream of but have yet been privileged to exist in, a reality. Supporting groups on the ground in their fights as we collectively reimagine our world, communities, schools, systems, and safety together is a way that we honor the many freedom fighters who’ve come before us. Our Opportunity to Learn program fights for schools that provide safe, affirming, and equitable environments for all students to obtain a quality education. We are driven by the lived experiences of young people of color who are consistently harmed by discriminatory and discretionary school policies, physically and psychologically damaging policing and surveillance practices, and the perpetual divestment of school resources.

Of the approximately 49 million students in public K-12 schools across the nation, Black students are three-to-four times more likely to be suspended and expelled from school as a result of disparate discipline practices than white students. Black students are also almost three times as likely to be referred to police and three-and-a-half times more likely to be arrested for incidents that occur on school grounds. We know that young people need to not only feel safe, but actually be safe in the spaces they are expected to learn and grow. Despite the countless suggestions to train and better vet law enforcement to serve in these capacities, we are continuously met with the same result. And the cost to young people of color has always been too high!

The fight for Police Free Schools is to dismantle school policing infrastructure, culture, and practice, end school militarization and surveillance, and build a new liberatory education system. We dream of a world where the use of law enforcement is no longer a tool in the education systems toolbox. Where disruptions in class are not met with students being thrown across the classroom for refusing to hand over a cellphone like in Columbia, South Carolina or being slammed into a file cabinet and subsequently arrested after falling asleep during in-school suspension like in Hoover, Alabama.  Police Free Schools actualized, would mean that students would truly be invested in. Instead of pushing them out of classrooms, students would have access to the essential mental health supports, counseling services, and educational resources they need to thrive in school. Schools would implement restorative and transformative justice programs that can teach students conflict resolution and other practices that help foster safe spaces in schools so that students can not only be safe and productive but simply show up as kids.

With Juneteenth on the horizon, allow us all to reflect on how we are fulfilling the legacy of our ancestors to dream of a world that we deserve–a world where we are safe, valued, and invested in.

Now ask yourself, what are you doing to make that dream become a reality?

Happy Juneteenth!

Ky'Eisha Penn

Ky’Eisha W. Penn is a Staff Attorney working for our Opportunity to Learn program. Ky’Eisha supports Black and Brown communities on the ground addressing issues of pushout, policing in schools, and the overall criminalization of young people.