Washtenaw United: Kekere Freedom School And How To Discuss Race And Racism In The Classroom
Discussing racism, whether individual or systemic, is important, but sometimes awkward or uncomfortable. Not in the Kekere Freedom School program. It is at the core of what founder and director Nuola Akinde imparts to the students the school serves. Nuola joined WEMU's David Fair to discuss confronting racism and teaching children to embrace their cultural heritage.
WEMU has partnered with the United Way of Washtenaw County to explore the people, organizations, and institutions creating opportunity and equity in our area. And, as part of this ongoing series, you’ll also hear from the people benefiting and growing from the investments being made in the areas of our community where there are gaps in available services. It is a community voice. It is 'Washtenaw United.'
ABOUT NUOLA AKINDE:
Nuola Akinde (she/they) is a mother of three, and daughter of Yoruba and Bahamian artists, immigrants, and culture-keepers. Nuola is the Founder of Kekere Freedom School, and the Director of Culture and Curriculum at Black Men Read.
Kekere Freedom School is a homeschool co-op community whose mission is to decolonize wisdom, knowledge and understanding and to celebrate the joy and liberation of Black, Brown and Indigenous peoples.
They operate both a homeschool co-op and also deliver consulting to local business and organizations on how to decolonize their culture and practices to become more diverse, equitable and inclusive.
Kekere is inspired by the Freedom Schools of the Civil Rights Movement, the wisdom and resilience of our ancestors and love for our grandchildren’s grandchildren. The community cultivated by Kekere is specifically designed to affirm families which include Black children, Indigenous children, all children of the global majority and 2SLGBTQIA+ folks. All families who are committed to liberation and love are welcome in Kekere’s learning community, which is centered around learning that is self-directed and community-oriented and helps children and families delve deeply into their curiosities and passions.
UWWC first invested in Kereke through its Power of the Purse fund, in 2020 through a grant totaling $6,000.
David Fair: This is 89 One WEMU, and welcome to another edition of Washtenaw United. We explore issues of equity and opportunity in Washtenaw County every week through our partnership with the United Way of Washtenaw County. I'm David Fair, and, today, we're going to explore those issues through the manner in which children are being educated. It's an Ypsilanti-based home school community program. They look into how race is being discussed with children and teach us how to have those conversations. Our guest is Nuola Akinde, and she is founder of the Kekere Freedom School. And thank you so much for joining us today, Nuola.
Nuola Akinde: Thank you for having me.
David Fair: You know, in preparing for our conversation and looking more into the school and how you choose to educate, I was struck about your approach. I want to quote here. "The school is an organization dedicated to decolonizing wisdom, knowledge, and understanding." Based on that statement, what then, Nuola, knowledge is the mission and vision for the Freedom School?
Nuola Akinde: Thank you for that question. I will first start by acknowledging that we at Kekere Freedom School. We live, we work, and we play on the ancestral lands of the Council of Three Fires. And that part of our work is to, as black and indigenous folks, to live in solidarity with movements for land sovereignty and renaturation all over the world, past, present and future. And so that land acknowledgment is also part of the core function of our work. Our work is to make sure that Black, brown, and indigenous kids, that kids of color in particular, have a strong sense of who they are as individuals, but also as part of a collective, and that we're equipping them with the resources that they need emotionally, intellectually, socially to thrive, and the society and culture that isn't necessarily created for their survival. And, also, that we are supporting them in imagining new ways of thinking and new ways of creating a just and equitable system.
David Fair: There is an inner strength and a power among young people that often goes untapped. How do you take that process and tap into it and then set it free?
Nuola Akinde: Yeah, I love that question. I think one thing that I have really valued over the last few years is changing my own language from thinking about empowering youth to recognizing that they, like you say, have an inherent power. And so, for us, what that looks like is really just getting to know our kids really deeply, recognizing that they each have their strengths, their gifts, their challenges, the things that they're curious about and that they're passionate about. And I view my role as a facilitator and really just offering them as much support as I can to explore the things that they're excited about and also to sort of push and challenge them to continue to grow in the ways that are maybe more difficult for them.
David Fair: And in going about creating an atmosphere and process by which anti-bias education can not only be learned, but take hold, what core principles do you employ?
Nuola Akinde: Yeah, so what I did was first becoming an educator, I read the book Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves by Louise Derman-Sparks and Julie Olsen Edwards. And that book really inspired a lot of the way that I think about my work. And the four ways that we really center that is first having appreciation for ancestral and personal identity. So, again, making sure that each kid is joyful about who they are, about where they come from, even when those stories are complicated and even when those stories sometimes have a lot of pain, there's also resilience and there's also a lot to feel proud of. We also really work towards having a respectful curiosity about others and using accurate language to talk about others. So even if that's something as simple as like when we meet a new person, asking them their pronouns, making sure that we pronounce their names correctly, things like that that are really simple for young kids, but set a tone for the way that we want to treat others and engage with folks in our community. And then we also try to recognize patterns of injustice. So, when we're learning about historical events, when we're thinking about things that are impacting our community right now, like the amount of folks who are experiencing helplessness or the job insecurity that people families are experiencing. We look to find what are the patterns that we can see here in our community, but also throughout time. And, then again, actively teaching the kids and exploring with them the fact that there are so many kids throughout history who have been freedom fighters, who have led huge movements and helped their communities to achieve liberation, and that our kids are a part of that legacy and they have a lot of wisdom to tap into from their own, but also from from our ancestors.
David Fair; Washtenaw United continues on Eighty-Nine One WEMU. And we're talking with Nuola Akinde, the founder of the Kekere Freedom School. And Nuola, let's talk a little bit about your heritage and history. You are the daughter of Yoruba and Bahamian artists and you are a Yoruba priestess. The vast majority of the Yoruba population is from Nigeria and constitutes a significant part of the population in West Africa. The reason Yoruba people are here has a dark past. It was the Atlantic slave trade that first brought members of the ethnic group to America. Can you trace your interest in the kind of education you are now promoting and engaged in and the life work you've chosen to that history and through your ancestry?
Nuola Akinde: Absolutely. I mean, I think first giving props to my mom, she was very intentional about making sure that we grew up in a home and in a community that was incredibly Afrocentric, whether it was the schools that we went to or even our extracurricular activities, you know, making sure that we were in African dance, that we took jazz classes. And so, I grew up in an environment that was very vocal and very joyful about making sure that we understood that not only does Black history extend far beyond the Transatlantic slave trade, but that also even through and after that experience, Black folks have been have continued to be innovators, creators, activists, social workers, doctors. And so that's really the foundation of the community that I grew up in in Miami. And I think coming into Washtenaw County and raising my own kids here, I really just wanted to recreate a lot of what I experienced as a kid. I wanted my kids to also know that we have such a beautiful heritage and such a diverse heritage to draw from. That sort of was my original inspiration for starting Kekere and for recognizing that my own kids and other kids in our community need to have a space that's really intentional about affirming them, and that's really intentional about preserving their childhood, preserving their right to play, their right to be curious, the right to be loud, whoever they are, that that's something that our kids need.
David Fair: Let's talk more specifically about the conversations themselves. Have you identified best practices and having these open conversations about race with children and young people?
Nuola Akinde: Absolutely, I mean, I think, first and foremost, what I always suggest to families and to other educators is that we want to treat our conversations about race and racism the way that we treat any other important conversation. So, we don't just tell our kids when we get in the car--the first time we get in a car--to buckle up. And we don't just tell them to buckle up when there's something, when there's an accident or something. We make sure that we are consistently reminding them that we're consistently keeping that idea of, like, safety present. And I think it's really similar for race and racism that if we have conversations with kids on an ongoing basis, not just when there's an emergency or a crisis or something scary happens, but when we have a culture in our homes and in our schools that we can talk about anything that we can talk about. We can ask questions and we can challenge each other's ideas and we can share in pain when something bad does happen, that that's probably the most important thing, that our conversations are consistent and that they're open and honest with young people.
David Fair: Once again, we're talking with the founder of the Kekere Freedom School, Nuola Akinde, on WEMU's Washtenaw United. And you touched on something, having that open dialogue and being able to express freely. Well, here in America for a long time and for a variety of reasons, a lot of folks aren't entirely honest when it comes to having the conversation on race. So how do you work with the kids to keep it honest beyond the walls of the school and in the program?
Nuola Akinde: I think kids are really committed to a certain type of transparency. And it's not really the kids who are avoiding having honest and difficult conversations. The one thing that we do is I just asked them a lot of questions and get them in the habit of thinking critically, get them in the habit of not just accepting something, because an adult says it, which they're already naturally good at. But I think, oftentimes in learning environments, that is sort of squished out of them. And here at Kekere, we really celebrate that. And so, I think our intention to the details of allowing kids to push back and also wanting them to think critically will hopefully help them to be out in the world and not necessarily have us there with them, but allow them to say, "Oh wait, hold on, let me pause and analyze the situation. Let me think deeply about this. And also let me trust my gut in this moment and see how I'm feeling and listen to that as well." Hopefully, we're equipping them with that combination of intellectual and also that emotional, intuitive intelligence that will help them to navigate the world.
David Fair: And then the children become the teachers, and they carry that home to the families.
Nuola Akinde: Absolutely. And I think, especially at Kekere, because we're such a small community, all of our families want to be having these conversations. We want to talk about racial equity. We want to talk about gender equity. We want to talk about these things. And they're already, to varying degrees, part of the family culture. And so, we just are developing slowly a common language that we can use and also a network of support, so that folks don't feel like they have to have all the answers--that they can ask me, they can ask other families, "How are you talking about these things? What do you do in this situation comes up so that people don't feel so alone?" Because I think that's a lot of what's scary about this work is that people want to get it right and are afraid to make mistakes. But if we know that we have other folks who are there to support us, it feels a little less scary.
David Fair: Thank you for the work you're doing, and thank you so much for sharing time and conversation with me today.
Nuola Akinde: Thank you.
David Fair: That is Nuola Akinde. She is the founder of the Ypsilanti-based home school community, the Kekere Freedom School. And if you'd like more information on the school, its mission, and on Nuola, visit our website at WEMU dot org. I'm David Fair, and this is Eighty-Nine One WEMU FM and WEMU HD One Ypsilanti.
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