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Peace Is Cool at Freedom School

16 June 2010 No Comment


HawaH Drumming

“The ‘Freedom School Way’ provides culturally relevant curriculum to children who will not be left behind, because no child, no matter how much of a racket they may be causing, will ever be kicked out.”

The Alex Haley Farm in Tennessee is home to the Children’s Defense Fund and their yearly Freedom Schools National Training. For the past five years I have traveled here to train teachers during this tremendous ten-day event. The Freedom School’s National Training is much more than a program; it is a movement that I am honored to be part of. In 2009, 8,601 children were served at 134 Freedom School sites, located primarily in inner-cities around the nation. Here children learn how to improve their literacy and develop healthy, violence-free communities. This exciting new model of education, the “Freedom School Way” provides culturally relevant curriculum to children who will not be left behind, because no child, no matter how much of a racket they may be causing, will ever be kicked out.

This year I stepped off the plane in Nashville, Tennessee, where myself and 2 other One Common Unity trainers rented a 15-passenger van and approximately 25 drums and then drove to Knoxville, where 1,300 young leaders, teachers, and community organizers from around the country had descended for the annual National Training. Those who were taking part in the National Training included site coordinators and summer teachers who we call interns. Over the past 5 years I’ve watched the size of these National Trainings grow from about 800.

Every year I organize a team of One Common Unity trainers and facilitators (this year we were eight people strong) to provide the arts-based innovative peace education workshops and also the daily drum circles, musical entertainment, and yoga classes. I always feel completely physically drained by the time I leave here (running off just a few hours of sleep a night and having to facilitate all day long), but I also feel spiritually rejuvenated and hopeful that we will put an end to the vicious cycle of violence that is plaguing our communities.

One Common Unity workshops this year included: Music Therapy, Non-violent Teaching Strategies and Methods, Stress Reduction, Positive Stretch, and Word Power. Each one of our trainers typically facilitates 3 – 4 workshops a day with 25 – 100 participants per workshop. The workshops run between 90 and 150 minutes. Michelle Leonard from Camden, South Carolina reminded me why I do it in her evaluation form for one of my workshops, which arrived today. “My life has forever changed. I plan to take all I have learned, and change lives. I pray we will be able to convey the knowledge that was shared. . .  I have found my purpose in life. A thousand thank-yous for helping solidify that.”

There are many other trainers from around the nation providing powerful information and training on topics such as food justice, leadership styles, sexual violence, institutionalized racism, and of course the integrated reading curriculum that the teachers will be teaching all summer long to their students.

The primary role of One Common Unity is to help heal the healers… and give the teachers who will be working with thousands of children all summer long the tools to inspire their students to make positive choices so they can exit the vicious cycle known as the “Cradle to Prison Pipeline.” According to the Children’s Defense Fund:

“Nationally, 1 in 3 Black and 1 in 6 Latino boys born in 2001 are at risk of imprisonment during their lifetime. While boys are five times as likely to be incarcerated as girls, there also is a significant number of girls in the juvenile justice system. This rate of incarceration is endangering children at younger and younger ages.  This is America’s pipeline to prison—a trajectory that leads to marginalized lives, imprisonment and often premature death. Although the majority of fourth graders cannot read at grade level, states spend about three times as much money per prisoner as per public school pupil.”

It is so hard to find enough people to go into these marginalized communities and be role models, big brothers and sisters! Clearly, there are not enough teachers, especially male teachers, and too many fathers are locked behind bars for their sons and daughters to not think being locked away is a normal part of life. That is one of the comments I hear most from young men I work with today. Going to prison is like receiving your stripes … it’s earning your “badge of honor.” Serving time in jail is almost necessary if you want to be respected on the streets. So we are trying to redefine “cool” ; to help young people see that jail and prison is no place anyone wants to be, and there is a world of other possibilities for them to choose.


HawaH is the executive director of One Common Unity, an arts-based, nonprofit peace education organization incorporated in Washington, DC. For more information on his life and work, visit and

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