By Marian Wright Edelman
In the midst of this moment of national trauma I wanted to share a story of hope. When Jacquelyn Kendricks, program director at Roberts Family Development Center, heard her daughter say she had confronted a bully at school, Jacquelyn went into “natural mom mode.”
“Listen, Taylor, that’s not your business,” Kendricks recalls saying. “As long as your friend is safe, you get an adult.”
Her daughter, however, had different ideas. She looked at her mother and pushed back.
“That’s just not the Freedom Schools way,” Taylor said. “We’re not supposed to let our friends get picked on.”
Taylor explained the whole event and why she chose to stand up for her friend. Kendricks was impressed with the values the CDF Freedom Schools® program had given her daughter and had no choice but to listen.
“You did a really good job, Taylor,” Kendricks said. “What else could I say, right?”
Roberts Family Development Center (RFDC), founded by Derrell Roberts and his wife Tina Roberts, currently runs four CDF Freedom Schools sites in the Sacramento, California area. The program serves approximately 640 largely low-income students. This summer they will provide a virtual CDF Freedom Schools program to keep serving students in their community.
Outside of the CDF Freedom Schools program, RFDC holds after-school programming and other youth programming and hosts and participates in civil rights events. The Center focuses not only on providing academic enrichment, but also providing mentorship and character development opportunities to help their scholars dream big and pursue their passions.
Derrell Roberts believes the CDF Freedom Schools program allows his organization to serve as part of a movement that both educates children about, and furthers the core tenets of, the Civil Rights Movement.
“We need to recognize that many of the challenges we had in the 1960s exist today,” said Roberts. “Freedom Schools allows us to be on the side of good as it pertains to educating folks about the history we cannot forget.”
The Children’s Defense Fund helped draw Roberts to bringing CDF Freedom Schools programming to the Center. Roberts says CDF helped expand the services they could provide to their scholars. He even recalled one instance where the association with CDF helped the Center receive far more funding then they would have in the past. The CDF Freedom Schools program has become a mainstay of his center as a result.
“Freedom Schools is who we are now,” said Roberts. “We are part of Freedom Schools and Freedom Schools is a part of us.”
A core part of the CDF Freedom Schools model that is especially important to the Sacramento sites is the concept of intergenerational leadership. For CDF Freedom Schools staff, this means serving as an example and mentor for younger staff and scholars, while inspiring them to serve as leaders and in turn learning from them. Roberts has worked to instill this idea throughout the Center’s CDF Freedom Schools program.
“People who came through Freedom Schools are leading it now. People who came through Roberts are leading now in other spaces,” said Roberts. “It’s my responsibility to make sure that when you leave from Roberts you are capable and you are identified as a leader.”
According to Roberts, Jayshawn Yancy, the site coordinator at Roberts Family Development Center’s Rio Terra Junior High School site, serves as one example of a leader who has come through the Center and the CDF Freedom Schools movement. Following the death of Stephon Clark—who was 22 years old and unarmed when he was shot by two Sacramento police officers in 2018—Yancy participated in protests against police treatment of the Black community in Sacramento. Yancy was arrested while protesting, but in the process he stood up for what he believed in. Yancy believes the CDF Freedom Schools program plays a large part in spreading that leadership.
“That’s big especially coming [from] the area we’re serving in, like they see a lot of those folks doing something great on a bigger platform,” said Yancy. “And to really give them another option and allow that to be another path for some of these kids we’re working with. That’s what’s awesome to me.”
Roberts believes Yancy’s leadership through protest has inspired the children they work with every day to see themselves as leaders in a larger movement. Leadership needs to exist both inside and outside of the Center, and according to Roberts, Yancy exemplified it that day.
Roberts aspires to do much more to help children in the Sacramento area. Roberts Family Development Center is currently pushing for a dedicated youth fund in California to ensure even more areas can fund their own CDF Freedom Schools programs. Mostly, however, RFDC is working to ensure the CDF Freedom Schools program serves as an effective place for scholars to grow into the leaders they all have the potential to be.
“We have this motto that says, ‘we struggle together, we thrive together,’” said Kendricks. “[The Center’s] purpose is to train all of us to go out and stand in our power and not forget that we still have a responsibility to level the playing field for our children and for ourselves.”
CDF Freedom Schools programs were born out of 1964’s Mississippi Freedom Summer, but their mission is as critical as ever as we work right now to build safe spaces and alternatives that affirm and empower children of color and struggle to free our children from racism, violence, poverty, and death. They are a model for public schools. CDF Freedom Schools training centers around the example of the transforming justice warrior Ella Baker, who taught us more than fifty years ago that “Until the killing of Black men, Black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing of a White mother’s son—we who believe in freedom cannot rest until this happens.” Her words remain a rallying cry for all of us who are still unwilling to rest.
Marian Wright Edelman is Founder and President Emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to childrensdefense.org.