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Post by: Najha Zigbi-Johnson, MTS ‘20, African and African American Studies Concentrator, Freedom School Founder and Leader 

Editor’s Note: For the first time, students at HDS have gathered to create the collaborative, student-led seminar “Freedom School,” which encourages students to bring Black studies into social justice issues in the community. In this blog post, HDS student and Freedom School founder Najha Zigbi-Johnson discusses the goals and pedagogy of Freedom School. 

Freedom School community members 
Photo Courtesy of NAJHA ZIGBI-JOHNSON, MTS ‘20 

Last spring, I had the opportunity to learn alongside a group of incredibly talented and action-oriented students in the seminar, Faith in the Fire: Religious Public Intellectuals, led by Professor Cornel West. Each week, students prepared engaging presentations, and guided our class through animated conversation. I found myself wrestling with the notion of public intellectualism and also the moral responsibility of progressive thinkers to engage in work fundamentally rooted in political activism and cultural change. It was the brilliance of my peers who continue to be engaged in justice-oriented work, the legacy of radical public intellectuals like Pauli Murray and Professor West, and the urgent necessity to involve myself fully in movement building that fueled the creation of Freedom School. In partnership with the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, I was able to bring this course to fruition in my desire to engage contemporary Black studies with projects committed to systems-change and equity work.

This fall, a cohort made up of 15 students and greater-Boston community members have enrolled in the student-led colloquium “Freedom School: A Seminar on Theory and Praxis for Black Studies in the United States.” Grounded in the legacy of southern-based Freedom Schools—a nationwide effort during the Civil Rights Movement to mobilize African Americans in the struggle for social, political, and economic equality—Freedom School engages popular education pedagogy as our class co-builds and participates in a self-designed course rooted in the intersections of theory and praxis. This year-long seminar fosters collaborative learning: we have co-built a syllabus that highlights the work of radical Black intellectuals and cultural producers, while offering space for students to further their dissertation and general research work. From readings on Pleasure Activism and Black speculative sci-fi by organizer and writer adrienne maree brown, to learning from farmer and food sovereignty educator Leah Penniman, through her book Farming While Black, Freedom School is at once seeking to expand the ‘canon’ of contemporary Black radical thought, and working to engage creative solutions to issues of inequity and dispossession. Deviating from the normal structure of seminar and lecture courses, Freedom School is completely student-run and open to community members outside of Harvard, in an effort to radically democratize the classroom, offer leadership opportunities to students, and build intentional community.  

During the spring, we will host a conference highlighting the work of Boston community leaders and student-led research. As participants of Freedom School, we believe that as we continue to be propelled into a world of unknowns and seemingly catastrophic political and environmental uncertainty, we must engage innovative, forward thinking, and fundamentally egalitarian ways of learning that center material change and spiritual depth. 

Editors Note: You can check out Freedom School as well as other courses offered at HDS in our public course catalog.