By Silin Razza-Baril, age 11 and Willa Krishnaswami, age 12

Nikole Hannah-Jones, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and creator of the 1619 Project, has launched the 1619 Freedom School in Waterloo, Iowa, which opened earlier this year.

The 1619 Freedom School is a free afterschool program with extensive literacy instruction for students who are struggling with their literacy skills. The school’s curriculum will highlight Black excellence and resistance in America, with a library including books by Black authors and telling stories centered around Black protagonists. In Waterloo, Black kids’ average grades are 2.2 grades behind their white peers, and they are 3.7 times more likely to be suspended from school, according to ProPublica.

The 1619 Freedom School was founded on the model of the Freedom Schools from the civil rights era. These Freedom Schools were created to educate Black people about systemic racism in America. In 1619, the first enslaved Africans were brought to the United States. The 1619 Freedom School’s mission is to find “Liberation through literacy.”

Waterloo was ranked as the worst city in the United States for Black Americans in a study conducted by 24/7 Wall Street. Their data suggests that working Black Americans in Waterloo make less than half than that of their white colleagues, with the median Black household income being $28,000, compared to $50,000 for white households. Low-income families need to spend their money on necessities like rent and food, as opposed to tutoring and extracurricular education. The program is completely independent and does not rely on government funding.

Silin Razza-Baril, age 11 and Willa Krishnaswami, age 12 met with Nikole Hannah-Jones to discuss her new project

Willa: You recently launched the 1619 Freedom School. Did producing the 1619 Project inspire you to open the school?

Nikole: I learned about the year 1619 when I was in high school, and I’ve been thinking about that date since. So I named it the 1619 Freedom School because that’s what I consider the beginning of Black America, not because of the 1619 Project. The reason I decided to open the Freedom School was because my best friend from high school is an elementary school teacher who teaches third grade at a very segregated, very poor school. And when the pandemic started, we were talking about how few of her students were logging in every day for remote learning. I just knew that so many students in my hometown were going to be left behind because of the pandemic. And there were already many of them behind in reading and struggling. So that made me want to do something.

I think it’s important for all of us to not just think about individual success, but to think about communal success. I really do believe that our fates are tied to each other.

Nikole Hannah-Jones

Silin: You grew up in Waterloo, Iowa, “On the wrong side of the river that divided white from Black, opportunity from struggle,” as you described it. Why did you feel it was important to launch the 1619 Freedom School in your hometown?

Nikole: There’s a couple of reasons. I was bused from my Black neighborhood school to the better white school on the white side of town. And having that experience, I understood that those schools were not better because they were white, but because they had more wealth and more resources, and that Black students can achieve the same as [white] students if they receive the same resources. And I’m an example of that. I’ve been very successful in my life because I was able to get a quality education. So it was important for me to give back to the community that raised me and to try to help other students who grew up in the same part of town as me who have just as much ability and ambition and motivation as me to get the type of education that will allow them to be successful. I think it’s important for all of us to not just think about individual success, but to think about communal success. I really do believe that our fates are tied to each other.

Silin: A bill passed in Iowa in July last year banning classroom discussion of how the U.S. and Iowa are systemically racist or that any race is inherently superior to another. How does this bill affect your approach to history and the curriculum as it centers on experiences of Black Americans?

Why are Black children the most likely to be disadvantaged and behind in their schooling? You either believe that there’s something in our society that’s causing it, or you believe that Black families don’t want the same things that white families want.

Nikole Hannah-Jones

Nikole: We received no public funds. That was intentional, because I understood the political climate. We didn’t want anyone to try to use the fact that we were taking public money to try to tell us the best way to teach. Parents who don’t believe in what we teach don’t enroll their kids in the program. 

I also want to make clear, we’re not teaching critical race theory, but I wouldn’t have a problem teaching it. Critical race theory simply seeks to help us understand why a school like the 1619 Freedom School has to exist in the first place. Why are Black children the most likely to be living in poverty? Why are Black children the most likely to be disadvantaged and behind in their schooling? You either believe that there’s something in our society that’s causing it, or you believe that Black families don’t want the same things that white families want. I happen to believe Black people want the same thing everyone else wants, but our society doesn’t allow us all an equal chance to get that. Our curriculum is teaching children, no matter what race [they are], about the contributions of Black Americans and the history of Black Americans. The research is actually very clear that when Black children learn Black history, they do better in school. 

Our partnership with Waterloo public schools cannot be the way we initially intended it to be because of that law, but we’re still serving Waterloo public school kids, and we still get support from them. This is why independence matters. Because no one can tell us how we’re going to teach our children. We base this school off of the model of the Freedom Schools that were developed during the civil rights movement in the South, which understood that for Black children sometimes you have to go outside of the standard education system to provide them with the type of schooling they deserve.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez

Willa: As you mentioned, the COVID-19 situation has changed access to literacy education and student resources in Waterloo. How does the 1619 Freedom School hope to address this?

Nikole: The 1619 Freedom School needed to exist even before COVID. Black students, on average in Waterloo, were two grade levels behind their [white peers] even before COVID. Now think about this. They’re third graders. They’ve only been in school for four years, and they’re already years behind their peers. If you guys think about your own education, you really stop getting help with literacy after third grade. So when you go up to third grade, they’re teaching you things like phonics and [assuming] you know how to read. So think about the new words you learn in your science class or the bigger words that you’re learning in your social studies, or when you start doing more reading problems for math. If you haven’t mastered your basic literacy skills by the third grade, you’re going to keep struggling, and your struggles are going to get worse the older you get as the subject matter gets more complex. If [a student is] behind in reading, that’s where so many behavioral problems in class occur. When [these students] can’t really comprehend what [they’re] reading in math, then [they] start to misbehave. That’s what is so critical about the intervention here and understanding that if you struggle with literacy, you will struggle in every subject you have in your school. We have to get kids’ literacy scores up in order for them to have academic success.

Silin: You have said that education is a revolutionary act. How has your career as a journalist influenced your involvement with education? And what do you hope the Freedom School will achieve?

Nikole: Before I did the 1619 Project, I spent most of my career as an education reporter. My very first job in journalism was covering a segregated, high-poverty school district in the South, in Durham, North Carolina. Spending a lot of time in under-resourced schools had a huge impact on me. When I first started studying history and I came across the date 1619 as a 16-year-old student, it changed my life. [Until then], I thought Black people weren’t in [history books] because we didn’t do anything worthy. That’s a very demeaning experience to have. I think a lot of Black, Indigenous, Latino and queer children don’t do well in school because [they] don’t ever see [themselves] in the story. It was extremely empowering for me to take a class that was built all around Black history and realizing there’s a lot that we’ve done, there’s a lot to be proud of, and I could see myself in those stories. It made me want to learn more. I got angry that our teachers could have given this to us and they didn’t. 

For Black people, education has always been tied to our liberation, and I think we can transform the relationship that so many poor Black children have with school. 

Nikole Hannah-Jones

All of the murals [in the Freedom School] are about the Black struggle for an education, because we’ve been taught that somehow Black families don’t value education, and yet Black people, even during slavery when it was illegal for us to get an education, we were still risking our lives to learn to read and write. If we can help our kids understand this, then that’s our legacy: that we’ve always fought for an education and that our history is struggling to get an education. For Black people, education has always been tied to our liberation, and I think we can transform the relationship that so many poor Black children have with school. 

And so, to me, my hope is not only that we help our children who are struggling academically to catch up and have successful academic careers so they can go on and have successful lives, but also that we give them a sense of self-esteem and a sense of empowerment about their history. So we’re not going to just measure their test scores. The most important thing to me is: Are our kids reading and understanding? Are they enjoying books? And do they feel pride and esteem in their desire to learn?

Willa: What challenges did you face in the early stages of launching this program? What has been some of the feedback you’ve received from members of the community that the school serves?

So often low-income children are put into facilities that reflect their disadvantage, so I wanted to make the space beautiful.

Nikole Hannah-Jones

Nikole: The biggest challenge was finding the time to create an entire new program from scratch. All of the women who helped me launch the school all have full-time jobs and a lot of other obligations. We wanted to create an entirely new curriculum. We had to raise a lot of money. We had to figure out how this program would work. The Freedom School officially opened [in January], but it took two years of almost constant work to get us to that point. It’s easy to have an idea, but to bring it to fruition in a very high-quality way is a lot of work. 

The feedback has been amazing. We were only intending to serve 20 students initially, but we are serving more than 35 because there was so much desire and we didn’t want to turn students away. We had a huge open house that was attended by hundreds of people in the community. We’ve received donations from all across the country. Just recently, we looked at the figures, and we’ve raised $167,000 just from individual donations. That’s not even our big donations from big companies or big foundations. So it’s been astounding. But the biggest thing is the kids. 

What was really important to me was not to make our children feel punished. So often when we look at students whose test scores are below what they say they should be, we kind of take away all the joy of learning because we’re so focused on trying to get their grades up. And we didn’t want them to feel like coming to our program every day after school was a punishment. So often low-income children are put into facilities that reflect their disadvantage, so I wanted to make the space beautiful. We don’t put them in facilities that tell them we actually think that they are important and worthy. When they walked into the Freedom School for the first time, their eyes got so big, and they saw all of these brand new books, and they saw the beautiful couches and the murals. And they were so excited to be there. Some of the students that have had some behavioral problems [at school] have no problems at all in the Freedom School, because they feel respected and loved. [Getting] that reaction is the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done.