This is my last week at the Chicago Freedom School, and I have been reflecting on what this organization has meant to me. I first came to CFS in the summer of 2008 as an intern from the University of Chicago. I have learned and changed so much since then, and who I am now has been shaped immeasurably by CFS. The lessons I have learned from CFS could fill a book, but there are a few life lessons that will remain with me always.
The first lesson is my understanding of my role as an oppressor, an oppressed person, and a liberator. In one of the first CFS workshops I attended, the facilitator set up these three roles in a triangle. Each participant was asked to stand in each corner of the triangle and name the ways in which they fill each role. After guiding us through the exercise, the facilitator explained the importance of remembering we all exist in this triangle in this way:
- We each need to know and understand the ways in which we oppress others; the ways in which we have unacknowledged privileges that come at the expense of other peoples' rights. Yet, if we fixate on our privilege and the ways in which we are oppressive we can become frozen and apathetic. If we do take action, it is too often from a place of guilt.
- We need to know and understand our own oppression and the struggles we face because of our identity. However, if we get stuck here, we can become blind to the ways that we ourselves act as oppressors and focusing only on our oppression can also too easily leave us feeling powerless and overwhelmed.
- Finally, we need to know and understand that we can all act as liberators, not only for ourselves but also for others. We can take action and fight back against oppression, but still we cannot settle ourselves here, focusing only on the ways we are liberators. If we do, it is easy to become self-righteous and blind to our oppressive behavior.
It is only by balancing all three of these roles that we can become and remain strong advocates for social change. Now I facilitate similar trainings, and this framework shapes so much about how I see the world. I can both acknowledge and own my white privilege without minimizing the oppression I face as a woman. And, most importantly, I know that I can take action about both of these kinds of oppression.
I am also leaving CFS with the knowledge that adultism is a pervasive and serious form of oppression that is often ignored and unacknowledged. According to John Bell, "Adultism refers to behaviors and attitudes based on the assumption that adults are better than young people, and entitled to act upon young people without their agreement. This mistreatment is reinforced by social institutions, laws, customs, and attitudes."
I had never heard the word adultism before I came to CFS. It took me years of learning from young people to understand the incredible oppression youth face because of their age. Youth in our society are stereotyped as irresponsible, lazy, disrespectful, and apathetic. Yet anyone who has worked with young people knows that most of them do not fit that description. The young people I have worked with juggle immense responsibilities at school and at home, are kind to others, and care deeply about making the world a better place. If we want to solve the seemingly intractable problem of youth violence, if we want to know how to keep young people going to school, if we want to solve any number of issues facing youth, we are going to have to address adultism. Young people want to and should be engaged in finding the solutions to these issues, yet they are too often shut out of the decision-making about what happens in their schools and communities. No one knows the reality of these issues better than they do, and no one knows better what it would take to make it change.
I feel honored to have had the opportunity to work at CFS these last five years. It is truly a unique organization that has much to offer Chicago and the field of youth organizing and social justice. I encourage you to find a way to get involved at CFS or attend a training. To find out more about CFS trainings, contact Xavier at xavier(at)chicagofreedomschool(dot)org. You won't regret it.
-Hannah Jacoby, Outreach & Training Coordinator