Teaching Opinion

Free Spaces in Democracy Schools

By Harry C. Boyte — February 02, 2016 4 min read
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Dear Deb and colleagues

You raise “places where people find it easy and enjoyable to swap stories, plan adventures, and discuss and argue politics.” We call these “free spaces.” Free space is a concept that Sara Evans and I developed in the 1960s to name our experiences in settings related to the civil rights movement in the South, where we saw people - including ourselves -- develop a new sense of hope that the pervasive culture and structures of segregation could change. Linked, there was also space for democratic discussion and work. Free spaces are always “more or less,” not pure. But the effect of “free space” qualities can be dramatic.

We later wrote a book, Free Spaces, in 1986/1992, exploring free spaces at the heart of the black freedom struggle, women’s movements, labor organizing, and farmers movements. Free spaces are the places where people move from anger to agency, developing vision, intellectual life, and democratic habits and skills.

In the South in the 1950s and 1960s, free spaces were places with room to talk about segregation. They weren’t in schools -- my teachers were almost always segregationists (or if not, they kept quiet). Silence reflected the repressive culture in the South. In many settings interracial discussions were met with resistance, sometimes violence.

I experienced free space after my 11th grade year, in a Quaker summer work camp in Philadelphia, where there were black and white kids from across the country. The intense discussions and debates were exhilarating and liberating.

Then in college many spaces had “free space” qualities, like the student “Dope Shop,” a cafeteria at Duke where there was a never-ending running debate about segregation and other issues. A local coffee house off campus called The Triangle was the exhilirating meeting place for students from Duke and North Carolina Central, an African American college.

In the movement, beauty parlors were meeting spaces free of control by the white power structure. Highlander Folk School, the organizing and education center in the movement, worked with beauticians across the south to make them self-consciously movement centers. We also created free spaces when I did community organizing among poor whites, where there could be interaction with blacks.

When we started Public Achievement in 1990, the youth political empowerment initiative, we saw that PA depends on finding or creating free spaces where kids have room for self-organizing efforts and development of public skills, or political agency. We soon found that sustaining free spaces in schools depends on renewing the public, empowering dimensions of teaching. St. Bernard’s School in St. Paul, through the leadership of then principal Dennis Donovan, became our great incubator. Staff developed a sense of themselves as “citizen teachers,” “citizen secretaries,” “citizen custodians.” Public Achievement became the spirit of the school.

The concept of free spaces now has enormous relevance in higher education, where issues of free speech have exploded in the wake of student protests about racial discrimination and other issues. Some propose speech codes and other measures to turn campuses into safe spaces. Others react with disgust at the idea of “political correctness.” What both critics and supporters of students’ protests have in common in our therapeutic age is little respect for students’ own agency. This is linked to your point about respecting people’s intelligence -- professionals have a hard time with that toward groups like working class whites.

Elisabeth Bott, one of my students, took a class with Donovan, now organizer for Public Achievement on the staff of the Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College who also teaches organizing classes at the University of Minnesota. Dennis is highly skilled in opening room for students to take the lead. Elisabeth wrote an essay for me about her experiences that she says I can share:

“Our conversation on gun control and gun violence was intense. I had significantly different views than some of my classmates, but throughout the semester, we created an environment where conflicting ideas were valued and where challenging each other’s ideas was welcome. We were respectful, but bold. It was uncomfortable but I loved it. I learned more about my own opinions and opposing views from the debate.”

Elisabeth concluded with a generational manifesto. “I want every student to have similar opportunities so they can grow and gain confidence in themselves, just like I did.” She argues that “being comfortable is overrated and being liked is overvalued.”

Free spaces need educators like Dennis with skills of coaching without directing, listening without coddling or condescending, and challenging and energizing without dominating. Free spaces are neither “safe” nor “dangerous” - one student called them “brave spaces.”

Can policy change help develop citizen teachers who help to create free spaces?

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.