After a three-year absence, an initiative that helps children appreciate the importance of social justice and how they can make a difference in an increasingly racially polarized world is set to return to Durham this summer.

The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) “Freedom Schools” program is a faith-based, six-week summer literacy and cultural enrichment offering aimed at empowering K-12 students “to believe in their ability to make a difference in themselves, their families, communities, country and the world with hope, education, and action,” according to a press release last week from the nonprofit DurhamCares.

“Through reading and the idea that a person of faith can rally a community to understand the urgency and necessity of making a difference, we help children and youth change how they think about learning,” program officials stated in the release.

The summer program is sponsored by the Mt. Level Community Partnership for Racial Justice, a collaboration of several area churches and DurhamCares whose members partnered in 2019 “to bring about racial justice in our community and our world through education, organizing, interrogation, examination of behaviors, beliefs, and practices of racism in our society,” according to the release.

The name, design, and purpose of the program were inspired by the iconic “Freedom Schools” that were created by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the “Freedom Summer” in Mississippi in 1964.

According to the website Civil Rights Teaching, the original Freedom Schools were intended to counter the “sharecropper education” received by a great many African Americans and poor whites.

“Through reading, writing, arithmetic, history, and civics, participants received a progressive curriculum during a six-week summer program that was designed to prepare disenfranchised African Americans to become active political actors on their own behalf, as voters, elected officials, [and] organizers. Nearly 40 freedom schools were established serving close to 2,500 students, including parents and grandparents,” the website states.

Durham’s Blacknall Memorial Presbyterian Church is one of the congregations that’s participating in the racial justice partnership.

David Dunderdale, an associate pastor with Blacknall, told the INDY this week that it’s important to give children hope and provide them with educational tools.

“It’s an important part of living out the gospel in our community,” Dunderdale says. “Freedom Schools gives our children an understanding of the world we live in. Our God cares about injustice and making it right. We want our children to know that God cares.”

The CDF Freedom Schools program in the Bull City was first funded by Durham Public Schools (DPS) and operated from 2013 through 2015 at Oak Grove, C.C. Spaulding, Bethesda, and Forest View elementary schools, says Denise Rowson, a CDF Freedom Schools spokeswoman.

“The four different elementary schools that we served had an academic need,” says Rowson, who is a retired DPS educator and administrator.

“We saw some very good results with reading, self-esteem, and confidence in learning” during the program’s first three years, she adds.

After 2015, Rowson says DPS officials decided to no longer fund the program. She described it as a disheartening development because the Freedom Schools program garnered significant outcomes. Officials reported an eight-month increase in children’s reading levels following the six-week program. Rowson also pointed to the importance of parental involvement in the program and how children grew socially, emotionally, and academically.

Public schools spokesman Chip Sudderth acknowledged that DPS worked with CDF Freedom Schools in the past and says the school system “is open to working with [the program]” in the future.

“Our previous pause with the program came during a time of budget reductions and staff changes,” Sudderth wrote in an email to the INDY. “We are continuing to evaluate partnership opportunities in alignment with our 2018-2023 Strategic Plan.”

The summer program will hire college students to work as counselors and mentors to the young participants, who are referred to as “scholars.”

In addition to culturally enriching activities, there is a mental health component built into the program by keeping the youngsters engaged daily with civic issues and social justice, Rowson says. Along with themes like voter suppression, the children are asked about issues that take place in their communities, such as gun violence and bullying.

“We talk about their ideas and how they can influence that,” Rowson says. “We don’t have these types of conversations with our kids. Children know what’s happening in their communities, and they have great ideas.”

The CDF Freedom Schools resumed locally in 2019 as a DPS partnership with North Carolina Central and Duke universities, according to the press release.

Rowson says the program was briefly housed at NCCU.

“Unfortunately, there has not been a [CDF Freedom Schools program] in Durham for several years,” the release stated. The partnership “understands the need of Durham children and youth to reap the benefits of this successful, research-based program,” it continued.

“Charlotte has about 15 Freedom Schools,” Rowson says. “Greensboro has seven or eight. Winston-Salem has about six. Durham and Raleigh have none. My dream is that we have Freedom Schools in all four corners of Durham.”

The 2023 summer program will take place at the Epworth United Methodist Church and will serve students enrolled at Hope Valley and Fayetteville Street elementary schools, Rowson says.

Sans DPS funding, the budget for the 2023 summer youth initiative is weighing in at about $100,000, and its sponsors are looking for financial donations.

Anyone interested in making a financial donation to the program can send a contribution to:


PO Box 331

Durham, NC 27702

Checks should be made payable to DurhamCares/CDF Freedom Schools Fund. For additional information, please contact Denise Rowson at

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