More than 200 people crammed into a meeting room at Smith College to listen to Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum speak at the May 4 opening ceremony of the Sojourner Truth School for Social Change Leadership. The new school provides in-person training opportunities in activism in five cities throughout Western Massachusetts.
“We need the Sojourner Truth School to lift us out of the deep funk that many of us have felt since the election of 2016,” said Tatum, president emerita of Spelman College and author of several bestselling books on the psychology of racism. “Ordinary people can get this started and make an impact.”
Since the Trump election, there has been an outpouring of interest in engaging with politics and social movements—and a hunger to learn new skills. The Truth School is one of a number of schools cropping up recently to train people to become activists in social change movements.
The Rev. Andrea Ayvazian co-founded the school and said the idea was to create a “school that teaches movement building skills—a ‘pop-up’ school that teaches useful skills to those seeking to resist Trump’s authoritarianism.” She said she hopes the school will “help us cling to democracy during the Trump years.”
The notion for the school emerged after Ayvazian attended a pop-up artist’s event in an empty store space. “I imagined an impermanent school, popping up around the valley.”
Ayvazian said that the initial response to her idea was overwhelmingly positive. People have offered free spaces for the school, she said, and now the Truth School is popping up in artist studios, library halls, and community meeting rooms at religious congregations.
History of Activism Schools
The post-election activist surge has included thousands who have thrown themselves into electoral politics. These activists are working to elect insurgent candidates such as Rob Quist in Montana and Jon Ossoff in Georgia and around the country. And organizations that train people to enter political races for the first time have seen a spike in interest. More than 7,000 women have signed up for VoteRunLead’s “Run as You Are” course that teaches women how to run for office. According to The Cut, the She Should Run online incubator program for women candidates reported a huge increase in women registering for the program: from dozens to hundreds of women signing up in a normal month before the election to more than 8,100 in the three months since the election.
One new school that formed in the wake of the Trump inauguration—called the Resistance School—drew more than 175,000 participants during its initial four-part training series in April, according to the school. The program, designed by undergraduate students at Harvard University, drew parallels to the founding of Dumbledore’s Army from the Harry Potter series as they rallied to resist the evil Lord Voldemort.
This outpouring of energy is reminiscent of similar activist schools that formed during the Civil Rights movement. In the late 1950s and into the 1960s, Citizenship Schools were established in a number of states throughout the south to overcome barriers to voter registration. And in 1964, more than 40 Freedom Schools popped up throughout Mississippi to provide youth with basic education courses in literacy and math, for example, but also in Black history, civic engagement, and leadership.
According to an article by Marian Wright Edelman, “… volunteers were trained to teach in these [Freedom Schools] held in church basements, on back porches, in parks, and even under trees.” Edelman worked as an attorney in 1964 in Mississippi. “I remember visiting a Freedom School under a tall old oak tree in Greenwood, Mississippi, and hearing Pete Seeger sing,” she wrote.
Edelman went on to found the Children’s Defense Fund and establish a Freedom School initiative to provide after-school and summer programs to enhance reading skills. Several Freedom Schools, inspired by these earlier efforts, operate today in cities such as Chicago and Detroit, and an Akwesasne Freedom School continues on the Mohawk reservation in upstate New York.
“We haven’t created anything terribly new,” said Ayvazian, reflecting on the history of the Citizenship and Freedom Schools—and other historic progressive and social justice schools like the Midwest Academy and Highlander Center. “We’re just repurposing good, old ideas for our time.”
At the newly opened Truth School, all space is donated, and the money raised goes to pay trainers so classes can be free and open to anyone. The initial course offerings for May and June include activist skills such as public speaking, writing for mass media, song-leading, and nonviolent direct action. Courses also focus on mobilizing millennials, organizing beyond political silos, working across class divisions, self-care, and inspiration.
Teachers of the courses include government officials and community organizers. Former Massachusetts State Representative Ellen Story, for example, is teaching a class called “Preparing to Run for Office.” And Jo Comerford, the national campaign director for MoveOn.org, is teaching “Organizing 101: The Art of Structuring the Most Effective and Winning Campaign Goals, Strategies, and Tactics.” Other course offerings include: “And Still We Rise: Leadership Forum for Women of Color,” “Leading Songs of Protest and Resistance,” and “Spiritual Resilience and Resistance.”
Ayvazian said anti-racism work is at the center of the Truth School’s theory of change—and part of the work of building a movement. “As a white person committed to dismantling racism, the challenge is to keep paying attention, never losing one’s focus, not turning away,” she said. “Racism is ongoing. The school is built on the notion that we’re going to keep paying attention.”
She hopes others will replicate the model of the Truth School, so they are documenting their planning process and keeping copies of outreach and course materials. “Right now we’re hosting classes and preparing the catalog for September and October,” she said. “But in eight months, some of our board will be ready to go on the road to help other communities start up.”
At the closing of the May 4 kick-off event, Ayvazian said she hopes the Truth School will help build a lasting movement. “There is a danger that we could put everything into the first year of resistance to the Trump disaster and then kind of burnout and go home and act as if things are normal,” Ayvazian said. “The Truth School is needed because we don’t want people to flare up and burn out.”
Chuck Collins is director of the Program on Inequality and the Common Good at the Institute for Policy Studies, where he is a senior scholar. He is co-editor of Inequality.org and the author of Born on Third Base: A One Percenter Makes the Case for Tackling Inequality, Bringing Wealth Home, and Committing to the Common Good.