Article11 Oritas Cross1-001

The Rev. Dr. Heber Brown coaches young men on how to tie a necktie during last year’s Orita’s Cross Freedom School spring break program. (Photo Courtesy Rev. Heber Brown)

Christian church education for young people has historically not been geared toward social problems and the quest for liberation. However, the Rev. Dr. Heber Brown hopes to change that with the Orita’s Cross Freedom School.

“What goes for much of popular Christian education materials that are provided , it does not have a word, an analysis as relates to socio-cultural issues, and was not responding to the pressing realities of many people in the country today,” said Brown,referring to a conclusion he reached in the midst of his doctoral work at Wesley Theological Seminary.

In response to that realization, Brown launched the first Orita’s Cross Freedom School in 2012, anchoring its curriculum around the life of former Baltimore Black Panther Eddie Conway, who spent nearly 44 years incarcerated as what many people believe to be a political prisoner for his activism in the late ‘60s. Orita’s Cross uses the life of an individual to illustrate various issues affecting people of color in Baltimore in order to help young people fashion responses to those problems.

This year’s freedom school, which will take place during the Baltimore City Public Schools spring break on April 6 to 10, will anchor its curriculum around the life of Tyrone West, the Baltimore man killed by police in July 2013. The school will take a comprehensive look at West’s life, including both his triumphs and his struggles, and tie West’s death to various efforts throughout Baltimore to address police brutality and the consequences of the city’s severe poverty.

The school name is derived from the Yoruba word for crossroads, orita, which represents the interdisciplinary and multi-dimensional approach to education embodied in its programs. The curriculum eschews the idea that education is a top-down affair, viewing all participants as a font of wisdom and experience to be drawn from, and incorporates stories, cooking, music, games, and art as part of its approach to teaching.

“If we’re living in a society that in so many ways robs us of our basic humanity, just dancing, learning to cook, learning about growing food in the garden, actually going to grow food and picking food, all of that – reclaiming our humanity is just as revolutionary as striking out against systems that would rob us of it,” said Brown.

Freedom schools were popularized during 1964’s “Freedom Summer” in Mississippi, as churches, students, activists, and residents came together to learn towards the end of liberation and to empower people to engage their own reality, said Brown. But these schools are also an extension of a much longer history of liberation efforts among African people in America.

“In the context of the Black community I see freedom schools have always been around in different manifestations and modes,” Brown said. “When I say that, I’m thinking about the ways that African people aggressively sought out spaces and places to learn together, to study together, to reflect on their oppression in this country. And as they were reflecting, and studying, and learning, using what they learned to engage their oppression and move toward liberation.”

In light of this history, the word “orita” also anchors the freedom school in an African-centered lens.

“We want to make sure that particularly the Black students that show up are anchored in their heritage and their history, and even use that understanding of their heritage as a protective source for their souls and for their work as well,” Brown said. “So we’re unapologetically Black in our orientation even as we are inclusive of other communities . . . as well.”

In the spirit of that inclusiveness, this year’s freedom school will also feature young Latinos from CASA de Maryland who will share their stories about why police accountability and transparency are important to them and their communities. Brown hopes this will enable a Black and Brown student caucus that can “strategize together about how they can engage their common issues, common struggles in our communities.”

This year’s Orita’s Cross Freedom School is available for middle and high school students age 11 and up and will take place at Pleasant Hope Baptist Church at 430 E. Belvedere Ave. in Baltimore, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. between April 6 and April 10. Suggested donation is $25 per child, though no one will be turned away for lack of ability to pay. More information is available at