Jalaya Liles Dunn is a CDF baby. She grew up in Freedom Schools, stepped on every rung of CDF’s youth leadership ladder, and now is its Youth Leadership Director.
The turning points in Jalaya’s life came through CDF – the first during the summer before she entered 7th grade when she became a student in the new Freedom School program being piloted in Bennettsville, South Carolina, her home town. Jalaya’s mother was a teacher and while still in elementary school, little Jalaya set up a “school,” complete with blackboard, on her grandmother’s back porch for five children she recruited with flyers.
The college students who ran the Freedom School impressed her. “I liked the way they organized the curriculum and the way it was project based. We were reading and journaling. We did math projects with magnets and measuring lemonade. I thought, ‘This is smart. I could do this.’”
That fall, she continued as a student in the pilot after school program focused on reading. In the 9th and 10th grades, Bob Moses’ Algebra Project came to Bennettsville, and she became a student teacher. “That’s when I wrote my first curriculum. I got the instruction manual [for the graphing calculator], broke it down, and made a cover.”
A second CDF-inspired turning point came when Jalaya, a student at Spelman College, went to CDF’s national training for Freedom School teachers – the college students it calls servant leader interns - after her sophomore year. This was the point at which she was searching for her future identity. She liked education but wasn’t sure she wanted to be a classroom teacher. She wanted some sort of social political learning but wasn’t clear what that could be.
The training was an eye-opener. “Students from all over the country were there, and I realized this was bigger than Bennettsville. I realized CDF wasn’t just training people to run a summer program or teach reading. It was a contribution to a large social movement. It was about our lives, the way we are as citizens, the concerns we make our own. I come from a family of educators but that level of big picture vision I couldn’t have gotten anywhere but CDF.”
She served as a servant leader intern in a Freedom School in Bennettsville for a year, then became an Ella Baker trainer for four years – one of the college students who train the servant leader interns. Jalaya came to work for CDF in its Bennettsville office in 2003. Among other things, she ran the Ella Baker trainers’ training. Each new role seemed like a stretch but she grew into them. She received her Master’s degree in Public Administration from the University of North Carolina in 2008, and a year later moved to the national office in Washington, D.C.
As CDF’s Youth Leadership Director, Jalaya is developing a network of young people, some whom have been engaged in Freedom Schools and other CDF work, some not, for grassroots organizing around policies they and CDF care about – a list now topped by changing harsh zero tolerance school disciplinary policies that push children out of school into the pipeline to prison.
“I wouldn’t be the person I am if not for CDF,” she said. “Everything I do is about service and leadership and social justice. It’s just my way of life now.”