Freedom School Comes Full Circle

July 21, 2020 | New York

Years ago, Torrey Maldonado was finishing his first year in Vassar College, sat in front of a computer, and tried to figure out how he could possibly afford another year of school. A $1000 family contribution stood between him and continuing his education, a sum he knew his family couldn’t afford. His mother was supporting him and his other siblings on welfare. It was then that an older student told him of a summer teaching opportunity: CDF’s Freedom Schools, an opportunity that would change his life forever. 

Today, Torrey Maldonado is a critically acclaimed author who has taught for over twenty years in a middle school in his Brooklyn childhood hometown. Both New York City’s current and former Chancellors have spotlighted him as a top culturally responsive teacher and writer. This summer, the serendipity that first brought Maldonado and CDF together is at work again. His second book Tight has been chosen as a Best Book by both NPR and the Washington Post and also as part of the Freedom Schools curriculum. When he learned that CDF’s Freedom Schools were using Tight, he exclaimed, “This is amazingly full circle!” Maldonado sat with CDF-NY for an interview, to share how his life was changed by Freedom Schools, how Freedom Schools change children’s lives, and what is next for him. 

Maldonado says, “My mother would tell me when I was a boy, ‘It takes a village to raise a child’.” His village was the Red Hook housing projects of Brooklyn during the height of the Crack epidemic. There, he discovered the power of community to shape a young person’s life. At the start of his Freedom School experience, his cohort was given t-shirts. He says, “An African proverb was on the back of our shirts, what my mom told me since I was a boy— ‘It takes a village to raise a child’.” Having been raised by his own village, he recognized Freedom Schools was a chance for him help other Black and Latinx kids how he was helped. He says, “In their faces, I saw me. And I knew they saw themselves in mine. Hearing their voices, I heard my own. That summer set me on a journey to teach and write to tell their and my stories”.

Maldonado has always loved great storytelling and it was comics, Rap, Sci-Fi, and fantasy that hooked him to it. At first, he wanted to write stories like that. “I imagined writing about superheroes and fantasy,” he said, “but every time I wrote, it was about the village, youth, people who looked like me, and about service”.

In the same way Freedom School children saw themselves in him, they will see themselves in characters in What Lane, Tight, and Secret Saturdays. With Tight  in the summer curriculum, children will engage with culturally relevant and empowering writing to remind themselves of their greatness. Working with a shared civil rights lens, Maldonado and the Freedom School curriculum both acknowledge and affirm the experiences of children growing up in “tight” circumstances, facing struggles of poverty, family incarceration, racism, and other experiences that can color a childhood. The purpose of Maldonado’s books and the Freedom Schools is the same: strengthen youth to defy odds. Maldonado was moved and excited to learn that Freedom Schools will remotely teach this summer not only in community centers and churches, but also in New York City detention centers. He wants detained young people to know “your light is not dimmed by the complexity of your situation or your current incarceration”. That message is featured prominently in his books. 

When asked about exciting things that are next for him, Maldonado says he is amazed at where his new book, What Lane?, is taking him. Oprah magazine listed it as an “Essential Book for Discussing Racism with Kids” and The NY Times listed it in its “14 Antiracist Books for Kids and Teens Recommended by BIPOC Teachers and Librarians.” Maldonado says, “Our children are told, ‘Stay in your lane’ and racism definitely drives different children into different lanes and to different places. It feels as if each day a new school from across our country tells me they’ll use What Lane? this fall as a one school-one book read. It makes me smile because it means I’ll get to help schools take the foot off the brake society presses on the hearts of children and help children share stories to drive all of us to a higher ground of empathy, alliance, and justice”.

Whether court-involved or isolated at home due to COVID, Maldonado understands the extreme circumstances that youth face today. He hopes that Freedom Schools can still be a “village” for young people. “The COVID quarantine has locked us down and separated us. When we get physically locked down, we can mentally lock down. But Freedom Schools provide portals of creativity and connection – portals we can walk through to succeed and lead”.