Clay Grubb’s CDF Freedom Schools® Story
Today, Charlotte Freedom School Partners facilitates 17 CDF Freedom Schools® sites throughout Charlotte, North Carolina, serving more children every summer than any other single CDF Freedom Schools sponsor. None of this would be possible without Clay Grubb.
Sixteen years ago, Clay and his team sought to grow the summer program hosted by their organization, then known as Seigle Avenue Partners, by partnering with the Children’s Defense Fund and bringing the CDF Freedom Schools program to their community. The six-week, literacy-rich opportunity for Charlotte’s children has been transformative. “You’re changing the outlook for these kids, but you’re also impacting their families,” he says. As much as the CDF Freedom Schools model impacts scholars’ reading abilities, it is the character-building that Clay feels is the most important outcome of a summer at Freedom School. “If we’re worried about the safety of our homes and country, to me the best investment we can make is in our young folks and helping inspire and build character with them.”
He is also continually impressed by the college students who serve with Charlotte Freedom School Partners as Servant Leader Interns every summer. They grow throughout the summers as well, starting with the truly one-of-a-kind experience they get at CDF Alex Haley Farm at our annual national training, the Ella Baker Child Policy Training Institute. “If you go to Haley Farm, you see these kids and the way their eyes open to ‘hey, this is a movement.’ There’s just no way that you can spend a summer at Freedom Schools as a college student and your life isn’t changed.”
Clay attributes the success of Charlotte Freedom School Partners and their ability to expand the program year-after-year to the relationships they have built and maintained. “At the end of the day,” he says, “It’s all about collaborating and building trust. And if it’s a collaboration, you’re really bringing everybody together.”
Among the important collaborations are the community leaders that Clay and Charlotte Freedom School Partners have been able to bring to their sites for Harambee, the morning ritual that all CDF Freedom Schools scholars take part in that includes motivational songs and chants, a time to appreciate others, and a guest-led read-aloud. Clay saw the opportunity to bring in positive role models as read-aloud guests, which he says is clearly impactful for the scholars. The guests enjoy themselves, too, and are often eager to support the program after their visit. He says, “You cannot leave Harambee without going, ‘Wow, this is really powerful. This is wonderful. How can I help?’”
In fact, Clay says there’s a saying in Charlotte: being a read-aloud guest at Freedom Schools is “better than a cup of joe.”
While the Freedom Schools in Charlotte and elsewhere in North Carolina will always hold a special place in Clay’s heart, he has also contributed to the growth and enrichment of the CDF Freedom Schools model far beyond his home state. Following the initial success of the sites in Charlotte, Clay was asked to chair the first national CDF Freedom Schools advisory board. The leadership of this board led to the creation of new CDF Freedom Schools across the country and allowed for the sharing of ideas and lessons that really elevated the quality of the whole program.
While he no longer holds an official role, Clay will always be at the heart of the CDF Freedom Schools movement, and he makes sure to visit at least a dozen every summer. He is passionate about helping communities understand that there are already strong partnerships and funding opportunities that they should be taking advantage of, which could facilitate strong programs like Charlotte’s. “I don’t know why every city doesn’t look and feel like Charlotte and have a couple thousand kids in Freedom Schools every summer.”
Clay also shared one key piece of advice, for those waiting for the right leader to transform their communities: “Everybody wants a champion, and a champion can go away. You need to have a real team collaboration, and it needs to be half a dozen champions.”