Mary Nell McPherson’s CDF Freedom Schools Story
Mary Nell McPherson—former executive director of one of the country’s largest CDF Freedom Schools® programs, Charlotte Freedom School Partners in North Carolina—was happily surprised to see a young woman named Monica at her retirement party. Monica was a former participant in the program, and she had recently begun college at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. McPherson had written her letter of recommendation.
“I first knew Monica when she was a shy middle schooler,” said McPherson. “We convinced her to go on camera.”
In a video from 2015, a much younger and visibly shyer Monica recalls the experience she had in CDF Freedom Schools.
“They make me feel like I will be somebody one day,” said Monica. “I know they believe in me and I just want to make everyone who’s helped me proud.”
Since appearing in that video, Monica served in various leadership roles in CDF Freedom Schools, received acceptance into college, and earned a competitive public service internship that allowed her to return and work at CDF Freedom Schools. During that internship, she helped CDF Freedom Schools reach out to Spanish speakers in their community.
“We talked about wanting to hire her next summer,” said McPherson.
Prior to her retirement, McPherson spent years building up Charlotte Freedom School Partners into what it is today. Freedom School Partners launched its first CDF Freedom Schools site in 2004, serving 100 students. When searching for the first site, McPherson and her colleagues prioritized finding faith communities committed to hosting a program, because they felt those partners were likely to devote time to truly helping scholars.
McPherson still remembers the story of one local school principal witnessing “Harambee!” (a very powerful and quintessential CDF Freedom Schools morning ritual) for the first time with tears in their eyes because the principal knew their children needed the program. McPherson knew then that it would happen and would be successful.
Over time, Freedom School Partners opened six more CDF Freedom Schools in the Charlotte area. McPherson’s role developed in that time from managing logistics to the steward of the movement, serving as many children as possible. While McPherson did not originally envision the program growing into all it has become, she kept expanding the program because the community said they needed it.
“If it’s good for children, it’s the right thing to do,” said McPherson. “So we said yes, and said yes, and said yes again.”
According to McPherson, schools in Charlotte have re-segregated pretty severely in the past 15 years. The Charlotte Freedom School Partners program has largely served Black and Latinx students in the area and has helped hundreds improve their reading skills and find role models in the community.
At Martin Luther King Middle School, for instance, McPherson credits CDF Freedom Schools with helping to change the culture at the school and helping the students become leaders. She believes they have given students opportunities to take on leadership and feel at home.
“The difference we’ve made in those places, where children just feel safe and cared for and encouraged, is really important work,” said McPherson. “Life throws those kids so many challenges, but we’ve watched them build up over time and really create some strength in the community.”
In Charlotte, CDF Freedom Schools has helped bring the community together in order to help children. McPherson recalls volunteering at a citywide event when a boy who attended CDF Freedom Schools approached her.
“All of this is because of you, Ms. Mary Nell?” the boy asked. McPherson thought for a minute.
“Well, I had something to do with it, but I had a lot of helpers,” she said. “What do you think? If I go away, will Freedom Schools go away?”
The boy said it would not.
“Promise me that you’ll be one of the people who helps make this happen [in the future]?”
The boy replied that he would.
“It was in that moment, I knew I could retire,” recalls McPherson. Even if she was not involved, she knew that the faith-based community, the schools, and the community would always rise up to serve children in Charlotte. Her legacy and her work would live on.