Under the Tree: A seminar on freedom with Bill Ayers

Under the Tree is a podcast that focuses on freedom—a complex, layered, dynamic, and often contradictory idea—and takes you on a journey every other week to fundamentally reimagine how we can bring freedom and liberation to life in relation to schools and schooling, equality and justice, and learning to live together in peace.

Our podcast opens a crawl-space, a fugitive field and firmament where we can both explore our wildest freedom dreams, and organize for a liberating insurgency. “Under the Tree” is a seminar, and it runs the gamut from current events to the arts, from history lessons to scientific inquiries, and from essential readings to frequent guest speakers.

We’re in the midst of the largest social uprising in US history—and what better time to dive headfirst into the wreckage, figuring out as we go how to support the rebellion, name it, and work together to realize its most radical possibilities—and to reach its farthest horizons?

A word on “Freedom Schools”

What do we talk about when we talk about freedom? “Under the Tree” references the Freedom Schools created in Mississippi and throughout the South during the Black Freedom Movement of the 1950s and 1960’s—fugitive spaces where folks gathered to organize an insurgency against Jim Crow and white supremacy.

Photo credit: Matt Herron/Take Stock/The Image Works

In 1963 a young volunteer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) wrote a short proposal to create a number of Freedom Schools throughout Mississippi in order to revitalize and refocus the Black Freedom Movement. While Black youth were denied many things—decent school facilities, honest and forward-looking curriculum, fully qualified teachers—the fundamental injury, according to the proposal,  was “a complete absence of academic freedom and students are forced to live in an environment that is geared to squashing intellectual curiosity, and different thinking.” The challenge was “to fill an intellectual and creative vacuum in the lives of young Negro Mississippi, and to get them to articulate their own desires, demands and questions.”

Our freedom seminar meets under a tree—a vibrant space where we feel nourished and fully alive, the ancient tree’s wide branches sheltering and embracing us, and from our vantage point here in this stretch of gold and green, the distant horizon seems both vast and entirely within reach. Our meeting here draws inspiration and wisdom from the Freedom Schools created in Mississippi and throughout the South during the great uprisings of the 1950s and 1960’s. In those settings and in those free spaces—modern expressions of the centuries-old Black Freedom Movement, still rising today—folks gathered to examine the circumstances of their lives, to name their political moment, and to think freely about a world that could be or should be but is not yet. We want to do much the same thing. Freedom School participants generated their own questions, and what evolved over time was a curriculum of questions that worked to unlock the “wisdom in the room,” to build agency and empowerment through authentically engaging the real issues people faced in their lives—including structural barriers and obstacles—leading tocollective interrogation, inquiry, and, then, action.

Our seminar is a classroom without walls, a porous and welcoming place where we meet everyone just as they are—in full. Bring along your experiences, your family and your neighborhood, your community, culture, and language, and bring along your networks of friends and associates—what the hell, bring your complete company of ancestors. The whole ensemble isn’t always visible to the naked eye, to be sure, but make no mistake, if we pay close enough attention we’ll sense that the entire cast is indeed present, crowded together in our collective classroom— sharing a chair or simply hovering in the air. Welcome one and all! This seminar—like classes everywhere—contains multitudes.

One more thing—a seminar depends on the generosity of participation, and so I invite you to audit the class, this seminar, but, please, not as a passive observer. You can be a full member in any way you choose—simply by tuning in—or better, by diving in.

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