When a visitor arrives at Sankofa Freedom Academy, a Philadelphia charter school, the first feeling is one of love. A second feeling is calm – Sankofa students and teachers are full of intention and purpose. The third is respect and joy.
These school walls may hold moments of stress or success, but either way, no one is going to be left unsupported or un-loved, and the community is there to value and lift each soul, and all minds, up.
Ayesha Imani, PhD, is the Quaker educator who serves as Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Sankofa Freedom Academy. She is also one of the founders. The kindergarten to grade 12 school – which opened in 2009 and is currently the only Freedom School in Philadelphia – was inspired by Ayesha’s children’s positive experiences in Quaker schools, the Quaker faith, the need for a culturally African-centric instructional model, and the charter school movement.
This is a story of Quaker energy and spiritual focus.
Those who know Ayesha also know her as a founder of Ujima Friends Peace Center, Ujima Meeting, and one of the organizers behind last summer’s new six-week Ujima Freedom Camp. The camp took students out of the city and gave them life experiences in nature at Historic Fair Hill, Abington Meeting, and other outdoor Quaker sites. Each city child deserves and should have access to such experiences as climbing trees, playing sports, swimming, and journaling while lying on a towel in the summer sunshine.
The Sankofa Story
The Sankofa story began in 2006 when Ayesha’s son, Isa Clark, voiced a vocation to establish a school connected to Quaker educational values and grounded in community.
With prayer, deep community dialogue, and the new charter school movement in mind, Ayesha, Isa, and others convened to discuss the Sankofa concept. They wrote a charter school proposal and despite being told the proposal wouldn’t be accepted, it was, and Sankofa was launched. There were questions and money to be raised, with people lending personal savings in advance of money that would come when children enrolled.
There were queries: Would a Quaker school matched with a Freedom school vision work? How could a curriculum that provides a deeply grounded Afrocentric cultural experience merge with a Quaker educational philosophy? Quaker schools offer student-centered approaches with educational self-empowerment, service learning, social justice work, international service, and positive approaches to sports. This Quaker model is not available to charter school students. Could one be created? Could that also be a Freedom School?
At Sankofa care is taken to build success out of resilience and a practice of love. It’s clear that this charter school is also like family – in addition to being educated, children are known, nurtured, cared about, and brought forward as active learners with healthy self-advocacy skills. It is significant that a number of Sankofa alumni have gone on to earn education degrees and have chosen to come back to teach at the school that grounded and nurtured them.
Here follows an interview with Ayesha, speaking in her own words about the founding of Sankofa and its mission today. She explains how she was called to start the school.
Q: How did Spirit lead you into the founding of a Freedom School?
I didn’t have a clear leading to start a school, I had a leading to apply. Which is different – to make yourself available to go through a process. Because you might not even have a need for a process that ends in a particular thing. You can feel called to apply to start something, and not be sure what the outcome is going to be – the process itself might be one you need to go through to have a particular impact on your own life.
Q: You say that your son, Isa Clark, first brought the idea forward. What was that process like?
My son, Isa, had been talking about wanting to start a school. This was in the early days of charter schools, and I was concerned that charter schools would undermine public schools.
Isa … (envisioned) something like George School, so that he could have impact based not just on schooling but on the rest of socialization.
I began to pray … and decided to call a clearness process with people from our Quaker community, the Black Quaker school community, the freedom school community and some other people we hoped would tell us not to do it. We tried to get people in the room that could talk us out of it.
There were about 30 people we convened.
We sent out a proposal and we asked folks to come together as we tried to decide how to move forward. I thought I had stacked the crowd with people who would say “oh you are crazy don’t do this.”
And everyone was like; “Yes! Go!”
We had no money. We had no funding for a planning grant—which is what most schools do, they plan for a year! This was in July, and the proposal was due in October.
The Spirit was really upon us and leading us, and I said, unless you all come with (us) I can’t see us moving forward. This has to be the Spirit leading us. You all have to say, “Yes, we are going to work toward this.”
People made those commitments, and we went on our way! I didn’t believe we were going to get a charter, but I believed we were supposed to do everything we could do (in order) to do so.
Q: Who was involved in the founding community? How long did the process take?
Most of the people in the Sankofa founding community were very young people, there were teenagers and people in their twenties. It’s important for young people to have that experience of working towards a change – and I felt these young people wanted to do this! (The work) involved canvassing and campaigning, and it was a wonderful project for people to be involved with.
Then, in 2006, as opposed to approving charters, they put them on hold. We had more work to do to move this forward, (and it took another) three years, until 2009.
(In the meantime), we (ran) summer freedom schools and our project was always ‘Birthing Sankofa.’
Finally, in 2009, the School Reform Committee, SRC, decided they were going to take all the charter school proposals that were in limbo, out of limbo, and make a decision.
We got together the day before the SRC was meeting. Someone had gotten a copy of a resolution that denied our charter, so the next day I didn’t go to the SRC meeting.
Then I got a call; “Where are you? They just passed the charter!”
We knew we had to get ready to open a school. We had nothing—none of us are people with money—but we had a lot of enthusiasm and talent, because we had done everything ourselves. We wrote our own proposals—when people normally hire people to write proposals and hire people to do the accounting. It was amazing (to see what we could accomplish).
A number of folks that work here today were children in the freedom school movement. Freedom School in the summer of 2021 was run by someone who was in Freedom School in about 2017! She graduated Sankofa in 2015 and now she is teaching here.
We believe in intergenerational leadership, and we do believe in placing young people in positions where they have to push and grow and stretch. We try to be the kind of elders in these spaces that young people feel are (present) to support and not to simply dominate.
Q: How does the fundraising for founding a charter school work?
Charter schools give you money after you’re open, but there’s not the money ‘to open,’ and I think it leads to some corruption because when people are either using their own money or borrowing money they start thinking it’s ‘their school’ as opposed to realizing that this is a public school. It’s publicly funded: I know “you” had to sacrifice greatly (to start it), but it’s not “yours…”
People had money saved for retirement and said – “I am putting this on the table for Sankofa.” (In many cases) it was all the money they had. People said “you know what? I just bought a house, and I’ve got a little bit of extra left over, so here, please take my ‘extra’ for Sankofa.” It was that kind of offering.
We knew had to pay people back as soon as we got the money from the school district. Once we got our first payment we (did return funds to) everyone who had advanced us money, so it would be clear, this school does not ‘belong to’ any of us, we work for this school; it is not ‘ours.’
To be continued – part 2 of the Sankofa story will run next week.