Blog Series: Freedom University Georgia
by Laura Emiko Soltis, PhD, Executive Director of Freedom University
“These are revolutionary times. All over the globe, men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wounds of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born…We must move past indecision to action… Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Beyond Vietnam,” April 4, 1967
Every Sunday afternoon, in a classroom not far from where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was laid to rest, some of the brightest and most promising high school graduates in Georgia gather to study. But these are no ordinary students attending an ordinary university. They are undocumented young people, known as “Dreamers.” Undocumented students are aspiring citizens who were brought to the United States as small children without legal documentation. Most undocumented students attend public schools and few have any memory of their country of birth – the United States is the only home they know. In addition, many undocumented young people and their parents pay taxes, but cannot vote. In Georgia, due to discriminatory admissions bans in public higher education, many undocumented students must attend an underground school in order to continue their education.
In 2011, on the 50th anniversary of the desegregation of the University of Georgia (UGA), the Georgia Board of Regents implemented Policy 4.1.6, which bans undocumented students from admission to the top five public universities in the state, and Policy 4.3.4, which prohibits undocumented students from qualifying for in-state tuition. It is not a historical coincidence that the same universities that ban undocumented students today – who are predominantly people of color of Latin American, Southeast Asian, and Afro-Caribbean descent – also banned Black students more than fifty years ago. By instituting an admissions ban against undocumented students, Georgia joins a small group of states – including Alabama and South Carolina – that is effectively ushering in a new era of segregation in higher education in the Deep South.
Within months of the ban, a small but brave group of undocumented students and UGA professors worked together to establish their own freedom school. They chose the name “Freedom University Georgia” to honor the legacy of the Southern freedom school tradition of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. They also realized the name had an acronym that never lost its humor: F.U. Georgia. Now in its fourth year, Freedom U continues to provide free, college-level classes in history, debate, and the arts, college application assistance, and movement skillbuilding for undocumented student leaders in Georgia. Freedom University is highly effective: nearly one out of every five students who enters Freedom U banned from higher education in Georgia leaves with a full-ride scholarship to a college out of state. But perhaps most importantly, Freedom U provides a safe space for undocumented students to receive a liberatory education. For many students, attending Freedom U is transformative, as it often the first time that they are able to freely “come out” about their immigration status. Some students even come out twice, and find a welcoming place to identify as “undocuqueers.”
It is also at Freedom U where students begin to understand how the lives of the 11.2 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States today fit into this country’s intersecting histories of racial exclusion, labor exploitation, and discrimination from full citizenship. Alongside this same history, they study the undercurrent of vibrant social movements that have countered oppression with creative strategies for institutional change. Among many local and global movements, they learn about the Black Freedom Movement, which gave birth to some of world’s greatest freedom fighters. They also learn about the thousands of young student leaders – particularly the members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) – who engaged in direct actions to fight against injustice and struggled together towards their dream of a better world. It is in this space of liberatory education that undocumented youth in Georgia are gaining the skills to defend their human rights and cultivating their own freedom dreams.
Recognizing today’s undocumented student movement as a human rights struggle is imperative. Too often, many of us fall into the comfortable position of talking about human rights solely in a historical context or as violations happening across the globe. It is far more difficult to engage with and be accountable to people in our home communities who suffer violations of their human rights on a daily basis. The human rights framework is a powerful tool for undocumented youth because it asserts that human rights are universal and belong to all people, everywhere, by virtue of their humanity. Human rights are inherent to every human being, regardless of where they are born or where they migrate on the earth.
Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to education.” Under U.S. federal law (Plyler v. Doe, 1982), all students – regardless of their citizenship or residency status – are entitled to a K-12 education. While international human rights agreements emphasize that higher education should be equally accessible on the basis of academic merit, the U.S. does not yet protect the right to higher education. Thus, while Georgia’s invidious discrimination against undocumented youth is considered legal in the U.S. at this historical moment, it violates students’ fundamental human rights.
Despite the discrimination they face, undocumented students are fighting back. They are following the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., moving past “indecision to action,” and dedicating themselves to the “long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world.” Undocumented students are leading the way, reaching out to their documented peers and building a powerful student coalition – just as SNCC members mobilized white students to participate in the freedom schools and voter registration drives of the Mississippi Freedom Summer campaign in 1964. Documented students at UGA have founded the Undocumented Student Alliance and students at Emory have organized the Freedom at Emory initiative to encourage Emory University to defy modern segregation and implement fair admissions policies for undocumented students.
Together, they are drafting new freedom dreams and becoming architects of their own destiny. They are engaging in creative tactics of non-violent civil disobedience and sending us a clear message: if you won’t let us dream, we won’t let you sleep.
(Essay and photographs by Laura Emiko Soltis)
Laura Emiko Soltis, PhD, serves as the executive director of Freedom University, where she teaches human rights and documentary photography, builds bridges between student organizations, and fosters intergenerational relationships between undocumented students and SNCC veterans. Emiko graduated summa cum laude from the University of Georgia as a Foundation Fellow in 2006 and received her doctoral degree from Emory University in 2012.
For more information about Freedom University, please visit: www.freedomuniversitygeorgia.com