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Freedom Fellows Kiara Nickens, left, and Nemo Kodio sit in on a seminar at the Degrees of Freedom campus in Marlboro.

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A peer-created college comes into focus

The Freedom Fellowship asks students to use their voices to help develop the Degrees of Freedom program on the former Marlboro campus

MARLBORO—Gusts of cold wind slice through the warmth of the late winter sun shining down on Potash Hill. Deep piles of snow line the foot paths. A map of the campus with the logo of its previous owner, Marlboro College, in the bottom left corner points the way to the Dining Hall, where a bright yellow Degrees of Freedom banner hangs above the door.

Inside, the early morning sunlight filters through flags of various countries and a Black Lives Matter banner suspended from the ceiling, a combination that gives the effect of stained glass. The scent of bacon fills the room as the Freedom-Builder Fellows and staff load their breakfast plates.

The campus on Potash Hill is in transition.

In 2020, education nonprofit Democracy Builders purchased the 530-plus-acre campus as the home of Degrees of Freedom, now organized as its own nonprofit entity with a mission to serve traditionally marginalized students with a series of college programs.

Degrees of Freedom will offer two education programs this fall.

Freedom Year is designed to function as an educational gap year for high school graduates. Liberation Launch will be a low-residency, two-year degree program, where students will split their time between on-campus programing, paid apprenticeships, and online classes.

Soon after taking possession of the former Marlboro College campus last summer, Degrees of Freedom unveiled its first academic program on Potash Hill: its year-long hybrid remote/on-campus Freedom-Builder Fellowship.

The program served as a grassroots design-build precursor, bringing 18 students to Marlboro and involving them as members of the school’s program design team in a creative process to shape its other programs, such as Freedom Year, that will launch in the fall.

Fellowship Director and Lead Program Designer Chandell Stone said that stipends paid to the fellows have come through Democracy Builders own fundraising. Future programs will utilize federal funding such as Pell Grants.

The group was a mix of recent high school and college graduates. Each fellow focused on a different area of the education system such as campus policy, admissions, support services and student experience, or curriculum and pedagogy.

According to its promotional materials for the pilot program, the fellows were charged with helping build a “rigorous, inspiring, and anti-oppressive institution for first-generation, BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and people of color], and low-income youth” using a “design process that will allow us to disrupt the status quo.”

Originally, founder Seth Andrew had intended to open the two-year program for the fall 2020 semester. The fellowship, in part, formed out of the need to shift gears in response to the public health measures required by the pandemic response.

Despite needing to readjust because of COVID-19, Degrees of Freedom, the school and programs, are moving forward.

For now, Degrees of Freedom — now, technically, a “non-profit hybrid leadership program,” according to language on its website, is working on its own independent accreditation and state licensing with the Vermont Department of Education.

In the meantime, it partners with private, nonprofit, Florida-based Doral College, and Andrew said the program “will be seeking partnerships with [other] institutions that share our vision.”

Fundamental changes

Stone said that on a recent trip to Walmart in Hinsdale, N.H., she realized that she was the only Black woman. Degrees of Freedom has the capacity to host as many as 1,500 students in any given semester — many of whom will likely be students of color, she added.

“People will be shocked by the number of Black people in Walmart,” she said. “If we’re successful, we could fundamentally change what this community looks like.”

Stone said the fellowship has served as a “creative space” for fellows to come with ideas. It has also highlighted the difficulty in aligning theory, practice, and meeting people’s needs.

Fellows have had to “interrogate their own values,” she said — for example, in an ongoing discussion about what free speech would look like in this college community.

When the conversation started, most of the fellows said that a college should invite anyone to speak to students.

That was until Stone, a self-described “shit-stirrer,” asked them if that hypothetical invitation should be extended to Candace Owens, a conservative author, political commentator, and co-founder of the Blexit Foundation, which promotes right-wing ideas to minority communities, particularly African Americans.

Degrees of Freedom started the fellowship to learn from its target students, Stone said, describing the process as saying, “This is what we’re thinking,” and asking them, “What do you think?”

Most academic programs are designed by an administration that is removed from the students, their experiences, and their needs, she said, but Degrees of Freedom programs are being designed in part by the students whom the college expects to serve.

Especially in regard to policies and practices, Degrees of Freedom is “starting from a blank Word document,” she said.

“Almost all of the fellows experience oppression daily,” she said. For many, experiencing their own agency is new.

“This work is personal,” Stone said, adding that she takes the Degrees of Freedom mission seriously.

Most of the fellows are Gen Z — born in the mid- to late-1990s — and considered the most “super woke” generation, she said. They want to make sure every single person receives all the support, respect, and dignity they need.

Stone adds that the fellows are practicing what they value, and it’s hard work because the future students they want to design the program for — such as students of color, first-generation college students, or low-income students — have experienced harm.

They want initiatives for everyone, she said.

“I love that as a concept,” Stone said — but the discussions have to address real-world constraints such as time and money.

She asks the fellows: How does an organization — even one designed around the goals of anti-oppression and liberation — not perpetuate disparities? And, especially, do so when there are no current education models that are free of oppressive components such as systemic racism?

Creating from a blank page

On this day, fellows were winding down their time on campus for their final two-week rotation, Stone said. During this time, they have focused on topics such as student recruitment, program design, and committee work.

Mornings have usually been devoted to more introspective work. The afternoons have been spent on program design and discovering how to translate their beliefs and values into operations within the growing institution, she said.

The process helps fellows walk through some of the tough decisions that other institutions have made around priorities and values, Stone continued.

They also lead peer electives, she explains — sessions that focus on whatever a fellow wants to share, like dance, rock climbing, and natural hair care.

Stone said these peer-led electives are often more interesting and go deeper than she first expected they would. The topics fellows take on are rarely the “top of mind” for the older members of the administration, she added.

Stone scrolled through the college’s Instagram feed to show off a short video the fellows made. The segment received more than 3,000 views, she said. The college has fewer than 100 followers.

She shrugged as she noted that the fellow’s post got more attention than the ones prepared by the school’s professional marketing team.

Stone, 30, smiled as she recalled how the fellows asked what advice she had for “the younger generation.”

“I thought I was the younger generation,” she said.

Blending compassion with mindfulness

Fellow Andrea Bonilla began this morning’s elective focusing on compassion practices and mindfulness. She told the other fellows how her interest in compassion and mindfulness grew while interning with a nonprofit that served incarcerated women.

Bonilla provided the fellows with an overview of studies conducted around mindfulness, emotional intelligence, and how the human brain processes experiences. She then walked the audience through a series of exercises and a meditation. The fellows then discussed their experience and takeaways.

Bonilla said she attended college as part of the DACA program (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). She said first-generation college students need more support from their schools.

She feels the fellowship provides “high-growth learning” and leadership skills.

Ephemeral Roshdy is focusing their attention on “the dissonance of the over-representation of South West Asian/North African Peoples in higher education with the active erasure and demonization of SWANA cultures in most ‘Western’ curriculums.”

They said experiences working in the mental health department of a university were part of why they applied to the fellowship.

Roshdy said that the department did not always meet the needs of historically-marginalized students. They wanted to re-imagine a more-holistic administration of health services that provided “more robust supports.”

A recent high-school graduate, Marina Ramirez-Loya is one of the younger fellows. She believes that she is better prepared to attend college because of the fellowship.

Andrew “Drew” Cummings attended Democracy Prep, a charter school also associated with the Democracy Builders Fund. He is using the fellowship as part of his gap year.

Cummings said he believes that the staff operates from a place of “we know you have something to say and bring to the table.”

The fellowship matched some of his interests in education and social justice, a process that he describes as “eye-opening and insightful.”

Cummings pointed to a personality typing exercise that has stayed with him. Using a medicine wheel as a paradigm, Cummings said he was typed as a “buffalo.”

Cummings laughed and agreed that buffalo was a good representation of him. In this model, someone with this personality type generally makes a good leader, but isn’t so great with organizing skills.

In general, Cummings said, he tends to spend time with other buffalos. But over the course of the fellowship, he has learned that effective collaboration requires that he step outside his comfort zone and work with others.

He said he used to call himself an activist because he attended protests. The fellowship has changed his perception, he said. Ultimately, work like helping craft a college program is the real change, he said.

“It is inclusive,” he said. “You are part of a whole and your voice is power.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #603 (Wednesday, March 10, 2021). This story appeared on page A1.

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