MLK Freedom School – Empowerment through urban agriculture and food justice

Within the vicinity of the MLK Park, Alita Kelly began what she considers “Freedom School One”, leading nine neighborhood children between the ages of 9 and 12 years old in history lessons on food history and racial justice. This was before the MLK Freedom School officially became a part of the MLK family. As the director of the Freedom School and the founder of the local South East Market, Kelly considers this second year of the program more interactive, particularly with the partnerships that have developed between the students and the organizations assisting with their enrichment.

While growing her own “COVID” garden, as Kelly refers to it, she was able to connect with the curious children in her neighborhood, helping them to gain an interest in gardening and engaging them in conversations about the social unrest in the community. By connecting with other organizations, including the Greater Grand Rapids NAACP  and the Urban Core Collective of Grand Rapids, Kelly’s concept provided the room for additional learning and growth in a more organized environment.

Kelly applied for grant funding through the city of GR Neighborhood Grant Match Fund to support the first year of Freedom School, which met every other week last year to grow food and discuss various topics in relation to justice and equality. In this second year of the program sponsored by the Grand Rapids Parks and Recreation Department and free for participants, Freedom School serves as a 10-week enrichment program for children that now takes place at the MLK day camp Monday through Friday from 11 a.m.-3 p.m.

Kelly says that working in tandem with the local Dreams Take Work organization decreased the amount of organizing that she previously had to do and made room for the participants to come together with access to more resources. These resources include swimming at the pool at the MLK Park and learning about photography and videography through a collaboration with MUSE GR art gallery studio.

Participants also have weekly access to the Park’s gardens, which were built and added to the Park a little over a month ago. Yoga and mindfulness activities near the garden are other available options, which Kelly refers to as a huge part of the Freedom School curriculum. The yoga and mindfulness activities are led by Kayla Morgan with Resilient Roots Yoga.

Kelsey Hakeem, whose own children attended Freedom School last year, is now the lead teacher for the program. Having previously worked with Our Kitchen Table and Urban Roots, Hakeem operates Farm Kitchen, which sells food at the Fulton Street farmers market – food that she helps grow.

Kelly continues to advocate for these components of the program to reach more schools. “There’s definitely a lack of opportunity within the public school system, especially [on] the southeast side, to engage children around nature and growing and talking about liberation and justice work,” she says. “I think that is essential, especially for school districts that are primarily composed of Black and brown folks.”

Kelly hopes that the growth of opportunities continues to further engage the students and keep them in touch with nature and their own history, including reduced emphasis on slavery and an increased focus on the many accomplishments of the Black community. “That’s what we’re trying to do at Freedom School and we hope we can share that with other schools as we grow our capacity.”

The addition of the gardens has been welcomed by the community as well. Jenn Victor, chair of events and programming for the MLK Neighborhood Association, also an outdoor enthusiast, is excited about working with the Association’s board in the upkeep of the gardens.

“The addition of the garden in the neighborhood is connecting community kids back to the essential foundations of the earth,” says Victor. “The hope is that this [education] will increase both their understanding and passion for caring for the earth as well as the positive benefits for their emotional health and intelligence, grounding them in other mindful pursuits as they grow.”

Photos courtesy of Isabel Media Studios

Southeast Strong is a series funded by the City of Grand Rapids that is focused on the multi-faceted neighborhoods of the city's southeast corridor. Through the exploration of the neighborhoods' entrepreneurs, nonprofits, and community members, the series' local storytellers will highlight the resiliency of resident voices and projects, especially during COVID-19 recovery.

Shanika P. Carter is an author, freelance writer, editor, and adjunct communications instructor. She is also the Principal Consultant of The Write Flow & Vibe, LLC (, offering writing, editing, and content development services to a variety of clientele, including fellow authors and businesses. Shanika is the author of the book To Lead or Not to Lead, which was released in 2019.
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