Ekundayo Igeleke: Activism through education

Erica Thompson

Ohio school policies for addressing "violent, disruptive or inappropriate behavior" do not sit well with a large segment of the community. Activists argue that under these "zero tolerance policies" children are actually being suspended and expelled for offenses, such as truancy, that are nonviolent, often out of their control and possible to resolve with extra care from school officials. They also attest that children of color are being affected at a greater rate than their counterparts.

"It's disrupting the learning process and a lot of them [are] being funneled into what we call the school-to-prison pipeline," said Ekundayo Igeleke, the new executive director of the University Area Enrichment Association (UAEA), based out of the Summit on 16th United Methodist Church.

Legislation to abolish zero tolerance and to decriminalize truancy is currently being reviewed. In the meantime, Igeleke provides supplemental education to students in underprivileged areas such as Weinland Park and the Linden neighborhood. As part of his duties at UAEA, he oversees the Freedom School, a free K-12 summer program.

"We focus on restorative justice," said Igeleke, who will bring in intervention specialists this year. "We never kick a kid out of the program, no matter how bad they are."

Freedom Schools were established as part of the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project of 1964, a political program designed to help black people gain access to basic citizenship rights. Now managed by the Children's Defense Fund, Freedom Schools are located nationwide and have a strong focus on literacy and social action.

Nutrition also plays a major role. Each day the children are served a breakfast and lunch comprised of fresh ingredients. "This year we're doing full vegetarian," Igeleke said.

Students spend most of the morning reading books about African-American culture and "the history of struggle" among many different ethnicities. Sometimes they act out story events in skits, which aid in reading comprehension.

"We touch on serious material, but we do it in a fun way," said Igeleke. "They deserve to know parts of the truth … enough where they can explore on their own."

Igeleke, who comes from a Nigerian family, was a child when he began to seek out information on black history. He went on to complete a degree in Africana studies and sociology from the University of Cincinnati.

Believing in the importance of letting kids "be kids," Igeleke maintains some fun afternoon activities at the Freedom School: swimming on "Water Wednesdays" and going on field trips on Fridays. But he is also working on new, informative programs, including one that will teach middle and high school students about entrepreneurship.

Through the Freedom School, Igeleke hopes to develop young leaders who will make a difference in the community, which, he said, is plagued with problems ranging from violence to "politicians that do not … represent the people, but that represent the Columbus Partnership (a high-powered collection of CEOs from the city's leading businesses and institutions focused on economic development)."

Last year, as part of the Freedom School's "National Day of Social Action," students protested the state's zero tolerance policies by marching to the Ohio Department of Education. Igeleke believes the personal stories they shared with the department will be a key factor in getting the legislation passed.

According to Igeleke, shifting school culture can help change society overall. "The school historically has always been the epicenter of the community," he said.