Too (s)kool for school

A class at the Free Skool
A class at the Free Skool // Sara Miller

212 College Street is no Linsly-Chittenden Hall. It lacks the classroom building’s mammoth, marble stairwell, its luminous chandelier, its austere, oval Harkness tables. It lacks heat.

Here — at the People’s Art Collective — you’re a far cry from your English section in LC 209. You’re not in for a discussion on Dante but you can still learn about literature in a class called “Art & the Poetic Function.” Maybe you’re a science person and would rather take part in “Do It Yourself Herbal Medicine” or “Fermentation,” like chemistry sans the test tubes and titration. These are just three of the 13 classes offered at the New Haven Free Skool, the first project of the fledging People’s Art Collective, which opened its doors last fall at the corner of College and Crown streets, just a block and a half from Phelps Gate.

At the Free Skool, you won’t be graded on your work. You don’t have to apply and your classes don’t have prerequisites. You can take one class or all 13. And you won’t pay a dime.

Each hour of class at Yale costs roughly $100. My math is admittedly inexact: I arrive at that figure based on $42,300 in tuition and approximately 13 hours of class per week and 27 weeks of classes per year. But the exact calculation is not important. This week, I went to school for free — or skool, I should say.

“The misspelling is intentional and absolutely central,” I learn from one of the school’s organizers, Diana Ofosu ’12, who founded PAC along with Kenneth Reveiz ’12 and Gabriel DeLeon ’14 last September. “The ‘k’ signifies alternative pedagogy. It makes it clear that we’re interested in a different way of learning.”

I start to see what sort of learning that is when I arrive at my first Free Skool class Monday evening — Herbal Medicine.

“LIFE ELIXIRS”

I push open the glass front door to find five people seated in a circle of folding-chairs and a piano bench. As I scan the group for a teacher — it’s a collection of 20- to 40-year-olds, three women and two men, of racially diverse backgrounds — a slight woman in jeans and a neon vest speaks up. I learn that she is the instructor, a Woodbridge, Conn. native named Diane Litwin who gained experience in holistic medicine from working on an experimental farm for two years after college. As Litwin assembles a collection of herb-infused oils, one of the students, Jackie Trickett-Sargent, tells me she’s here because of her broader interest in fermentation, something she’s been experimenting with on her own. Trickett-Sargent, a resident of East Haven, works with Yale’s Information Technology Services.

As we pass around tinctures — herb-infused oils — to smell, Diane speaks of the different plants that give the concoctions their fragrance: plantain, lavender, calendula and St. John’s wort. She then turns the class loose to research the medicinal properties of each herb. The students rise from their chairs and move to the back of the room, which is outfitted with rows of unfinished wood tables folding up to white walls plastered with posters.

“FOOD NOT BOMBS” a sign reads in all caps on one wall. That’s also the name of one of the Free Skool’s most popular classes, Ofosu tells me. It meets on Saturday, when students gather at PAC to cook food acquired through the week in a series of “dumpster dives.” Ofosu calls it a “food rescue and redistribution mission.” Broccoli and pie crusts are typical finds, she says, gems amid the trash outside the Trader Joe’s in Orange, Conn.
They cook the meal all together back at PAC, using donated hot plates and crock-pots.

One of those crock-pots sits on a back table in the room as the students in Herbal Medicine flip through medicinal plant textbooks for information on the herbs, instructed by Litwin to write down each herb’s medicinal qualities on the dry-erase board hanging on the back wall. Lavender, we learn, cures headaches and insomnia and can be used to treat open sores. St. John’s wort restores nerve tissue and treats acne. As the students write up each herb’s medicinal benefits, one asks if he should avoid mixing marker colors.

“Use your creative freedom,” Litwin jokes in reply.

Turning from the board to a table strewn with cooking supplies, Litwin explains that all it takes to make a salve is a quarter cup of beeswax to one cup of herb-infused oil. Describing them as “life elixirs,” Litwin says she uses the salves on her face and hands when she feels like she’s getting sick. Later, she calls the oils her “friends.”
“I feel like an alchemist,” one student remarks as he grates a block of beeswax into the crock-pot filled with a cup of oil.

Set over a light, the beeswax soon melts into the concoction, and we ladle it out into small glass jars that the students take home with them.

CREATIVE CONNECTIONS

At Sketch Comedy on Wednesday evening, I meet Eliza Caldwell and her five students, though, as with the Herbal Medicine, they tell me attendance in the class was once higher. According to Reveiz, 150 students are registered for the current session of the school, now in its second term. 19 teachers guide a total of 13 classes this session. Some are co-taught, such as Queer Art, Thought and Action, a course on LGBTQ issues that Reveiz leads along with a Yale Ph.D. student.

“Anyone who emails us or who we think could provide something galvanizing for the community we let teach,” Reveiz tells me.

Caldwell’s experience with sketch comedy comes from her participation in a college improv group at the University of Connecticut, where she went to school before coming to live in New Haven.

She guides the group through a series of warm ups and exercises, as students improvise scenes of bashful children, blind dates and suicide hotline centers. At the end of the session, Caldwell lingers behind with a number of students, including Alex Lew ’15. They discuss forming a New Haven improv group and consider possible venues.

Lew, who is a member of the Yale Ex!t Players improv comedy group, says he’s taking the class to learn technique — but also to make new friends.

“It’s always great to get the perspective of other improvisationalists, to experiment with someone who learned their technique somewhere else,” he explains. “There’s something about doing improv all the time with a bunch of 18- to 22-year-olds who share the same cultural references based on similar backgrounds as largely upper-middle-class Yale students. Taking this class is a really cool way to make friends with people who come from a different sort of community. Improv relies so much on trust, support and friendship.”

A NEW WAY OF SCHOOLING

The dearth of community centers in New Haven has not gone unnoticed among city leaders. Ward 1 Alderman Sarah Eidelson ’12 is currently working on plans to revamp the Goffe Street Armory into a youth and neighborhood center. Eidelson and Citywide Youth Coalition Director Rachel Heerema have said that the closing of the Dixwell “Q” House has left a hole in the community that needs to be filled.

“It’s absurd that there’s no real community center in New Haven,” Reveiz tells me. He adds that the PAC is specifically designed to provide a safe space and “support group for queer youth.”

Language from the group’s webpage lays out PAC’s focus on “the creative agency of women, queer-identifying folks, people of color and youth.”

Reveiz says the organizers’ feelings of privilege weigh heavily on the project.
“I’ve heard of other people trying to start art projects or things like this, and they just hit a wall,” he said. “We’re lucky — and we’re highly aware of our positions of privilege.”

212 College St. became home to PAC with the help of Helen Kauder, who runs Artspace and sits on the board of the Co-Op Center for Creativity. Artspace is a contemporary art gallery and non-profit arts advocacy organization located at 50 Orange St., just three blocks down Crown Street from PAC. Established in 2009, the Center for Creativity leases storefronts from the Co-Op Arts & Humanities High School. Reveiz, Ofosu and DeLeon, who are artists-in-residence at the Center, are subletting the space for $250 per month. The Collective has raised over $3,000 by crowdsourcing through Indiegogo, an online platform for crowdfunding, and community fundraising. At the Free Skool, they go without central heating, using space heaters when the sun goes down and the temperature drops.

“I think a lot of it has to do with the privilege and recognition that come with being Yale alums,” Reveiz says, speaking of their success in using makeshift means of running the school. “The question is how can we use that privilege to give people a kind of hope. People have very little to do who lack jobs or after work if they do have jobs, and that contributes to violence and a general culture of fear.”

When I ask her about the potential impact of the Free Skool, Eidelson describes the operation as “an exciting community and youth space.” She says more programs in the city should be free of charge.

Reveiz echoes that sentiment. He says money increasingly pervades all social interactions, and that the Free Skool is an experiment in extricating education from market forces.

Taking away the need to pay allows the school to cut across myriad communities, whereas “education is often only for those who can afford it,” Reveiz explains. The intersection of historically separate communities is one that he says the program is uniquely situated to foster.

“The school pushes people to a kind of realness. Yale students will introduce themselves as sophomores to people who might not consider being a sophomore a pertinent identity category,” he explains. “A lot of New Haven residents are sometimes turned off or intimidated by Yale students, and our challenge is against that, too. It’s really cool — people are making friends across communities.”

About 40 to 50 percent of Free Skool students are affiliated with Yale. For these students especially, the Free Skool may come as a culture shock, says Ofosu.
At Yale, she continues, education is “formalized,” students relating to teachers in a strict hierarchy. Learning at the Free Skool happens by “engaging others as equals.”

Reveiz says the Free Skool represents education-as-community-building. The school is animated by the idea of a more democratic model of education that emphasizes “empowerment and generosity.”

Free schools exist nationwide — in Buffalo, in Austin, in Santa Cruz — Ofosu tells me. These models served as inspiration when she and her fellow PAC leaders were considering the potential work of their collective. When I call the Free Skool a project, she corrects me, saying they call their work “interventions.”

“We think of what we’re doing at the Skool as an intervention into modes of living that are unsustainable or unjust,” Ofosu says.

WHERE ART MEETS ACTIVISM

When I ask Ofosu and Reveiz about the politics behind the school, they are reticent to endorse a specific political ideology.

“We all have our own political motivations,” Ofosu says.

Ultimately, Ofosu said, the Free Skool — and PAC as a whole — aims to work toward a new type of activism, one that fuses politics with artistic creation.

“I’m interested in proactively building alternatives to oppressive modes of being,” she says. “A lot of activism is reactionary — terrible shit happens and you need to respond. I’m into that, but the artist in me feels passionately about actively building new spaces to access information outside of dominant modes of knowledge.”

The front windows of PAC are covered in artwork and posters. One window is emblazoned with the Collective’s logo. Another is painted with the words “Justice for Jewu.” Jewu Richardson is a New Haven man fighting a felony charge based on reports he crashed into a police car shortly before being shot in the chest. The PAC logo is nuanced and colorful, with patterned shapes arranged to form its letters. “Justice for Jewu” is painted in stark black letters.

Though its organizers disclaim an overt political agenda, the Free Skool is not isolated from the political and social needs of the community it serves. As the Yale grads both tell me, this is a place where art and activism meet.

“The Free Skool is a way of advancing relationships and actions that root out a multiplicity of oppressions we see in this city — racial, economic, gender-based,” Reveiz says. “This is a social infrastructure that represents something more like a world we want to live in.”

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