Dreaming With Our Ancestors: The Asian Arts Freedom School, 2004-2007 by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

Part of Special Issue #2 – Bodies as Archives: QTBIPOC Art and Performance in Toronto

Author: Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

AAFS callout Spring 2007

Note: Above is an Asian Arts Freedom School poster from 2007, created with inspiration from Young Asians With Power (YAWP!) in Chicago, to call for participants. The following excerpt titled “Why “Freedom School”?” is from an original call for AAFS participants in 2006 that was used on recruitment flyers and emails.

Why “Freedom School”?

Communities of color have a long tradition of creating our own places to teach and learn from each other when mainstream schooling doesn’t cut it. The term, ‘Freedom School’ was created by the African-American civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s. Freedom Schools were small community schools, often run by unpaid activists and community members, that taught everything from literacy to African-American history as an alternative to the racist mainstream educational system. Teachers often worked with no pay while facing death threats and other forms of racist violence.

Many other movements used the example of the Freedom Schools to create their own community-controlled schools. Similar programs were created by the Brown Berets (a militant wing of the Chicana/o movement), the Asian American movement of the 60s and 70s and First Nations organizers within the American Indian Movement, to name just a few.

In choosing to use the term ‘Freedom School’ to describe our project, we give respect to the history of African-American resistance that gave birth to those two words. We also chose to use it because we believe learning the histories of API struggle and resistance we were never taught in school and learning how to tell our own stories is to search for and find freedom together.

What I want to say is very simple. There was this thing called Asian Arts Freedom School that I was a part of creating in the early to mid 2000s in unceded Mississauga of New Credit/ Three Fires Conspiracy unceded territory. AKA Toronto, Ontario Canada. AKA Cousin City, the meeting place, the homeplace. This thing that was dreamed up out of the wildest dreams and best hopes of one disabled queer mixed Sri Lankan/white nonbinary femme writer and one queer Chinese dancer and theater artist. We wanted to create a freedom school where Asian/Pacific Islander young people could learn and liberate ourselves and write our asses off. Where we could conceptualize Asia and the Pacific Islands and their diaspora as a big place, as stretching from Mongolia to Trinidad, Palestine to Afghanistan, the Philippines to Aotearoa. Where we could write and eat and cry, and where almost everyone was queer or trans, all the time, and it wasn’t weird or a thing; in fact, it was kind of central and important to the work we were doing.

The story of Asian Arts Freedom School stretches past what I know. I was one of the co-founders, and I was involved from 2004, when me and Gein Wong came up with the idea, to 2007, when I left Toronto to go to graduate school for writing in Oakland, CA.  So the story I’m telling is incomplete, and just of one small chunk of time. But I want to tell this story because it’s so important. Because it is one of the things I’ve been part of doing that I’m the most proud of. Because it’s a good story. Because it’s one of those queer and trans Asian Pacific Islander American (APIA) stories that are so important, and that can slip through the cracks if we’re not careful, even though the people who were there will never forget them.

Asian Art Freedom School NYC summit 2004 (postcard back). Design: Ingrid Yuen. Image courtesy of the author.
Asian Arts Freedom School NYC summit 2004 (postcard back). Design: Ingrid Yuen. Image courtesy of the author.

Me and Gein Wong came up with the idea for Freedom School on a 14-hour train ride either to or from Chicago for the second Asian Pacific Islander Spoken Word and Poetry Summit, in 2004. It was an epic train ride because it was 3 years after 9/11 and the US had torn up all the railroad tracks at the border. So our train had to go to just before the border, we had to get out, get on buses to the border, get out, have the meat and orange and drug sniffing dog sniff our bags and get grilled by border enforcement, wait for another bus, get on that bus, then switch back to the train. So we had a lot of time to talk over things, in the maw of colonial, Islamophobic border policing, trying to get to a North American APIA Spoken Word and Poetry Summit.

And so we did. We wanted to make something in Toronto that was rad like all those cool U.S. APIA spoken word and performance artists who were making a new wave of radical Asian/Pacific Islander spoken word, performance and activism, very much including radical APIA arts education programs aimed at youth. In the late 90s and early 2000s, collectives like Isangmahal, Boston Progress and I Was Born With Two Tongues(the four-person spoken word troupe from Chicago’s slam scene whose YellowFace tour and Broken Speak CD maybe did the most to kick off and connect this late 90s generation of APIA children of immigrants), Yellow Rage, the Silk Mangos, and Mango Tribe(the 30-person cis women and gender non conforming APIA troupe that came out of 2Tongues) were rewriting what it meant to be APIA in North America. Along with many other individuals, groups and collectives, this was a movement of mostly immigrant, mostly working class young APIAs who wanted to write our experiences and create radical Asian movements. There were so many APIAs in their 20s and 30s marching and setting up websites and getting grants and making flyers, starting groups like Asians for Mumia. In post 9/11 imperial PATRIOT Act North America, with constant racial profiling, physical violence and mass deportations of many people (many of whom were APIA), radical APIAs in their teens, twenties, and thirties were coming together to create a new radical APIA political movement, where cultural activism wasn’t an afterthought, it was at the center. Many of these spoken word artists and collectives worked at or created APIA spoken word/slam/arts education groups that were deeply and on-purpose political in their content. We wanted to do the same, in Toronto. We wanted to create a project that would look like a regular arts education program to the funders, and was, but was one part artist/radical APIA history/activist boot camp, and one part family.

Me and Gein wrote curricula and wrote a grant. We looked up a couple of lesson plans from Young Asians With Power (YAWP!) and Chicago’s Teachers and Writers on our old Windows 95 desktop computers, and we sweated it and thought we didn’t know what the fuck we were doing and it would bomb and no one would come. I sat in a grant officer meeting with a closeted queer of color officer, who told us if we cited a UN survey in our grant application that “multicultural youth” who learned with their “home communities” succeeded more, we would be more likely to get the money. We did. We got the money.

We got money for tokens so youth could afford to come there and back, and we had $20 a week budgeted for food so that everyone could have whole grain chips and shrimp chips and mango juice and coconut rolls and sweet potato pone from the Patty King Caribbean bakery around the corner from where we were meeting. We called the Kapisanan Philippine Centre for Arts & Culture in Kensington Market, the heart of the city, where Chinatown and a Caribbean market town and queers collided, and it was near every bus and streetcar and subway line to every immigrant suburb and neighborhood so maybe everyone would come, and we booked their basement room for $200 for 8 weeks. We bought flip chart paper and borrowed markers. We even sort of got paid.

The first day of the first workshop, 20, maybe 30 people showed up. We drew a huge badly drawn map of the world on butcher paper on the wall. We didn’t really know where some things were, like Iceland, but Sri Lanka and Korea and Hawaii looked great. We gave everyone markers and asked them to draw their and their ancestors’ immigration journeys across the world, and then write their stories. We told people to write what they didn’t know. Then we talked about what it meant to be settlers and Indigenous sovereignty. The head tax, the 60s, 9/11, the Continuous Journey law, the White Canada laws, the internment camps. The Ghadr Party, Fred Ham, Krisantha Sri Bhaggiyadata, Himani Bannerji, the South Asian farmworkers. All of us. What it means to be immigrant and refugee and settler here and old and new here.

Freedom School was the place where all these people came, and we had a 45-minute long check-in every week about how everyone was doing. And then we would show a movie or do an exercise. And then we would write. And during the check-in or during the movie or during the writing, someone if not everyone would cry. We emptied out Kapisanan’s kleenex boxes. A lot of folks would troop upstairs to chain smoke while they wrote after the prompt. We would usually go out for veg Chinese or Korean or all night Hong Kong bbq afterward, and beer.

I remember the people who cried because they’d never been able to be Asian before. To be Asian and queer before. I remember the people who cried because they were mixed and no one had given them a chance to talk about it before. To hear, you are 100% you and you got nothing to prove. I remember the students who were Indo-Caribbean and Palestinian and Afghani and Chinese and Lankan, all finding out ways to be Asian/Pacific together, and what pan-APIA solidarity could be – what it meant to stick together. I remember people coming in and talking about shit they’d never talked about before, incidents of anti-APIA racism, places their queer and APIA-ness came together.  I remember how it felt to learn about APIA history no one had ever been taught in school. I remember the sign that said everyone in freedom school is awesome (pass it on). I remember when one of the non-Black APIA kids cut off their dreads because they realized they were wrong. I remember the day one youth screen-printed bandanas that said BROWN LIKE WHAT? ASIAN ARTS FREEDOM SCHOOL and ASIA IS THE BIGGEST CONTINENT for all of us. How mine still hangs on my wall. I remember all the things I learned about teaching writing to people who are you, who are your blood. About how much insistent cheerleading there is that we and who we are and our stories matter. About how many times everyone says they suck in class. About how you don’t know the impact on everyone’s earth ‘til years later.

Everyone dated each other, as you would expect. Everyone broke up with each other and wrote poems about it. Check-in time increased. Before I left for grad school, we fulfilled a dream me and Gein were very intense about and somehow rented two vans and got 17 youths plus us across the U.S. border to NYC for the 2007 Asian Pacific Islander Spoken Word Summit. We kept saying how amazing it was, how it was gonna blow everyone’s mind. It was. It also meant us walking into how queer and trans centered we were, and how so many other APIA spoken word communities were still insistently heterocentric and gender binaried. At the Summit, the first thing we saw when the elevator doors opened was a trans APIA poet confronting a straight, cis dude one about how he had just posted a transphobic video on the Summit blog.

Some of the things that I want to lift up about our model are that we started with the desire to work ourselves out of jobs, me and Gein. We did not want to be in a model held by many arts education programs, where the founders are always the leaders and the “youth” remained the youth. We wanted younger artists who had been through the program to then get paid to run it.

We were explicit about centering queer and trans artists and people. We worked hard to have an expansive view of what APIA was, that spanned North China to Palestine, Hawaii to Trinidad, and to reflect that in the writers we studied and the history we learned. We did this on purpose. Speaking for myself, I had experienced “Asian” as being defined narrowly and in a way that marginalized and left out many Asians, especially Indo-Caribbeans, South Indians and Sri Lankans and Afghanis (in the South Asian world), folks from Central Asia, Arabs, Hmong and Laotian folks and Pacific Islanders. I had also experienced and been inspired by pan-Asian revolutionary and radical groups – like Desh Pardesh and within the Summit community, to name two – that defined Asian very expansively, not from a simple idea of unity, but from a place of saying, look, there are so many of us, and we are different and disagree and have invaded each other, but we also have histories of alliance, solidarity and facing and resisting oppression – our own and those of Black, Indigenous and Brown folks. That was the vision of Pan Asianness that we wanted to lift up.

Years passed. Freedom School alums did so many things – from co-founding ILL NANA, a dance collective for queer and trans people of color, to starting QTPOC poetry collectives in Vancouver, getting into MFA programs, publishing novels, becoming lawyers and burlesque performers and disability justice organizers and parents.

When I came back to Toronto for my 38th birthday and a Mangos with Chili show, 5 years after I left, Freedom School was still going. There were two queer APIA drag musicals, one was called baby’s got a secret and one was against the prison industrial complex and everybody was dressed up like superheroes. The theme for that cycle was dreaming with our ancestors.

This is a small story. A big story. A big moment in time. All of us, dreaming with our ancestors, dreaming our way home.

Image courtesy of the author
A post-it from an asian arts freedom school workshop. Image courtesy of the author