Brandi Brown never forgets her fondest memories of growing up in Houston’s South Park. Though her community has been considered underserved, never once did she feel that she lacked anything.
Brown carried that experience with her into college at Southern Methodist University, a predominantly white school, where she experienced a major culture shock.
To help her adjust to her college experience, she was introduced to the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School program in Dallas, a summer and after-school enrichment program for K-12 scholars and families, which sparked her interest in launching the same concept in Houston.
Since 1999, Brown has been the executive director of Hype Freedom School Inc., a non-profit serving Sunnyside/South Park and surrounding Houston areas with culturally-affirming youth development and educational resources.
The Defender spoke to Brown about her journey.
Defender: As a native of Houston, how has growing up here shaped you personally and professionally?
Brandi Brown: I lived in an underserved [area]. As a child, I felt like I lived within a community that had all the resources I needed. I had great neighbors that really built a community that centered children in everything they did. My life motto is “to whom much is given, much is required.” My community has given a lot to me. I had a lot of support, so I’m in a position to give as much as I can.
Defender: What interested you in the education sector?
Brown: When I was in high school, there was a college fair. Southern Methodist University came and they had us sign up for what they call “Mustang Mondays.” So, they chartered a bus from Houston to Dallas and we stayed the night at the dorms and took a tour of the campus. That was my introduction to SMU. That’s where the shift in what I wanted to do changed.
I went to a predominately white institution and went through a culture shock. By the second year of school, I came home and attended the Labor Day Classic with Prairie View and Texas Southern University and felt that was where I needed to be. I wanted to transfer.
My mother was a single mother who went to Prairie View but didn’t graduate. She called a couple of SMU advisors. They met with me and asked if I would stay the rest of the semester before I made my decision. So I did.
One of the advisors introduced me to another student who was going through similar experiences as me and then that student introduced me to the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom School Program. I stayed in Dallas for the summer and worked with the program, and it felt just like home.
I worked in Oak Cliff as a facilitator. I was trained on the curriculum and met other college students across the nation who were also getting trained. During my second year I was invited to return as a site coordinator and that was where my interest in starting a Freedom School in Texas began. That was in 1998.
Defender: What are Freedom Schools? Why was it important for you to launch one in Houston?
Brown: Freedom School is a part of the Children’s Defense Fund which is a national advocacy program for children. The school is a cultural enrichment program that takes place primarily in the summer. The Freedom School was actually birthed out of the Civil Rights Movement. College students from the north came to the south and helped mobilize people to pass the literacy test so they could be eligible to vote.
The Freedom School Program was reborn during the ’90s by the Children’s Defense Fund president at the time, Marian Wright Edelman and several of her colleagues. So, the focus is to show how important literacy is and to equip children with those necessary skills and resources. We want to ensure that our young people have the proper history and gain an appreciation of reading and writing. They should be able to see themselves in the characters and literature that they read.
Defender: What was it like building such a school from scratch?
Brown: I wanted to start one, but I didn’t know how to start a business to support the Freedom School program. The first plan was to find an already established nonprofit and they would hire me, and I would be able to implement this program within that organization that I was trained on during my time in Dallas.
After I graduated from SMU I met with a lot of nonprofits in Houston, but none of them accepted the idea. I had a mentor that ran a Freedom School in the Kansas City area sit down with me to talk about what the process looks like. She encouraged me to write down the names of people who I thought could be involved in the work I was going to do.
I eventually had to put myself out there and told everyone I could think of that would listen to the vision. Eventually, we were able to get some pro bono support to start the nonprofit organization to house our Freedom School program.
Defender: What is one of the highlights of being an executive director of the school?
Brown: One of our components to the program is that not only do we provide high-quality literacy enrichment, but we provide mental health and youth leadership development services. It has become a staple of our program. We provide it to anyone who has ever been part of our program, and within their family network.
Defender: What gaps does the Freedom School fill?
Brown: Children lose anywhere between two to three months of what they learned from the school year during the summer. We want to bridge the gap from one school year to the next. The learning loss is widening and it has expanded well past the COVID-19 pandemic. We are providing a safe space for children to learn while their families are working every day.
The reading levels have improved over time with our scholars. In the summer of 2022, they demonstrated an average increase of one year and five months in instructional reading levels, since participating in the program. We aren’t here to babysit them during the summer, we are empowering them to be ready to excel into the next school year.
Defender: What does Black resistance mean to you?
Brown: It means to never give up. Identify the resources, the people, the things that you need to be able to address the issues at hand and don’t do it alone. Celebrate your accomplishments and fight for the betterment of our community.