Guest column: What Madison needs to know about Freedom, Inc.
The non-profit's work reflects an essential understanding of how interpersonal violence is intertwined with systemic violence.
If you’re a reader of our local or state papers, it’s likely you’ve seen coverage of the No Cops in Schools campaign, led by nonprofit Freedom, Inc. Unfortunately, much of the framing of the issues and/or the characterizations of Freedom, Inc. members within that coverage has been racist.* These racist and false characterizations include that Black and Southeast Asian members of Freedom, Inc. are aggressive and threatening, and that their testimony during public meetings is composed of expletives but without clear and relevant content. Although No Cops in Schools has been frequently covered, the analysis behind this demand—the core of the testimonies of Freedom, Inc. youth, staff, and members—has been conspicuously absent from reporting. Most reporting has excluded any description of the mission and vision of Freedom, Inc. and the actions and programming they take to move towards that vision.
We believe all Madison community members—particularly those who care about ending interpersonal and systemic violence—should have real information about the vision and the deep and long-term work of Freedom, Inc. We believe that a nonprofit created and led by Southeast Asian and Black community members and working with and for Southeast Asian and Black communities should be seen in the power and dignity of their goals and actions instead of the white supremacist narrative of “disruption” and “disrespect.”
Freedom, Inc. (led by Co-Executive Directors Kabzuag Vaj and M. Adams) has worked since 2003 to combat gender-based violence. It is one of the two organizations in Dane County (alongside UNIDOS Against Domestic Violence) with culturally specific, gender-specific, and age-specific services for domestic violence survivors. It works for the safety and well-being of queer and trans people. It serves individuals and whole families, from children to grandparents. It holds a reading program where kids meet weekly to focus on literacy over a home-cooked breakfast; over the summer, they’ll read and take home 25 books. Freedom, Inc. holds a Hmong dance group for youth and mentors Southeast Asian girls as organizers. Freedom, Inc. holds an antiviolence group for Black girls and programming for Black women who are violence survivors. It holds groups for Southeast Asian elders, many of whom are refugees and survivors of state violence. It has a food bank. It assists with immigration and legal services. Its Community Power Building program mobilizes get-out-the-vote activities and works to create lifelong voters. It cooks for and celebrates with the community on Freedom Health Day (August 10 at Penn Park, all invited). These are just some of the programs and support Freedom, Inc. provides to low- to no-income communities in Dane County.
Freedom, Inc. supports those who’ve experienced or who are experiencing interpersonal violence. But it is also one of the few organizations in Dane County that ties the work of interpersonal harm to systemic harm, and inter- and intra-personal repair to community liberation. At the same time that Freedom, Inc. helps someone facing deportation, for example, they work to end the carceral complex (recently through the No Cops in Schools and Derail the Jail campaigns). They are always working on both of these levels: caring for community members, and sharing an analysis of why harm occurs and what we must do to end and replace the systems—patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism—which use harm as a tool for control.
Coverage of Freedom, Inc. has been anti-Black, has erased their Southeast Asian members, and has portrayed them as so much less than the scholars and leaders they are. Recent coverage has even published staff salaries and budget information and insinuated without evidence or cause that somehow something (there is no claim about what) is off in their resources. As allies of Freedom, Inc. and as Madison residents, we affirm our support for and gratitude to the staff and members of Freedom, Inc. for the work they do to heal those of us who’ve experienced violence and to create a community in which repair is possible. We thank them for fighting for and focusing their resources on low- to no-income community members. We affirm our commitment to value and protect—in action—Black and Brown children. We affirm our commitment to push back against the white supremacist narrative around “order” and the shaming of Black and Brown people for demanding that their children are valued as fully human and that their safety needs are met. The work of Freedom, Inc. is the equity work that study after study (and story after story) so clearly indicates that Madison needs. We will continue supporting Freedom, Inc. with our time, with our funds, and with our words. We strongly urge others to as well.**
—Friends of Freedom, Inc.
Allison Bell Bern
Lydia Burgess Roussos
*If the word “racist” as it’s used here feels challenging, we invite you to consider the way historian Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, (Professor of History and Founding Director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, and author of How To Be An Antiracist) defines the word. Dr. Kendi writes that “All policies, ideas and people are either being racist or antiracist. Racist policies yield racial inequity; antiracist policies yield racial equity. Racist ideas suggest racial hierarchy, antiracist ideas suggest racial equality. A racist is supporting racist policy or expressing a racist idea. An antiracist is supporting antiracist policy or expressing an antiracist idea. A racist or antiracist is not who we are, but what we are doing in the moment.”
**If you would like to know more about Freedom, Inc., please join us in person on August 10 for Freedom Health Day! This event is open to all, admittance is free, and it’s an opportunity to celebrate all the work Freedom, Inc. has done this past year towards greater community health, justice, and liberation. There will be delicious food, sports tournaments, a 5K run/walk (register here), dance performances, a talent show—something for everyone! Join us at Penn Park, 2101 Fisher St., between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.. You can also contact Nancy Vue Tran at firstname.lastname@example.org to sponsor event or participate in one of our many activities.
If you would like to know more about Freedom, Inc.’s vision and actions, please visit their website and follow them on Facebook. To read or hear additional analysis from Freedom, Inc. leaders, read Zon Moua’s piece in a recent issue of Our Lives and listen to M Adams' conversations with Jan Miyazaki on WORT or watch her speak with Henry Sanders on Madison365. Listen to Kabzuag Vaj’s interview on WPR and read her recent article on sexual assault. Watch any of the Madison Metropolitan School Board meetings on their YouTube channel to see the clarity, power and dignity of the analysis Freedom, Inc. members—from kids to grandparents—offer.
If you’d like to become a member of Friends of Freedom, Inc. or find out how you can support Freedom, Inc.’s programming through the Friends group, you can email email@example.com or Oona.firstname.lastname@example.org.