Akilah Richard: Raising free people

Akilah Richards on Chaos for TEDxAsburyPark 2019 

Akilah Richards and on-stage co-host Ben Freeberg talk about Raising Free People, which will be presented at TEDxAsburyPark on May 18, 2019

Ben Freeberg: Welcome.  I’m one of the on-stage hosts of TEDxAsburyPark. Today I’m here with Akilah Richards, who will be a speaker at this year’s TEDxAsburyPark Conference on May 18, 2019. Welcome, Akilah.

Akilah Richards: Thank you, Ben.

Ben Freeberg: To start off, can you just give us a quick overview of yourself and what the idea of your talk is this year?

Akilah Richards: Sure.  I am an unschooler. I podcast about self-directed education and other forms of unschooling, and I like to call myself a disrupter because I think that unschooling is really a portal for talk around more equitable partnership- centered relationships between people, starting with the most privileged and non-privileged, usually adults and children.

So that’s what my work is about, that’s what I’m living right now. I’m the mother of two teenage daughters. And so that’s what I’m going to be talking about. I call my work “raising free people” because it’s this idea that we can’t keep using all of these different tools of oppression and fear-based parenting and expect to raise free people.

Ben Freeberg: Great. Can you dive a little bit deeper into what unschooling is, where the term came from, and what’s been going on recently?

Akilah Richards: It’s funny, because I always get asked these questions. It’s similar to when people say someone’s vegan vs. non-vegan. When you’re vegan, all of sudden people have all of these questions for you about how much protein you get or what do you eat for this or what about that…

And it’s a similar thing with unschooling… “Tell me the history of it.” And my response is, “I don’t know, dude.”  I was living in this relationship with my children where they were in public school, they were thriving academically, but my partner Chris and I just started to see how they were diminishing emotionally. They were just getting smaller and smaller, less comfortable with themselves. So that led us down the path of home schooling for about seven minutes and then unschooling, which is living and learning without school as the focus.

Sometimes it includes going on to school if a child wants to, so it’s really this idea of a consent-based relationship between a child and what learning looks like for them. So it looks like different things for different families, but the basic premise of it is that we trust children and we trust learning, and we believe that school can be a wonderful part of a learning experience when the child has more clarity around, or person has more clarity around, what they want to go to school for.  But in the meantime, life is filled with opportunities to learn and connect and be in community, so we focus on that instead.

Ben Freeberg: So are there any ideas or thoughts that either you and your partner have come up with, or that you’ve learned from the community after sharing these thoughts on what specific things you can do to inspire the kids outside?

Akilah Richards: I love that question. Yes, absolutely. One of the things is to think less about how to inspire children and more how to make room to observe what happens for children when it comes to what learning looks like, so become more of an observer and less of a manager in the life of a child as much as you can. That practice alone will start to show you some of the things that are going to bring you back to some of your own childhood memories to say, “Yeah, that actually didn’t feel good for me either,” or “Wow, I imagine what this would be like if I didn’t spend most of my day doing this or trying to please this person,” or “I’m 35 and really I’m still like a seven year-old trying to please my…”

All of these things happen from this one crazy idea of not focusing on school. So I would say one thing you can start to do is to just look at ways to be more of an observer. And I have a great website, the Alliance for Self-Directed Education, of which I’m a founding board member. That one talks a lot about unschooling and self-directed education as a whole. It’s a great place to start.

Ben Freeberg: Is there anything in terms of physical activity that’s weighted more? Is there more writing, reading, or just being … or is it more about being out there and being present?

Akilah Richards: It just kind of depends on each child. My oldest daughter loves to write, so writing is a major part of what learning tends to look like for her sometimes in terms of what we translate learning to mean. My youngest daughter is more of an artist. She’s a lot more tactile, so she likes to build things with her hands and paint and draw and work from a different space.

It really is about pursuing your curiosities and finding ways to turn your interests and talents into skills.

Ben Freeberg: That makes sense.  And so what else is going on with this idea, either in your home country, in South Africa, or abroad that is really exciting and starting to get some traction?

Akilah Richards: So one thing I’ll say is I love Agile Learning Centers. The Agile Learning network is a rapidly-growing network of self-directed education spaces, I like to call them unschooling schools, where people are getting together. Isn’t that great?

Ben Freeberg: So great.  

Akilah Richards: So all of these edupreneurs are getting together with family members, parents, all over the U.S. and abroad and creating these learning centers that are based on these agile learning principles, about learning being natural, about consent and curiosity being more important than testing, and just really learning how to live in ways that make sense for all people as opposed to this standardized way of being. So I’m super excited about what’s happening with the Agile Learning network.  I do some training with them. My daughters were in a center in Atlanta for a year. Super, super good stuff happening in the world of self-directed education.

Ben Freeberg: If our audience wants to get started, aside from going on to those websites, are there any tips you have for them for continuing after just trying it for a day or two? What’s the next step from there?

Akilah Richards: I would say to start creating a sense of community around it, because it is something that a lot of people don’t understand; I know that was the case for our family and so many others. That’s why my podcast continues to grow so much. You’ve got to feel like it’s not just you and your one weirdo partner who has this idea that children shouldn’t be in these oppressive places and that the world will change based on our relationships with children.

So looking at blogs, joining forums, just going into different places where people are also thinking about these things can really help give you the space that you need to see what’s happening with your children, to navigate the pushback from people around you, and to start to stand in a decision that makes the most sense for you and your family.

Ben Freeberg: That makes a lot of sense. So what brought you into it? How did you come to become an expert in this space and want to dedicate a lot of your life to it?

Akilah Richards: An expert. That’s funny. Because it’s like saying a parenting expert, which I think is an oxymoron because they’re pivoting so very much, right?

For me, it was really just my own experiences with my daughters. Chris and I got to see them just start to shrink, and then we went from being advocates of the school system to advocates of our daughters–and then they began to flourish. All these things that you supposedly need a lot of learning to do, they were doing just off of the strength of the communities that they were part of (online). They were around ten and eight, and they were learning different languages and acquiring all of these different skills because they wanted to and because they had space in the day to learn.

I became deeply fascinated with it, and Chris and I just figured out ways to do it more and more with them. And then we began to find other communities. I started blogging about it, writing about it, doing little courses online about it, and slowly came to realize that this is a global movement. So I just continued to organize inside the space, because it’s really very much liberation work for a lot of communities and a lot of families.

Ben Freeberg: Do you have any advice either for inside of the unschooling project or outside of it that you want audience members to take away, or any TED Talks or book recommendations?

Akilah Richards: I think I’m going to go back to the Alliance website, because it’s going to offer so many different resources for people who are coming to this from different spaces. There is Tipping Points, which is the magazine, which is going to give you a bunch of stories from different people. Then there are the forums, where you can talk to people in your city. There are just a lot of different ways for you to feel through this thing, because we come at it from different angles and there’s no standardized/one right way in this work. So find a website like that, find a blog that you love that talks about it, and allow yourself the time to really immerse yourself in the thought around it, and it’ll change how you start viewing relationships.

Ben Freeberg: And so from the other side of it, what do your kids think about it? Do you check in with them and ask them what they think about this idea and how it’s going for them personally?

Akilah Richards: Yeah, all the time, all the time. My oldest daughter Miley actually does quite a bit of self-directed education training with me, like workshops.  It’s just amazing to see how she and a lot of other young people who are given this space really advocate for the work and they advocate for their peers, because their peers are all depressed and upset and bored. Meanwhile, these kids are just super excited about each day.  

Both of my daughters (Miley and Sage) love the ways that we live. It allows us to be able to travel and connect with other communities, other people who unschool. So they really enjoy it, and we talk all the time about them going back into school if that’s something that they’re interested in. And they’re both like, “Uh, can you not?”  

Ben Freeberg: That’s great, Akilah.  If the audience here wants to develop their relationship with you and the idea, obviously the website you mentioned is a great place. But you also mentioned you had a podcast and you’ve been blogging, so I want to give you an opportunity to share that info and for our audience to be able to find you easily.

Akilah Richards: My website is RaisingFreePeople.com and a lot of resources are there, including access to my podcast, which is called Fare of the Free Child, F-A-R-E, the cost of a free child. That podcast focuses on black, indigenous, and people of color in particular who do unschooling and other forms of self-directing education work and how that influences the entire world. So I would recommend going on to the site and checking out the podcast.

Ben Freeberg: Akilah, thank you so much for taking the time.

Akilah Richards: You’re so welcome. Thank you for the invitation, Ben.

Ben Freeberg: Of course. And to our audience, thank you joining us.

A reminder to get your tickets for the largest, highest rated TEDx Conference on the east coast, TEDxAsburyPark, on May 18th, 2019. You’ll get to hear more from Akilah there. Thanks so much.

Read more about Akilah Richards here.