Freeing Santa Cruz Minds | Free Skool Santa Cruz flourishes in community and reaches far beyond | By Blair Stenvick - City on a Hill Press
Illustration by Kristian Talley.
Illustration by Kristian Talley.

“You never know with Free Skool.”

Wes, a typical Santa Cruz granola, wearing loose-fitting slacks and a button-down shirt, leans back in his chair, speaking calmly and evenly. He sits at a rectangular brown table towards the back of Stevenson Café.

Wes rode his bike here, so there’s sweat dripping down his face, meeting his curly reddish-brown beard, which matches the hair on the top of his head. He has kind eyes, a wide smile and a friendly voice.

“Most classes there have been about 15 students, but today is the last class, so we’ll see who shows up,” he said.

When it’s time for the class to start, about eight people have shown up at the café. Wes welcomes them.

“This is ‘Games as a Strategy for Living,’” he says. “I’m Wes, and I am ostensibly the facilitator of the group.”

“Ostensibly” the facilitator. Wes’ wording perfectly reflects his own laid-back nature, and it also gives a glimpse into what Free Skool is all about.

Free Skool Santa Cruz was started in the spring of 2004 by a small group of self-identified anarchists looking for a different kind of education. They saw the traditional set-up of paying people to teach different skills or ideas as problematic.

So, they created a network in which anyone who wanted to teach something useful could do so, and anyone who wanted to learn was able to attend the classes — for free.

Free Skool has experienced a lack of continuity, but it is an idea that has thrived in Santa Cruz, and well beyond the city by the sea.

Francisco Ferrer of Spain, an anarchist, started the first free skool in the 1890s. Ferrer wanted an educational system that was not tied to the state or a religious institution, so he founded a “modern school” that pioneered experimental teaching.

“Governments have ever been known to hold a high hand over the education of the people,” Ferrer said. “They know, better than anyone else, that their power is based almost entirely on the school. Hence, they monopolize it more and more.”

As far as anyone can tell, Santa Cruz hosts the first Free Skool in modern times.

The idea of free education is important to the anarchist ideology. Anarchists embrace “do-it-yourself” culture and reject corporatization. Free Skool collective member Brandon Wade points out that Free Skool is free in the monetary sense and free in the sense of free thought and expression, as well as being free from hierarchy.

“Most Free Skools are based on the anarchist principles of self-reliance, autonomy and mutual support,” Wade said. “Unlike most structures in our society, there’s no manager or leader. Everyone’s equal within the project.”

Free Skool publicizes its classes by creating quarterly calendars and putting them in restaurants and other public spaces, as well as on its website. Anyone can apply to teach a course. Classes are held in such informal settings as teachers’ homes and cafés around town.

There are no books, no tests and no required attendance — just a passion for learning and instructing.

PULL QUOTE: "We're pretty open to different things. Maybe it's a little weird, but maybe there's something good about that." -"Anne," Free Skool FounderSince the genesis of Free Skool, Wade estimates that it has had thousands of classes, which means Santa Cruz residents of all ages and economic backgrounds have taken classes, varying from boat design and “Female Physiology for Everyone” to “Rooting Out Capitalism.”

Wade was enthusiastic about all the possibilities that come with such an open format.

“Our whole calendar is full of really unique classes,” he said, “because unlike the university, we’re not bound by a particular field or majors, so people teach classes because they’re passionate about the classes they’re teaching. So if somebody’s really, really excited about, say, conservation and waterways, there might be an Elkhorn Slough exploration class. If someone’s interested in auto repair, there might be a do-it-yourself automotive class.”

If there is any problem with Free Skool, it might be that it’s too informal for its own good. A different incarnation of it existed in Santa Cruz before, but petered out because of lack of dedication, organizers coming and going, and those involved changing every season.

Still, at a recent quarterly picnic at Ocean View Park, “Annie,” who has been involved as both an organizer and student since the beginning, defended the Skool’s nature. Annie declined to use her real name out of fear of negative backlash for her self-identification as an anarchist.

“We’re pretty open to different things,” she said. “Maybe it’s a little weird, but maybe there’s something good about that.”

Annie was one of the founders of the current incarnation of Free Skool Santa Cruz.

“There was another Free Skool in Santa Cruz, and I had gone to those classes,” she said. “It’s kind of like it comes out of DIY anarchist culture, this idea of sharing skills with people for free.”

Annie added that when Free Skool started out, it was solely about skill-sharing, then more academic and discussion-based classes were added because people wanted to teach them. She said that almost all class topics are accepted into the calendar, though there are a few exceptions.

“We don’t want any classes about business,” she said flatly. “We avoid career-focused classes, because we’re looking for life skills, not business skills.”

The putting together of the calendar is a discreet task, without a headquarters, because the group wants to avoid being targeted as known anarchists. Because classes don’t cost anything to attend, the Skool attempts to bridge the education and opportunity gap in society.

Annie shared the example of the dance movement process class she is taking this season.

“It’s completely free,” she said. “If [a traditional school] taught a class like that, it would probably cost $300.”

Wes was at the picnic as well, where he gave his reason for teaching his “Games as a Strategy for Living” class.

“I was listening to this lecture about how the joker or jester role is missing now in society,” he said. “If we viewed what we do more as a game, we’d have a different approach.”

Wes’ class is in itself a game: participants start out playing, then break to discuss what can be gleaned about real life from their games. It’s relaxed, without the usual hierarchy that traditional classes have.

Wes listens carefully to everyone’s input, and begins sentences with, “If it’s alright with everybody,” and “I hear what you’re saying, and I think…”

"Our whole calendar is full of really unique classes, because unlike the university, we’re not bound by a particular field or majors, so people teach classes because they’re passionate about the classes they’re teaching." -Brandon Wade, Free Skool Santa Cruz collective member

Wes also taught a class this winter titled “Soapbox 202,” which was an attempt to create an anarchist public speaking series. A UCSC alumnus, Wes explained why he embraced anarchism and Free Skool.

“To ignore the benefit and lost opportunity of people to organize is really a loss,” he said. “What is lost in turning our power over to institutions? What is lost when we can only choose certain classes?”

Wade also praised Free Skool’s unique tendencies.

“The thing I like most about Free Skool is that it connects people in this radical project that encourages them not just to learn in a new way but to connect to each other in a new way,” he said. “Free Skool blurs the line as much as we can between teacher and learner, so we learn as much as we can from each other.”

Wade gave examples of how the open nature of the program also makes it possible for students and teachers to have an effect on the larger community.

“In our community, with thousands of Free Skool teachers and students participating over six years, the deep connections and friendships that have been established are deeply powerful,” Wade said in an e-mail. “Several DIY projects have spun off from Free Skool classes: Red Root Herbal Collective offering herbal health alternatives, various parenting groups, a radical marching band, regular campus forest walks and even the DIY New Year’s Parade.”

Santa Cruz isn’t the only city with a successful Free Skool —though it was the first. Wade discussed the impact Free Skool Santa Cruz has had across the nation.

“What we are seeing is more people questioning conventional education, with free skools popping up, near and far,” he said in the e-mail. “People are working on free skool projects in Santa Barbara, East Bay, Portland, Indiana and a dozen other places. We want to do what we can to make sure these projects are successful and sustainable.”

The Davis People’s Free School, which was started in winter of 2007 by students living in the co-ops on campus, is mostly student-run and student-attended, though it is open to the entire community.

Organizer Brett Anne Balamuth has recently taken up the helm of operations, after a brief hiatus due to lack of organizers.

“The people involved didn’t realize what a big time commitment it was, or they just aren’t the organizing types,” Balamuth said. “So I’ve been organizing since this fall. And it’s interesting. Just about this week, it’s really starting to come together. We had this massage workshop and maybe 20 or 30 people showed up, which was totally unexpected. Everyone went away being really psyched that they’d come, and they’re signing up for the next one. It’s really great. I’m feeling really victorious in my efforts.”

Balamuth said that a major goal for Davis People’s Free School, which is “based mostly on the Santa Cruz model,” was to reach out to more people in the community.

“Specifically so that we can fall in line more with our mission statement, we want to be helping different demographics in Davis,” Balamuth said. “Mostly so far it’s been 20-somethings, and most of them are UC Davis students. We want to get all the age groups. We’re trying to get into some of the periodicals that get read by older people in Davis.”

Considering the trouble Balamuth has experienced getting the free skool started again, she explained why it’s a concept that’s worth working for.

Illustration by Kristian Talley.

“By bringing people together around something that’s free, we hope to ensure that everyone that’s coming wants to be there and is there for the right reasons,” she said. “I think it’s important that people want to be there, and aren’t just doing the least that they can to get their paycheck.”

Davis People’s Free School member Greg Zaller knows about working with a community to promote education.

He was volunteering in Sargoda, Pakistan after the 2005 earthquake that crippled the country. He remembered how bad conditions were, especially at the local schools.

“Schools were so bad there, it was unbelievable,” Zaller said. “Teachers didn’t even show up. And the students felt powerless.”

Zaller had always seen empowerment through education as key, and even handed out pens with the message “This pen is mightier than the sword” and his contact information on them. A person he gave one to in Pakistan started an e-mail conversation with him about education, and the idea for a free skool in Sargoda was born.

The schools were mostly attended and taught by women. The more educated women traveled from the cities to teach reading, writing, science, social studies and crafting to the women living in more remote villages. There was a very small fee for tuition, and teachers were paid nothing.

“I found that when you pay people, you’re pretty much doing things because you’re being paid,” Zaller said, “so I said I wouldn’t pay the teachers. The motivation was that they were being appreciated.”

Today, there are about 30 free skools in Pakistan, with around 4000 students.

Zaller is back in Davis now, teaching a free skool class called “Yoga for the Rest of Us.” His fellow collective members are working on getting grant money to expand free skools.

Balamuth talked about how collective members are working to get a grant so they can write a computer wiki program for Free Skool. This would help other cities start free skools more, and make calendars and e-mail lists more easily.

“Once we’re able to develop this, we would make it public to anyone, and hopefully this would allow free skools to pop up all over,” Balamuth said. “We’d also like to be able to start filming our classes and get them on the web and start a video library, so that people across the country can use them.”

Free Skool Santa Cruz also wants to expand its impact.

“We want to focus on outreach so people know about Free Skool and have the tools and resources they need,” Wade said.

Back at Stevenson Café, Wes’ “Games as a Strategy for Living” class is going well. A dialogue has opened among him and some students about when viewing life as a game with rules can be helpful, and when rules should be broken.

After listening to viewpoints from a young man who says games were his “life as a kid,” and from a woman who makes a living illustrating for games, Wes interjects some wisdom into the discussion.

“Sometimes not playing by the rules is just about strategy,” he said.

He’s talking about games and life, but it also applies to free skool. They aren’t following society’s typical rules, but they’ve got their own strategy.