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Joy Harrington

Black Ink Communications, Inc.



“1619 Project” creator Nikole Hannah-Jones launches an after-school literacy program in her hometown to provide local students “the type of education and support they have always deserved”

“Education is a revolutionary act.”

Waterloo, IA: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones is launching the “1619 Freedom School” in her hometown of Waterloo, Iowa with a team of Waterloo educators and community leaders. The school will begin serving fourth and fifth graders from the Waterloo public schools this fall. 

The 1619 Freedom School is a free, community-based, after-school literacy program that will help students achieve academic success through improving their reading and literacy skills. The school's mission is to help children develop a love of reading and books through liberating instruction centered on Black American history and will serve low-income students with the widest disparity in their reading scores. “1619,” the year the first enslaved Africans were sold into the English colonies that in 1776 would form the United States, marks the birth of Black America. “Freedom School” evokes the legacy of the free, community schools launched by SNCC during the Civil Rights Movement in order to educate Black youth on their history and empower them to fight their oppression with the goal of achieving social, political, and economic equality in the United States. 

This type of programming—which does not rely on government funding—is especially important since Iowa’s governor signed into law a bill that seeks to limit the public school teaching of histories that offer a more honest understanding of the racial history of this country, a bill that is already having a chilling impact on the state’s educators.

Our motto, “Liberation Through Literacy,” resides within the Black tradition of belief that education is the key to freedom, and seeks to remind our children and our community that they come from a heritage of Black people who so believed in the power of literacy that they risked their lives for literacy during slavery when it was illegal for Black Americans to learn to read and write.

The 1619 Freedom School has secured inaugural funding from, among other organizations, The American Family Insurance Institute for Corporate and Social Impact, Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, CUNA Mutual Group, Lionsgate, and Open Society Foundations.

“The 1619 Freedom School is built on the understanding that for a people for whom it was once illegal to learn to read and write, education is a revolutionary act,'' says 1619 Freedom School founder, Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Waterloo native and Waterloo West High School graduate. “A quality education has been the key to my success and I wanted to give back to the community that raised me and to the children whose opportunities may be limited but who have potential that is limitless. Through this school, we will provide our students the type of education and support they have always deserved.”

“At The American Family Insurance Institute for Corporate and Social Impact, our mission is to close equity gaps; whether those gaps are caused by racial, educational or other systemic inequalities,” says Nyra Jordan, a community and social impact director for the institute. “The work being done by Nikole and her partners will change lives in Waterloo by creating a place where students can improve their literacy skills in a compelling way, setting them up for a better future.”

“CUNA Mutual Group is proud to support the 1619 Freedom School as part of our foundation’s commitment to educational equity,” says Alex Shade, Director of Corporate Social Responsibility for CUNA Mutual Group.

"At a time when legislators across the country are seeking to constrict what students learn about the role of race in American history, Nikole Hannah-Jones is providing an invaluable corrective—premised on the idea that only by understanding the past fully can we hope to move forward together as a country,” says Alvin Starks, head of the Open Society-U.S. Equality Team at the Open Society Foundations. “The Open Society Foundations is proud to support this groundbreaking work, and hope that this Freedom School is just the first of many to come." 

Why Waterloo

Waterloo, Iowa, is a deeply segregated and unequal small midwestern town, and the most heavily Black city in the state. In recent years, it has been named the worst city in America to be Black.


The average Black student in Waterloo public schools is more than two grade levels behind the average white student and Black students account for 26 percent of Waterloo public schools' students but only 13 percent of students labeled gifted.


Despite this gaping achievement gap, literacy instruction ends after the third grade. Literacy experts say that students—especially those academically behind—continue to need literacy instruction as they progress to the upper grades. The lack of this specialized literacy instruction compounds these academic disadvantages and, as a result, Black students fall further behind the older they get.


The 1619 Freedom School aims to change that. In its inaugural year, the school will serve students at Dr. Walter Cunningham School for Excellence, Waterloo’s most segregated elementary school, and low-income students from other schools in the district.


The 1619 Freedom School will combine intensive, fun, and uplifting literacy instruction through a custom-designed curriculum built by expert educators from Georgetown University's Program in Education, Inquiry, and Justice and the University of Missouri's Carter Center for K12 Black History Education. By 2022, this curriculum will be made available for free to anyone in the country wishing to use it. The school is also working with the education, literacy, and library programs of the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) and Hawkeye Community College, whose volunteers will support the school’s certified educators in providing small-group literacy interventions for students.


Leading this groundbreaking effort with Hannah-Jones is a steering committee with deep ties to the community:

  • Sheritta Stokes, a 20-year veteran teacher in the Waterloo Community School District with a track record of greatly improving students’ reading and literacy skills

  • Joy Briscoe, the Talent and Outreach Specialist for Waterloo Community School District

  • Lori Dale, Advisor for the UNI Center for Urban Education

  • Sharina Sallis, Community Relations Manager for CUNA Mutual Group 

All donations to the school are tax-deductible. Right now, donors are invited to support general operating expenses with a cash donation or to “Buy a Shelf” of books for the Liberation Library at the 1619 Freedom School. Book donors will be acknowledged on the school’s website and in nameplates on their sponsored bookshelf at the school. The School will also provide a home library for every student in the program.

The school will be housed in the historic Masonic Temple in downtown Waterloo and already has plans to open a second location in the community center at ALL-IN-GROCERS, a new Black-owned grocery set to open in Waterloo in 2022.

Parents interested in enrolling their children should contact the 1619 Freedom School at

About the 1619 Freedom School: The 1619 Freedom’s School mission is to create compassionate learning spaces where students and teachers learn to use language and literacy in critical and empowering ways. Visit the school’s website at

Are you a certified teacher based in Waterloo, Iowa, who is interested in joining our team? Please reach out to us at

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