PAM: Hi everyone! I’m Pam Laricchia from livingjoyfully.ca and today I’m here with Akilah S. Richards. Hi Akilah!
AKILAH: Hi Pam!
PAM: It is so wonderful to have you on the show. Just to let you know, Akilah wears many awesome hats. She is an unschooling mom to two girls, an entrepreneur & digital nomad, an author including her book about her family’s transition to unschooling, she hosts a podcast called Fare of the Free Child, and she’s on the organizing team of the Alliance for Self-Directed Education.
I am really excited to chat with you about all these topics so let’s dive in!
AKILAH: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it so much. When you reached out, I got a chance to binge listen to all the episodes and it was so great. I’m looking forward to catching up.
PAM: Oh, that’s awesome! And yes, I’ve spent the last few weeks just pouring over your stuff too. So, there we go!
Our first question can you share with us just a bit about you and your family and how you came to unschooling?
AKILAH: Sure, so one of the familiar stories I joke with people are there are 3 primary entry ways to enter unschooling that I’ve heard of and that and of course one of those categories were our daughters were “gifted.”
They were in the system at the time our oldest was in kindergarten or first grade. It started out and kindergarten and they started testing her in first grade and she got all the gifted labels. And then a year later our other daughter came in and the same things started happening.
We realized a couple of things: one they started testing the girls without our knowledge so we thought it was one or two tests but it turns out they had all of these different tests they were doing so they were pulling them from classes to test. Our oldest was missing recess which was a really big deal to her and that’s how we found out she was missing recess. And then after, they created curriculum for our oldest. She was missing out on recess and lunch was being shorted.
Her being our first child we were at first really excited like, “Oh my gosh, they said she was super smart!” You know, and all of the things that happen when they tell you the things about your babies. After we started being in that space, we realized that the school was not set up to address the whole child. They were going to focus very much on the academics.
Then we really got a wake up call when they wanted to put Marley, who was seven at the time, in a fourth grade class. We were like, “Oh my gosh, that’s ridiculous that you don’t realize the social component of that.” Not that she needed to be in a classroom with all kids her age, but there was no transition. They didn’t talk about any sort of transition. They didn’t have the same kind of concerns that we would have. They were just focused on academics, so that was one-sided.
We started to see how the girls, especially our oldest, was different. She didn’t ask questions with the same enthusiasm. She was really starting to be concerned about the right and wrong time to do something or to ask something. Then our youngest who is very much an introvert, was really frustrated with the environment, with all the people-ing, she would say. We said, “Wait a minute.” It just stopped making sense. So, that’s how we started out. We just started doing our own exploring, started looking at what it would look like if we just looked at learning and not schooling.
We felt like we were crazy but somehow it had to work anyway. We knew we didn’t want to homeschool!
I think I came across Seth Godin’s Stop Stealing Dreams, that manifesto he created? I was like, “Yes! Seth said it.” I feel a little less crazy because I’ve been following his work for so long. Then we just went down that path, Pam. But that’s where it started for us.
PAM: That’s really cool! Yeah, we took a very similar path in that my kids were in school, too, and it was seeing the difference between who they were at home, especially over summer break when you could really get back into things with them. Then talking to the teachers and seeing how the teachers described them. It was like a different child almost.
For my eldest, because he was the one that fit the least. We had the same thing with the gifted testing. For them, they didn’t do it until they were in grade four so up until then they had been treating him like a behavior problem. Then they got into that and they were like, “Oh, well, maybe we were wrong.”
The teachers tried hard and we worked with them and it was never a horrible thing, marks were all fine, but I knew that it wasn’t the right environment for them. It just want where they could shine, right?
AKILAH: Right, there was no major thing it was just like you with the teachers. We actually loved them. They were great and it was obvious that they were really invested in doing the best they could for our girls. But it’s the system. It just didn’t make sense.
We were like, “Wait. We could either try to figure out how to make Marley and Sage fit into the system down the checklist road. Or we could just figure out how to help them with learning stuff.”
It was really that simple! What if we just figured out the learning part and not so much the school part. Of course, now it sounds sensible but at the time it was crazy! Madness! Because I didn’t know about anybody else who was doing it. I was really, really sure that I didn’t want to homeschool so in my brain I was like, “Well, I’m just going to have to create an entire thing. Oh well! We have to figure it out.” As it turns out it’s not on us. The kids are actually learners! All human beings are learners as it turns out.
PAM: Yeah, those are amazing realizations, right?
AKILAH: Yeah, totally.
PAM: Well that leads us nicely into question two.
I would love to hear about what your kids are up to now. The things they’re interested in, how they’re pursuing it.
AKILAH: Yeah, sure. They’re so interesting. I know that everybody says that about their kids and they are all right! All of us are right.
They’re so, so interesting because they both, my husband is also an artist. Kris is a visual artist as well. And both girls are like that, too, which is so interesting to me. I thought, when we first gave them their space, we were traveling a whole lot more. We were going to Jamaica very often. We live both in the U.S. and in Jamaica, but mainly Jamaica. Now we’ll be traveling outside that as well.
But they used to draw all the time. We saw them get much better with their drawing over a very short space of time. Then they ventured into these other worlds as a result. So now, this was maybe about six years ago, and now the girls are twelve and ten and Sage, who is ten, is still very much into art. It’s more digital art so she’s on Sketchbook a lot. She has a ton of things on deviantART, she’s really into that.
She’s also into language acquisition and she speaks a couple of languages. She uses apps like Hello Talk and all of those to converse with people in native languages. She wants to do that for a living. Right now, that’s what she’s saying! That she wants to be a translator, she wants to be into language. I’m learning German so she’s helping me with that. We’re learning that together. But she speaks Mandarin Chinese and I think she’s also learning Italian. Marley is also into language so they kind of trade out. That’s one thing they are really into.
Of course, when you start to study a language, language isn’t in a vacuum, it’s a part of a culture and there are different dialects. So, because of that, they are very much into geography and the history and the culture of different places and how places have gotten together historically, like the relationship between America and other countries.
Marley also identifies as a writer, the oldest. They are both into manga and anime so they do a lot of role playing where they are essentially creating these stories live throughout the day. Marley is very deep into character development, creating original characters—they call them OCs—and being in that space.
Marley is very much into dance so she takes a class. Sage takes gymnastics and teaches it to everyone! Like, “Come now, handstand!” Those are some of the things they are into.
PAM: That’s fun though, right? Because they get so excited to share!
AKILAH: And we get to learn, too, because it’s just like even now as I’m learning German, even some of the ways I approach it I get to learn so much from them where they will say, “Oh no, why would you start there?” They think it’s funny that I would start with vocabulary instead of getting online and just talking to someone. What I’m so intimidated by is so normal to them. Kris and I are learning so much about how learning happens as well. It’s really fun and really interesting. Really useful for my life! Not just entertainment!
PAM: Is so true! I learned so much, just about how, approaching my days just by watching them. How they’re open to learning. How they don’t see that linear path of learning that we see, that I “have to find where the beginning is.” No, they jump in where they are. It’s just amazing to see how it works, isn’t it?
AKILAH: Yeah, it really is Pam. One of the things that comes up for me a lot with deschooling, as you know, is an ongoing practice. One of the major aspects of deschooling for me is, and I mentioned it before, is not trying to fit oneself into an existing space but instead is a partnership with anything you are into. That’s what I’m learning from my girls. They partner with those things. They partner with the language. They partner with a person. They partner with an idea so they bring their whole selves and that thing’s whole self and they look at ways that are harmonious. They’re not conquering a language, they’re not, as you said, trying to find the beginning and like taming it. It’s like, “Hello me. Hello this. How can we play together?” Which is such an empowering space to come to anything from.
PAM: I love that image! The way you describe it! That is very expressive and exactly the way they approach it! It’s just a whole new way!
AKILAH: Is just like, oh man, I never thought of it that way. It was like conquer it! Learn it! But no, we dance together. I would much prefer to dance!
PAM: It’s not intimidating. I’ve learned from my kids I don’t need to be intimidated by not knowing something. We used to be shamed and feel bad for things we didn’t know, right? I’ve learned that it’s just something else in the world. And I can go play with it any time I want.
PAM: That leads into the next question, and this next quote I want to share, it’s from your book, Our Transition Into Unschooling and the awesome subtitle is, Raising independent thinking, information seeking, self-directed lovers of learning and life all through school-free living. That’s cool!
AKILAH: I know it’s long but I couldn’t cut anything out! All of those things are vital!
PAM: Vital! Exactly!
When you were writing about your rationale behind choosing unschooling, you mentioned your realization that children are underestimated by adults. You wrote: “I had no idea how much children felt and processed and understood and could articulate their feelings.” I really loved that and it was a big realization for me as well. I was hoping you could share a bit about how that came about for you.
AKILAH: Sure. That’s something that I, a part of it was observation. Seeing my mom interact with our girls and how she was having all of these realizations and this was pre-unschooling. She would talk about experiences she had with my brothers and me. Of course at the time she was mom-ing she was much younger. She started out really early. She didn’t have the mental space she has now to dote. I feel like I picked up on a lot of those cues.
Most of us, the way of approaching things is circumstantial because that’s what we’re used to, that’s what we grew up in and not so much from a place of mindfulness. So that observation from my mom was really curious for me . I realized there are so many things we assume, or that I assume that we would be teaching them that they just didn’t need to learn.
For example, Sage had always been a person who always likes her space and time, the label would be introvert, which she is fine with. One of her first terms to her sister was personal space. We would talk to them about it because Marley is extroverted and she wants to do all the things and see all the things! Sage is not like that. She is very selective about who she gives her time and energy to.
She would be walking around the house with books or something and Marley would sit next to her and say something like, “Yes! Let’s read the Berenstain Bears.” Sage would say, “Personal space, Mar.” She would get it. Sage wants to read by herself. I’ll go upstairs in the playroom and do whatever.”
Seeing how they managed the relationship with each other was one of the things that made me realize, OK, these are skills that I feel like as an adult am still understanding. I am still learning how not to be offended by this or to not personalize this. Whereas it seems to me that some how they understand that already and it wasn’t because Kris and I had taught it to them. So, that was an example of recognizing how much they feel and process and understand and can articulate.
Also, Marley, she was maybe six years old when she wrote me my first letter. She communicates to me a lot in writing. She was really frustrated by something that I had done. She talked to me about that frustration and articulated to me in a way that I felt like at the time I was still associating things with adulthood before I understood those were just human skills and other things just got in the way.
I realized these were things that were not passed on by learning. These are things they know how to do. In a sense, we were learning these unschooling principles even before we went down the path of school and realized that wasn’t a good fit. They were just able to articulate their needs. They communicated those needs from a space that was personal but it didn’t seem like they were taking it personal when somebody was doing something in opposition to what they wanted.
Does that make sense?
PAM: Yeah, it really does. That was a big piece for me, was the space. When we were able to, I had never heard of homeschooling. I didn’t even know it existed until my eldest was nine. It clicked really fast for me when I found out this was a legal thing.
But I think the challenge is we don’t see, as parents, our children’s skills and abilities from the get-go because we often don’t give them space to express themselves. Even through actions if they’re not highly verbal. But the space for them to be choosing their actions and for us to be observing them.
So often we’re trying to be busy and directing them to go on our schedule and at our adult speed. So often when we can just slow down and watch them interact and have the space to interact with us and see what’s going on through their eyes it’s amazing what’s going on in there, right? They already have these skills.
AKILAH: So true, Pam. And that goes right back to what I was saying before about how the girls approach things from a space of partnership. Working in harmony with the thing and or embracing the staccato aspects of it because it’s not always harmonious but it’s that same thing that applies with us observing them.
We assume that we’re going to be need to be the conductor we assume we need to write the music and decide who’s going to sit where. But as it turns out that’s not the case. That’s a huge thing for me. A lot of my writing is centered about going from a space of ownership with our daughters and moving over into a space of partnership because that’s how they approach things.
In a partnership when your focus is on harmony, you’re not trying to focus on what everyone should be doing, not trying to fit everybody into your unit . You’re allowing everyone to be and, in so doing, everyone feels free to be themselves. That’s how we got to see how whole they already are.
We were just observing them and saying there might be times when you haven’t eating anything and it’s been this amount of time and, not from a place of force but, you know, how the body works and that sort of thing. Maybe you can have a cup of tea or maybe I can help if you’re immersed in something and you don’t want to get up. And really realizing what’s actually happening not coming from a space of the omnipotent one who knows what’s happening and what should be done.
If they’re really immersed in something in there in the living room and they’re on their screens and it’s been about four hours and they haven’t eaten anything. I went into ownership mode because it still happens, it’s a practice and I say, “Dude it’s been 4 hours you haven’t eaten anything what’s going on?!”
The other perspective is going by compassion, going back to my own self and realizing I do that too. That’s a problem. I forget to eat. Because I’m so immersed in something so I can say, “It’s been 4 hours I’m going to get something to eat does anybody want to join me?” Or, “I’m going to make something can I make you something too?” Or just my presence and they’ll get up, too. Or we can talk about meal planning so there’s something in there that’s easy to grab so they can grab something a couple hours in.
So instead of making it about this you and me issue and why you didn’t do this thing, we look at the actual things so the solution isn’t yelling at them or being like, What’s your problem, you’re going to develop bad eating habits.”
The thing is how can we make this something that feels easier. And that’s something that is very unschooly to me, because school would say, “Well you need to develop the discipline and know that every 2.5 hours you should ingest something.” Whereas with us we say, “How can we make it easier and you can just grab this thing and it’s just fine.” That sort of approach.
PAM: It’s like treating everybody as a human being, right?
AKILAH: Crazy idea, right? Haha
PAM: I love the way you describe the partnership. That’s another thing that can be a challenge when people come to unschooling and they’re dropping the idea of control, the ownership as you describe it, and they don’t know what else to do. We can share observations. We can help them, maybe notice those things. We can offer a whole range of possibilities ands solutions and figure out what works for everybody, rather than control or nothing, right?
AKILAH: Exactly. But oftentimes we don’t even have the language for something in between control and much less the practice.
PAM: Yes. Intellectually you can understand it, but it takes time. I say, at least six months or a year because the language and the understanding of a person and our likes and dislikes, those all eventually come together to help form that connection and that level of trust that you can develop.
AKILAH: Absolutely. I’m glad you talked about that time frame because we come from a schooled mindset, even those of us who didn’t go to school all the way through. That schooled mindset is pervasive. It’s everywhere. It’s not just in the school system.
When we come out of schooling or pull our kids from school, we feel we need to replace that model with something else because that’s all we know. We have to put something else in place. Whereas unschooling and so many forms of self-directed education are really rooted in the idea of trusting the children and trusting learning. So, observation, which in our schooled minds is such a passive thing. But now becomes this incredibly empowering tool because without it you can’t co-create. You can’t be in harmony or partner.
So, that period of time you mentioned about observing is for us, the ones in power as the adults in the environment to observe. But it’s also for our children to start trusting us to say, OK, she’s not going to ask me every 17 freaking minutes, “What am I learning?“ Because that’s what I did at first. (Haha) “What are you learning? What are you learning now? How’s it going? Let me see, let me see.”
PAM: Let me take a picture! Let me take a picture! Haha!
AKILAH: Right! Prove it! Prove that you’re learning! It’s ridiculous, right?
But we come out of that space to realize it’s about trusting. When you start to observe, you learn the power of observation. So, people ask us all the time, “You don’t test your kids? How do you know that they are learning!?” I get it, totally, because that’s where I was at first. I was like, “That’s foolishness! I’m going to need to test my child. I’m going to need to know so I’m going to create my own kind of unschooling that includes testing, because obviously they’re wrong.”
That’s where I was at first. But then I realized in a sense we do assess. They’re not bubbling in scan-trons or whatever the hell, but we do that by observing and being in dialogue with them. Not sneaky side-mouth dialogue where we’re trying to find out things but really just in dialogue.
When they come in and say, “Oh mom, I just created this character and it’s going to be featured on this and now I’m going to be moderating this group for this and that. I started this thing.” Then we could be like, oh, what does this mean? Then I could do my own research, independent of them, and really dive into it. Then the next time we talk I can say I researched this and I found out they’re having this going on here. Now I’m immersed in the space and not saying “What are you learning?” I’m actually seeing how they’re learning and I’m learning as well.
Not all the time because sometimes I don’t care, which is fine, too. But then there are times I totally care because it matches with my interest and curiosity and then we get to go down the road together. Those things can’t happen, as you said Pam, unless you’re taking the time to see and observe how they are and how you can help, even facing some of your own stuff as well. That takes some time to unfold and to recognize.
PAM: Yes. Your point about their trust in us and giving time to develop that trust in us is huge because they can tell the difference very easily if we’re asking questions with an ulterior motive behind it, can’t they? Or whether we actually choose to engage directly with them, right?
AKILAH: Exactly! And that’s a wonderful skill to be able to have. But I used to be annoyed by that, “Uh, I’m your mom! Of course I’m going to want to know what you’re learning!”
But they had to teach me. Like, “I’m just going to tell you something if that’s the case.” Oh, OK. That makes sense. Ok. Thankfully they were willing to express themselves, which I need. Like my type A personality very much needed from them, so I’m grateful that they were willing to do that.
Another side of my brain says, “Aww, I hate that they had to do that!” But that’s what it took for them to be like, “Mom, backup. I could just tell you something but that’s not the same thing.” They actually said that to me early on. It took that for me to be like, “that makes total sense.” Haha. “Ok, nevermind! Thank you.” And back off.
PAM: Right! Right! And back to they are whole people who understand this stuff. It’s amazing to have that open and trusting relationship where you can share observations and people are open to hearing them! It goes both ways in the end.
We should probably move on to the next question!! (laughter)
AKILAH: You’re right! Next question! (laughter)
PAM: OK, so you’re still in the transition and that was a great chat about that developed trust and connection. One of your other big questions you wrote about in your book as part of your transition is the what about math question.
PAM: You wrote …
Once you dug into it, that your perspective became “Math is a living principle, not a higher learning concept meant for college professors and smart people who teach.” I was wondering if you could share a little about your math journey?
AKILAH: Sure. That was really, really a tough one because Kris is a total math nut and I’m not. I have those typical, horrible experiences with math. It made me feel like I wasn’t smart. I excelled in everything else besides math so it felt like my sore spot.
I was really nervous on two sides: one was about transferring that to them; also I was nervous they wouldn’t be good at math if I wasn’t good at math and of course you need to be really good at math because that’s what everyone says. So, those were really tough points for me.
Kris was like, “Math is vital to life, math is everywhere and everything,” and all of that stuff. We were concerned how we would be on one page about math so that’s one of the reasons our transition wasn’t very smooth, very black and white. It wasn’t like one day they were in elementary school and the next they we were like, “Yeah! Let’s do it! Whatever you want!” It wasn’t like that.
We had them in the Georgia Virtual Academy, which is basically school online, for a while when we first went to Jamaica and that lasted for a short time because Marley was like, “I’m not taking my books to the beach, mom.” I was like, “You have to learn!”
Then it’s so ridiculous because there are all these learning opportunities and experiences happening on the beach, like they do everywhere in the world. What we did was looking at everything else, we started deconstructing the world behind that thing. We started looking at math and how it’s applied. How is it most relevant now at those ages they were, which were eight and six or maybe a little bit younger. I don’t really remember.
But money—that’s one of those things we wanted them to feel comfortable about. So, whenever we were at the supermarket in Jamaica, or at the shop we’d have them be responsible for the numbers. For example, we’d say we know we need these amount of things. One U.S. dollar is this many Jamaican dollars, let’s see how many were going to need to buy these things because we know it’s going to cost this in the supermarket but wet don’t know how much it will be in the market because we negotiate there so how do we know how much money to bring?
They loved that because it was a challenge and they really got excited about it. So, we did that together. They would take turns being responsible for the budget. We’d come home with the receipt from the supermarket and say “Oh, we were off by this much. Oh!” We started working on “money math” in that way. We used that as a catalyst to see how math was applicable in real life stuff.
Then we also applied it to the girls themselves. So, Marley really used to be into workbooks and worksheets for math. She liked them, liked being able to finish them. We were like, “But you’re not supposed to. You’re not in school!” But unschooling means coming to the realization that you get to do it however it makes sense to you in that moment. It’s not anti-school for everyone, which is what is so great about it. It’s just whatever works for you. In some cases, there are unschoolers who go to school for certain things, who get traditional student/instructor engagement on a particular topic because that works for them.
So, that’s how math became a real living thing for us. Take baking, Sage is really into baking and cooking. You can see how obviously measurement and those sorts of things would come into place. That’s how we started to see math was happening everyday in real life and we just needed to pay attention to how it was showing up.
PAM: Yeah, you made a great point that it’s all about choice and the freedom to choose how you’re going to engage and play with the topic vs the compulsory nature that you have to show up and you need to learn this. It makes a big difference.
OK! Question five.
You shared a tip in the book that is so valuable to unschooling but can sound pretty crazy when we’re first starting out and it was, “Don’t approach your children as if you already know what they need.” Now that turns out to be a key perspective for unschooling, doesn’t it?
AKILAH: It sure does.
PAM: For any relationship, really!
AKILAH: Any relationship, right?! I mean any relationship, period. Period!
I interviewed this woman named Moji and she is a doula, a birth worker. She talks about how one of the things she helps women and their partners to understand that when you go to a doctor try not to go looking up.
What she meant was don’t assume that they will already know all the things because they went further in the education process than you did. It’s the same thing but the doctor is us, right? Like this assumption that since I’ve been on the planet longer—I’m the momma, I’m the daddy, you’re the child so my one job is to make sure you don’t turn out to be a mass murderer and I’m going to do all these things because that’s how it works. That approach means that you’ve decided already. You’ve made some decisions already without the benefit, the necessary aspect of them. Who they are. How they are.
So, for me, deschooling was and continues to be in part this practice of being totally okay and even excited about not knowing. I don’t already know and that’s good because it means that I can be a part of co-creating what makes sense for them in that moment so we build those skills together. Then they’ll be able to apply those skills to any relationship and that’s how it makes sense for me because otherwise I’m going to be coercive—it just leads to a very coercive space. It’s like, “Here’s what I understand and I need you to fit into that.” Otherwise it’s going to be weird for me because we attack those things we don’t understand.
PAM: Yeah, and as we mentioned before even not just in your words but in your body language and your tone and the way you say things. If we don’t specifically assume or state what we think they need or know they need, it’s something we expect that they should need or do or act or a choice we want them to make, it’s so easy to subtly manipulate them, right? Then you don’t have a true connection and engagement with them to learn more about them.
I love your term co-create because that’s what you’re doing as partners, trying to help them accomplish what THEY’RE trying to accomplish. That’s a big piece, isn’t it, trying to get rid of, not get rid of. Not like you’re trying to push down saying that you’re wrong for having them, but realize why those expectations are getting in the way.
AKILAH: Exactly, and that’s why I firmly believe that so much of parenting, even if we’re not talking about self-directed education, so much of parenting is about us managing our own stuff. So much of that is personal leadership. It’s really about recognizing what your own issues are and observing with compassion, which can be so hard, in part because of the schooled mindset. It can be so hard to be compassionate with ourselves and our children, simultaneously. It’s really hard.
It falls right in line with social justice for me. A human rights sort of issue where we just don’t have enough practice and language allowing people to be, including ourselves, if we don’t know the outcome or the thing doesn’t feel familiar then we are afraid and through that fear-based space we justify a lot of nasty things. They don’t look like nasty thing things, they look like good parenting. They look like responsible parenting. “Of course, I’m going to need to make you do this. You’re a child. You don’t want to do this. I didn’t want to do this,” that sort of space.
We start to be mindful and when you come from that approach of not already knowing, then it allows you to create something together and you can root yourself in that. It also helps me to keep myself accountable. To say, “Wait, is this coercion?” Sometimes you don’t recognize it in advance. You’re just acting how you have always been.
So, you realize after that is coercive. You have that opportunity now to have that dialogue with your child and say know what? I’ve certainly had to do they many times. Where I go back and say, you know what? I did this and I actually feel like that probably wasn’t the best thing. One, because of how you reacted. And two, because I was able to do my own assessment. Then we dialogue about it. This happens all the time in our household.
PAM: Yeah, and as the kids got older it was an opportunity to explain a little bit about where that came from with us, right? When they have other friends and they’re meeting other family relationships with their children, other parenting styles, all those conversations come together and they start to learn so much more about understanding people’s motivations behind it.
AKILAH: Absolutely, yes!
PAM: That’s awesome! Question number six.
You are one of the members of the organizing team of the Alliance for Self-Directed Education. I was wondering if you could tell us a bit about the organization and its purpose?
AKILAH: Sure! I’m really excited about this connection. It’s really good. And it’s also very much an unschooly space even though not all of us are unschoolers where those same principles that we’ve been talking about. Not coming in and feeling like I know all the things so your job is to figure out how to know all the things that I know.
We really get to put those things in practice because a lot of us come from different spaces even within the movement our focal point is very different. So, when we meet up we get a chance to be together as people and to both honor where we are individually and collectively. So, I’m excited about the space.
Essentially it’s a non-profit organization where our primary thing is we want to normalize self-directed education. We want it to be something anybody in the world who is interested in it can do it and they feel supported in it. That they are not in spaces where other people are like, “I’ve never heard of that. That’s crazy.” Or that it’s illegal. We want to be a part of the dialogue and the movement towards making it normal and making it a lot more accessible. That’s the gist of it. We want to educate folks on how it shows up and help make it normal.
PAM: I liked when you talked about how there are people from different backgrounds, are coming from different spaces, not only do people get to know those things that exist but there are multiple options so they can, they have more opportunities to see how they can be able to find a space that works for their particular family.
AKILAH: Yes. That’s the point of it all because we know that unschooling is just one way. There are the democratic schools, learning centers, and co-ops. The people who are doing that work, we want to be able to support each other. We want to give voice to the different ways that is showing up.
That’s why the Alliance is specifically an alliance. We want it to be as large as possible. Inclusive as possible so it can be normalized. We want people to design how it shows up, but we know it can be scary. So, let’s highlight the people that have been doing this work for years already as well as bringing them into connection with folks who are saying, “Look, I don’t know what’s happening in school but it doesn’t work for me and mine.”
Or the myriad of other reasons why people get involved. We want a space where people can come together and have that support and be able to design something that makes sense for them uniquely. Or adapt something that is already in place like Agile Learning Centers or democratic schools that allow that freedom and also gives them the structure and space for what they want to create.
PAM: I thought it was a great idea and I will share the link to the Alliance website in the show notes for anyone who is interested to find out a little bit more.
Last month they put out their inaugural issue of their digital magazine called Tipping Points. You had a great article in there. In it you explain that, for you, unschooling is a vehicle for liberation. A way to walk a path rooted in our strengths and deepest interests. Now we have been talking about what that looks like for you and your family already but I wondered if there was anything else you wanted to share around that?
AKILAH: For me, specifically, it’s about creating space for people who are of color, who are immersed in self-directed education because we are, as you know, in SDE (self-directed education) we are already the weird, purple unicorns, right? We’re like the weirdos. And then on top of that, black and brown folks, an even smaller percentage.
When we enter the space, there are unique challenges both being a part of the space with other people and even in our own families. One small example is, when you have a white family who is going to drive across the country, the U.S. go through all the states. It’s very different for me as a person of color: there are certain states that we wouldn’t feel comfortable going through. Everybody has to know where it’s safe and where it isn’t, like going through some of the southern states. It’s going to be a very different experience if we stop in one city versus another. There are all these specific instances why people of color come into self-directed education because the school to prison pipeline, or the sexualization of black girl’s bodies in schools.
There are all of these unique aspects that contribute to the oppression of people of color and the persistence of white supremacy particularly in the school system and in the world at large. So, for me, realizing that being able to give my children the space to explore and express themselves and to be around people as people and to not feel like they need to be less than or to be safe or to be told these negative things about themselves or to study curricula that completely omits the contributions of people of color outside of Black history month where you talk about the same five people.
These sorts of things empower us to be able to be in a liberated mindset, a mindset that isn’t rooted in white supremacy and allows us to live as free people because we believe free people free people. We’re not looking at other people in the sense of I’m less than or in an adversarial space. We really have common ground. My daughters get to engage with people all over the world so they’re not looking at it from a space of, “I’m the one black girl in this class,” “there’s going to be a problem because my teacher is going to have a problem asking me questions,” like my background, for example.
OK, realizing that most of my teachers are white women and getting the warning signals that as a black girl they’re going to have certain expectations of me, how I’m supposed to be. Or if I wear my jeans like this because of my butt. All these things people don’t even think of that we navigate everyday. It gives us a chance to give voice to these things and in some cases to center ourselves in learning without having the weight of these things. Also, as we mentioned before, having language to understand why these things are happening without suffering the weight of them simultaneously.
PAM: I love the point that you make with your work and your podcast, too, about representing a space, not a set of people. I love the way you describe that.
I was hoping maybe you could give us a bit of the inspiration behind your Fare of the Free Child podcast and why you got started with it.
AKILAH: Sure. Unfortunately, the major push for me to get started with the podcast was yet another murder of a black person by a police officer. It was in June of last year and I don’t remember which human being it was. But it was one of those things where I was getting—when it happened I was getting a newsletter out for the work that I was doing very much focused on prior to this which was on personal leadership and radical self expression—and people tend to reach out to me when these sorts of things happen. Talking about ways to share it with their children. Ways to navigate the space themselves as a person of color.
Every time it happens, even though in this country there’s a history of black and brown lynchings, particularly with black folks, it is such a pattern, it’s so normal here. But still every time it happens is jarring and traumatic when these things happen but we get no days off. We still have to go into work tomorrow. Being afraid of being pulled over. Worrying about our children, our family members. That sort of thing.
I just remembered being so angry, again. Being so very angry over and over again. I’m so tired of feeling this fear about this thing and I knew that for me, a part of that liberatory space was to help my daughters own themselves and to not seek validation from an outside system, particularly one that is so influenced by white supremacy.
So being able to represent that space where the people can help their children center themselves and their learning and community and be with who feels good for them, to feel safe, to try to figure out how to create a space of feeling safe and valued in the middle of a country and a system that has us feeling exactly the opposite. So, that was the catalyst, being inspired by women and men who were already helping their children to center themselves, who were creating community and were trying to feel safe. That was the catalyst for Fare of the Free Child.
It definitely centers on people of color and self-directed education but it’s also focused on how learning happens. So, my listeners are not just people of color. It’s anyone who is looking at the human aspect, of figuring out how to learn and grow together amid a system that says, “Nope, you’re this so you’re separate. Here’s how you should and shouldn’t interact.”
I have the privilege of working with all types of people and meet all types of people who are learning how to center themselves and learning. That’s what the podcast highlights. So, I talk to folks who are unschoolers, since I’m partial to that space. Even some who are not in self-directed education but who are focusing on liberatory practices, like Mikayla who created the Atlanta Life School, which is really a progressive high school that had a few self-directed components to it. (Episode 3)
There is this debate on what is and is not self-directed education and I think it’s important to make that distinction. But I also want to expose more people to all of the different ways people are learning to liberate themselves from these coercive and oppressive and, in some cases, murderous systems.
So, that’s what the podcast is about. How are the people learning to own themselves. And how are people making more space for children to be free and own themselves. That really what I focus on the podcast and people of color because there are so many extra layers as to why we can’t be free. It’s really important that this space exists to show us we can and this is how some of us are already doing it. And that other people are making space for others to do it too.
PAM: I love that idea of creating that safe and valued community. A place for conversations. You’re right, there are so many different aspects to it, rather than specifically, “I’m only going to talk about this.” Just opening up the conversation is awesome because like I said, my eldest was nine before I even heard of such a thing. So being able to share those kinds of conversations, showing that care and respect for children, those are all such amazing things that the more voices the better, right?
AKILAH: Yes! And especially doing in a very open way, as you know Pam, listening to the podcast, this is like kitchen table with your homegirl talk. I want people to feel like all of those fears, you know this. It’s not easy to say, “You know what? I think my children deserve the space to be themselves. I also deserve the space to be myself and we’re going to figure out what that design looks like.” It’s scary. It’s hard. It’s an everyday practice in some cases. And in many ways is easy. It’s all of these.
It’s like people. It had all of these dimensions. So, I wanted somebody to get on a show and say I’m scared and I don’t know if I get it. Because when I started out like that, I got bashed a lot by people who were in the space when I asked about the math question, for example. It was like “Well obviously you don’t get it.” I’m like, “I know I don’t get it, that’s why I’m asking the question.” (laughter)
I wanted to create a space where that would be ok. Where you could say, “I don’t think this part makes sense to me but I’m still curious because I know what isn’t working.” I wanted a space where people could say that and not feel attacked but feel supported. Those are some of the reasons I needed to have that space.
PAM: That’s awesome, that’s awesome.
I listened to your most recent episode with your husband, Kris, which was great. You mentioned that you guys will be traveling to Africa. That’s this year, yes?
I was hoping you could tell us a bit about your family’s digital nomad lifestyle because I love hearing how unschooling families are supporting themselves and how plans for the trip came about.
AKILAH: Yeah, the catalyst for that trip was Zakiyya Ismail, one of the organizers of South Africa’s first self-directed education conference. It’s the Learning Reimagined Conference. I met her online. I just got to love her. She is amazing. The people she introduced me to, I was like, “My tribe!” I was so excited.
So Zakiyya was the catalyst for that. We had been wanting to go. We have a lot of friends in Ghana and we’ve been trying to go there for some time but it’s really been too expensive. It’s cheaper to fly to Jamaica so we’ve just been doing that. Now we were inspired by that. As it turns out, the conference is the 11th of February, 11th-13th, and we’re not going to be able to go to the conference, but we’ll be in South Africa and be there for a few months. So, we’ll still get to engage with Zakiyya and other folks who are already there. We’ll just be doing a lot on the continent because we’ve want to go for so long. We have friends in a lot of African countries so we are just going to hang out there for some time and just feel it out.
PAM: Wow, for a few months! Just kind of hanging out, traveling around, finding friends, that’s awesome!
AKILAH: What’s so different is in Jamaica everyone speaks English and we understand all the dialects cause that’s where Kris and I are from. Whereas now when we go to the continent is really going to give us an opportunity to experience a newness that Jamaica just wouldn’t be able to offer in the same way.
So we’re excited for the girls and ourselves. I thought about just Kris and I going to the conference. I thought we could just both go because it’s less expensive for two people to go than four. Then we said, “Or, we can just go for a longer time and it would be more of us because as Jamaican citizens we can be there longer. Jamaica had relations with some of those places. So, we’re going to do that.
PAM: I’m looking forward to getting an update from that!
AKILAH: Yes, I will be podcasting from South Africa and Namibia and all these other countries so look or for that!
PAM: Yay! So much fun! Alright, we have made it to question ten. This is the question I ask all my “ten question” guests.
I was wondering, looking back now, what for you so far has been the most valuable outcome from choosing unschooling?
AKILAH: It would go right back to that liberation mindset. That all of these things I believe in as a social justice believer, as an intersectional feminist, all of these things I believe in, unschooling for me has truly been the vehicle that allows me to live that. To live my politics in that sense. To afford that same right to my children—and not just mine, but I have more of an influence with my children in terms of what they can and can’t do. That’s the most important thing. I now get to practice liberation and I get to extend that space to my daughters.
PAM: It’s amazing, isn’t it? Coming from kids who were in school, at first, I thought if I take them out of school, what am I going to replace school with? In that first six months to a year, I realized the extent of what this was about. I loved your whole liberation mindset. It’s why we talk about unschooling becoming a lifestyle because it just permeates everywhere. It’s just an incredible way to live.
And you just realize how many constructs were defining your actions. Those constructs are toxic and they don’t even align with who you are. It’s like, I don’t want that. I don’t want to make anybody do anything. That just didn’t dawn on me before. Now I have all of this practice and language. All this compassion, this love/harmony /partnership approach to life and living and that really empowers me. It started about helping my kids to “learn good,” and now it’s about living in harmony with my spirit.
PAM: That’s a good point. It ends up being a lot of our own work, to figure all this out but it’s just such a growth vehicle for us, as people, right? And we learn so much from them. They haven’t been so controlled. They recover so much more quickly because they are still in touch with that open mindset. Just watching them we can learn so much.
AKILAH: Absolutely. I’m sure some folks listen to you out of the space of curiosity, those who aren’t immersed in it but know what’s not working but don’t know yet what to replace it with. I would say unschooling, really, self-directed education, is a philosophy, it becomes an approach to living.
That the box of learning, which comes from the schooled mindset and the pervasiveness. You realize how naturally things can work when you use love and trust, these “woo-woo,” esoteric terms, that sound like yeah, I don’t do yoga. We start to understand the practicality of these ways because trust and love are practical things. They really are.
PAM: That’s amazing. That’s a great place to end, because it’s been a long conversation. But it’s been totally amazing! I want to thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today, Akilah, because it was a lot of fun!
AKILAH: Thank you so much. I appreciate you reaching out and making time to talk to me as well. I know I’m a talker so I know it went long but I thoroughly enjoyed this conversation! Thank you!
PAM: Thank you so much for all the insights and information you shared! I think it will be very helpful for our listeners, too.
Before we go, where is the best place for people to connect with you online?
AKILAH: Akilahsrichards.com, that’s going to give you all the links to where I am. I’m also on Instagram and Twitter as radicalselfie. All one word. I’m also on Facebook, but I’m on there less. Or if you look me up I have a fan page radicalselfie. But mostly Twitter and Instagram are more the spaces I engage or go to Akilahsrichards.com.
PAM: That is awesome! Thank you so much and have a great day!
AKILAH: Thank you Pam. Keep doing this wonderful work. I’m going to continue to binge listen to past episodes of yours. I’m enjoying them. Thank you.
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