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The Arts

Working Class

Red Emma's works to realize its latest project--a free school

Frank Klein
Free School organizers (from left) Kate Khatib, John Duda, and Corey Reidy at Red Emma's.

By Bret McCabe | Posted 5/27/2009

"Everybody has something to teach," says Kate Khatib, a member of the Red Emma's collective and co-organizer of the Mount Vernon bookstore/activist hive's latest endeavor, the Red Emma's Free School Project. "And the idea behind this thing would be that it would be open for all those people to come in and share the knowledge that they have, be it something very broad or something very small and very artsy, a real range of stuff."

"We've always been really interested in doing educational stuff here," adds co-organizer and fellow Red Emma's collective member John Duda. "It was one of the reasons we opened this space. We wanted to make our own coffeehouse, but also to present more people to talk about books and ideas."

Sitting at one of Red Emma's tables on a weekday afternoon, Khatib and Duda, both 31, appear to have complementary personalities for the task at hand. She comes across as calm and collected, speaking with mellifluous confidence. He comes across as energetic but focused, words and ideas spilling out of his mouth with restless excitement. Together, they've participated in the collective nurturing of one of the city's quieter stories of local business growth.

Red Emma's bookstore and coffee shop opened five years ago this November, and in early 2007 the collective formed a partnership with St. John's United Methodist Church, located at St. Paul and 27th streets in Charles Village, to form the 2640 Space, a multi-use venue well-suited for Red Emma's wide swathe of cultural programming, from musical performances, lectures, fairs and festivals (the Radical Book Fair, the DIY Fest), to academic qua intellectual conferences, such as this past March's City From Below conference.

All of this activity is greatly inspired by the collective's political ideals outside the usual norms of small-business economic models (Red Emma's is worker-owned, collectively run), retail products (it sells a fair share of books from small, independent presses and periodicals covering ostensibly radical politics and culture), and menu items (the cafe serves fair-trade, organic coffee and vegan/vegetarian food). It's still a business, mind you, but it exists less as an affront to the corporate capitalistic status quo--e.g., these days, many big-box bookseller chains and online vendors stock some of the same titles that Red Emma's does, and sometimes the sheer volume enables those entities to sell titles at prices cheaper than those offered by the proverbial local, independent bookstore--than an alternative. Red Emma's doesn't exude the vibe that it's trying to tell you how to think or where and how you should spend your money. It's simply acknowledging a fundamental market force--consumer choice--and providing people an option of what they choose to support with their patronage.

A similar idea drives the Red Emma's Free School Project, the current working title for the endeavor. When the dry cleaners space just next door to Red Emma's St. Paul Street location opened up recently, the collective inquired about acquiring it as a classroom. In early May, Duda started circulating e-mails and fliers to raise money to cover the school's meager expenses--rent, basically. The goal is to raise roughly $6,000 to cover the space for one year through nominal donations from interested participants--"Ideally, if we need to come up with $500 a month, we'd have 100 people each paying $5 a month--an amount that people aren't feeling that much coming out of the bank account," Khatib offers as an example. Currently, Duda and Khatib report that about 75 percent of the startup costs have been raised, and they hope that they can hit their goal by their June 1 deadline to acquire the space. (Visit for more information or to contribute.)

The school's educational model, like the bookstore/coffee shop and 2640 Space, doesn't reinvent the wheel. It merely introduces an alternative to the usual institutional tuition system. "There's definitely people who have been opening up free schools for a really long time," Duda says. "People have done this in places all around the country. The one I'm most familiar with is Santa Cruz, who has a really excellent one. They all work slightly differently, but we're definitely looking at those things for inspiration, but also sort of the wider tradition of libertarian education, [such as] the Modern School."

The American Modern Schools were an early 20th-century model inspired by Spanish anarchist Francesc Ferrer i Guàrdia's Escuela Modernas, organizations designed to teach intermediate students about progressive social ideals. (Gads of information about Guàrdia, New York's first Modern School, and its organizers, can be found online.) More recently, the "free skool" idea has emerged as a community-oriented, grassroots-organized, loosely structured education model. The Santa Cruz example Duda cites--Free Skool Santa Cruz--currently boasts a spring 2009 curriculum that includes a number of classes that range from bicycle repair and workshops to language instruction and emergency first-aid workshops to academic seminars such as "The New American Poetry."

It's the sort of eclectic offerings Duda and Khatib would like to see take place in Baltimore. And people have already been contacting them with class ideas. "We've got a lot of people who want to teach language courses," Duda says. "So we want to have Spanish, Arabic, Russian, French."

"But also [English as a second language]," Khatib adds. "It's a real range of stuff. Ideally and hopefully--we'll see how things go--but ideally it would be a mixture of a very, very practical skill sharing and then people teaching more historical or more theoretical kinds of stuff."

In many ways, the Free School project is a more consistent continuation of many of Red Emma's-sponsored events and lectures over the years. "We've done things at 2640, larger events--debates, the City From Below Conference--a lot of these things are sort of dancing around this educational idea," Duda says. "And one of the things we've found difficult to do is to do more sustained things. When you have all these multi-use spaces that are always being used for tons and tons of things, it's hard to say, OK, we're going to have a class and it's going to meet every day. It's hard to do that without having to shut down the business if it happens at the store and at 2640 it's a much larger space than you would need for, say, 10 people talking about a book."

So when the space next door became available, the collective decided to see if it could kick-start its Free School idea into actuality. If the first year's startup costs are raised, the collective hopes to open for classes by mid-summer. Taking courses or teaching a course is not contingent on financial investment in the school, though the organizers hope that use and interest in the school generates the sort of continued support in attendance and modest donation to sustain it. Like the bookstore and the 2640 Space, community-building is one of the Free School's goals as much as offering goods and services.

"We hope that we end up having a mix of both people from Baltimore, but also out-of-town people," Duda says. "One of the things that we're thinking about is inviting out of town people that we've worked with in the past to come and stay for a weekend or a week and give extensive seminars."

"City From Below was an incredible weekend, but it was also a sort of surprising triumph of organizing because it brought together so many different people who didn't even know that they shared all of these ideas or all of these desires for moving things forward in the future," Khatib adds. "And I do think that the Free School is a natural outgrowth of the stuff that we've been doing all along."

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