Freedom University: Students & Allies Fight for Access & Education in Georgia's Public Colleges

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“Undocumented—Unafraid! Undocumented—Unafraid!”

After a 14-hour classroom sit-in, Freedom University students and allies refuse to leave Georgia State University during the #Greensboro Now action. Eight students were arrested on charges of criminal trespassing. February 2, 2016. Photo: Laura Emiko Soltis.

Such is the slogan that has been galvanized by this nation’s immigrant youth movement. It has been heard in the hallways of Congress, it has been invoked in Miami, throughout California, and for years it has been chanted in the streets of Atlanta.
In order to fight what activists refer to as The Ban: a policy of modern segregation that prohibits access for undocumented students in public universities, undocumented students have been oscillating between the streets and the classrooms, issuing their demands in both forums. The Ban, encapsulated in policies 4.1.6 and 4.3.4 enacted by the Georgia Board of Regents in 2011, stipulates that individuals who are not “lawfully present” in Georgia cannot qualify for in-state tuition in Georgia’s university system, nor can they qualify for admittance in Georgia’s top-five public universities.
The discriminatory impact of the Board’s policies also entailed an unintended consequence. Almost immediately after it was instituted, a hub of resistance and education emerged—Freedom University Georgia.
In this underground and un-accredited institution, the premise of education is its direct relationship to the students’ political environment. Beyond workshops in essay composition, tutoring, photography, graphic design, a critical history of the United States (as inspired by the late-Professor Zinn), or their A Cappella ensemble, the students of Freedom U. focus on crafting resistance strategies to The Ban and on expanding their network of artists, lawyers, veterans of the Civil Rights Movement, former and current politicians, professors, student-allies, and local activists.
During the last five years, as the student activists disseminated their message throughout their community and the nation, a coalition of Freedom U. chapters has emerged in different colleges around Georgia, California and the North East. The network depends on connections that are made between institutions and students, as the Atlanta immigrant youth movement’s focus is access to education and the abolition of admissions policies that discriminate based on the applicant’s immigration status.

Emma Krass (left) and Luis San Roman (right) participate in a 50-student protest of undocumented students and allies from the University of Georgia, Georgia State University, and Emory University, disrupting a Georgia Board of Regents board meeting in Atlanta. November 10, 2016. Photo: Laura Emiko Soltis.

I had the opportunity to speak to one of the young leaders of this movement. Melissa Rivas-Triana, a 21-year-old Freedom University student, was born in Aguascalientes, Mexico. Melissa spent most of her life, kindergarten through 12th Grade, in Georgia’s public education system, and because of The Ban, when it came time for college her options were limited, not due to a lack of merit qualifications, but because of her status. Melissa has been studying at Freedom U. for four years, and during this time she has become one of the most penetrating voices in Atlanta’s immigrant youth movement. We talked about the roles allies play in her movement and her thoughts about outsiders’ solidarity in activism.
“I think there is an important role for everyone in any movement. In the particular movement I’m a part of, the undocumented student movement in Georgia, I’ve met some of the most amazing individuals, both undocumented and allies. While I believe that a movement should first and foremost be led by the affected group in question, in this case, undocumented students, having committed and understanding allies that are willing to learn is extremely important,” Said Rivas-Triana.
I caught Melissa as she was traveling to Duke University. She was invited to speak and participate in a conference dedicated to issues of race in higher education. At Duke, Melissa was to juggle her many hats—representing herself, Freedom University, and the movement. “The issue of undocumented student access to higher education directly affects undocumented students but ultimately, it affects the whole community. That is why it is vital that a whole community stands behind this. “El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido.” The People united will never be defeated.”
As the network expands, some of the most effective chapters are still local, as at Emory University, where the students succeeded in pressuring the administration to establish an open admission policy that reviews the candidacy of applicants regardless of status, and, in some cases, provides full scholarships.
This year, most of the members of this network had an opportunity to unite for a weekend conference during the last days of January. During a 3-day event, students from around the country collaborated with F.U. students in leading discussions, panels and workshops, on critical issues such as the intersectionality of different political struggles, the privilege and role of allies, and the many permutations of solidarity. Afterwards, the students launched what would become their biggest action: three Georgia classrooms were to be integrated simultaneously.
In Atlanta’s movement there is often an explicit reverence paid to the heroes and icons of the Civil Rights Movement. After all, this city has been labeled the “cradle” of the movement long ago, when, in 1957, the SCLC launched its nation-wide battle against Jim Crow from Atlanta’s downtown streets. Many of the legends still live in the neighborhood, and some have become close mentors, visiting F.U. students in actions and workshops regularly.
In an attempt to lift up the courage of those who shined brightly throughout one of this nation’s darkest hours, the students decided to celebrate the Greensboro sit-ins, launched by four North Carolina A&T freshman in 1960, by commemorating their first lunch counter sit-in with their own desegregation action. The hashtag of this integration campaign, #GreensboroNow, made it clear to the community of Atlanta activists, university presidents, and to the Board of Regents, why leading members of Atlanta’s immigrant youth movement picked February 1st for their largest action yet.
The integration of three classrooms in the University of Georgia (UGA), Georgia State University (GSU), and Georgia Institute of Technology, embodied the volition of local students to expand the demographical limitations that have been placed on their own academic experiences. It also echoed the aspirations of Freedom University to invoke the past into the present, as it involved the collaborative effort of Southern students and Northern students from places like Harvard, Smith, and Bard College. The integration of education among undocumented and documented students represented the solidarity that was forged and cemented during the course of the years of organizing, as well as, the more recent 3-day conference.
In the three classrooms, one could only distinguish between the undocumented from the rest by the butterfly wings that were worn on their backs, an artistic symbol that aimed to remind everyone who was witnessing that migration is a natural process, and not one deserving of penalization.
The intention of the students was captured in a clear demand—the Presidents of UGA, Georgia Tech, and GSU must denounce the policies instituted by the Board of Regents five years ago, which limited access to higher education for the entire undocumented population of the State. While Georgia’s public colleges do not set their own admission policies, and are obligated to adhere to the Board of Regents, the students hoped that their act of civil disobedience would inspire the respective administrations to reevaluate their position on the issue.
After many hours spent in these integrated classrooms, in which students inquired into lectures presented by some of the State’s best educators, the cops showed up to clear the buildings of the protesters. Among the 14 arrests, 8 were of allies and 6 were of F.U. students. The only student who was arrested for criminal trespassing on her own campus, Emma Krass, recently faced a disciplinary hearing in the University of Georgia, over the nature of her arrest and her violation of four precepts of the college’s Student Conduct Manual.
Almost immediately after her arrest, on February 2nd, Emma received notification that the office of Student Conduct charged her with unauthorized use of campus space, failure to comply with law enforcement, participating in political action that was conducted in contravention of the prescriptions of the Manual, and “reckless or intentional disruption” of educational endeavors on campus.

Documented allies and community members block traffic during an act of civil disobedience at the Georgia State Capitol. Atlanta, Georgia. June 28, 2011. Photo: Laura Emiko Soltis

Krass, a 22-year-old senior, who studies political science and international affairs, declined to engage in an informal resolution, a quick agreement resembling of a plea-bargain, which would place her on probation that threatened her suspension in case Krass engaged in further violation of the code for a year, and demand that she fulfill a minimum of 25-hours of community service. The informal resolution would also entail a swift and private conclusion to Krass’ political agenda and civil disobedience. Instead, she decided to face the hearing and present her case openly, in front of a panel of three members composed of two fellow students, one faculty member, and the rest of her campus community as audience.
When I spoke to Krass, she contended that her actions were not in violation of the student Code of Conduct, but rather her political actions advanced the mission and principles of the institution. According to the Manual, “members of the University of Georgia Community” shall “aspire to uphold the principles manifested in the three pillars of the arch.” There principles are Wisdom, Justice and Moderation. According to Krass, her insistence to remain in the integrated classroom and consequently violate the orders of law enforcement agents and security personnel, was congruent with the values aspired to by the university.
“Wisdom,” according to the Code, “challenges us to apply lessons received inside and outside the classroom to our everyday lives.” In the course of her career as a student at UGA, Krass studied the history of the Civil Rights Movement, its connections to her university, and the events that swept the streets of Atlanta long before she was born. Such struggles, and their correspondence to the experiences of undocumented student today, inspired her to utilize her privilege as a documented student and resist the policies of the Board, which prohibits her peers from learning alongside her.
“Justice,” reads the Manual, “leads us to be fair in our dealings, accountable for our actions, responsible for ourselves, and empathetic for others. Justice requires honesty and celebrates diversity, establishing credibility and integrity for our community and ourselves.” For Krass, her actions clearly adhered to this principle: “The Ban is unjust,” she told me, and the fight for justice encapsulated in the classrooms in which F.U students and documented students listened to a lecture about the experiences of Palestinian student activists resisting Israel’s occupation, among many other topics, was a celebration of diversity.
“Moderation,” according to the Manual, “compels us to act with civility, bolstering our faith in others and the faith others have in us. Moderation accentuates our self-respect, promotes responsible citizenship, and enhances pride in our university.” As a responsible member of the UGA community, Krass recognized her arrest as an assertion of solidarity, which enhances her pride in the ability of the university to uphold its own morals. For Krass, if she and her fellow students succeeded to pressure the president of UGA, Jere Morehead, to denounce The Ban and demonstrate that his university will cherish the virtues prescribed to students by opening up the educational experience in UGA to all students, these values would be vindicated instead of tarnished by hypocrisy. Krass described her time at UGA as fulfilling and positive, but stated that in order for her to truly remain proud in her experiences as a student there, “the segregation must end.”
The panel which reviewed her case was compelled by her argument, and although it found her guilty of three violations (all but “reckless or intentional disruption”), the sanctions were minimal—Krass is expected to follow a less-than-inhibiting reprimand: adhere to the student code of conduct in the future, continuously meet with a student conduct officer, and write an essay reflecting on her experiences.
Prior to the verdict of the disciplinary hearing, I spoke to the Director of Freedom University, Dr. Laura Emiko Soltis, who also teaches documentary photography and human rights at F.U. Before receiving her doctorate, Dr. Soltis was an active student activist during her career as an undergraduate at UGA, as well as during her time as a graduate student at Emory University. She has since then accumulated extensive experience organizing in a variety of settings.

Freedom University students listen to a lecture on student-led peace movements in Palestine by Azadeh Shahshahani during the classroom sit-in at Georgia State University during the #GreensboroNow action. February 1, 2016. Photo: Laura Emiko Soltis.

Her contribution to the mission of F.U involves the blending of organizing strategies and a rigorous curriculum, which explores critical pedagogy and the means by which education can enable decolonization. While Soltis has noticed a cultural shift aided by the work of F.U and allies, exhibited by the discursive transition between references to her students as “illegals”, and now “undocumented”, for example, she has also learned from local Civil Rights legends that the road to freedom is a long one. In the heart of this battle over words such as illegal versus undocumented, lies a key to the success of the movement: the recognition of their humanity.
Dr. Soltis is as much an innovative activist and challenging professor, as she is committed and energizing. Her reaction to UGA’s decision to hold a hearing to review Krass’ actions was a blend of incredulity with the school and appreciation for Krass’ poised commitment. “They are moving forward with disciplining a student, rather than addressing the policies of segregation which this student was protesting,” She said. As noted by Dr. Soltis, the integrated classrooms were a powerful symbol because they demonstrated to the Presidents, the Board, and the population of Georgia, that true and meaningful diversity of races and statuses, is “the will of the students,” and challenged the control government officials preserve over their educational experiences.
Dr. Soltis sees the value of building coalitions and the contributions of allies in the undocumented student movement. She has taught many that student-activism belongs in the forefront of the movement for immigrant rights in the United States, and she noted that for many of the new members of the movement, arrest is a vital experience of radicalization.
But beyond getting arrested, the combination of intimately knowing the names and faces of those are most impacted by The Ban, and the general confrontation with State authorities which are obligated to preserve the legislation of bodies such as the Georgia Board of Regents, presents documented, often white, recently admitted members of the movement in a new political position, in which their privilege has been leveraged to support their peers as they struggle for equality.
Rivas-Triana describes the power of the connections she has bridged with allies intimately, “Students from all around the country came together to support one cause that they believe in: that the bans prohibiting undocumented students from attending college in Georgia should be lifted. We had some real and deep conversations, participated in activities, played games, and most importantly we hung out and made lasting friendships. That most important thing to have in any movement is trust. And when it came time for action, the one thing we could definitely count on was that trust in each other, that we would stand side by side in solidarity, whatever the outcome. There is just a connection unlike any other that is built through participating in a direct action, especially one as intense and emotionally demanding as ours.”
One of the allies I spoke to, Acacia Handel, a 21-year-old student at Bard College, where she studies human rights, told me that her experiences at the 3-day conference were as meaningful as the action itself. Handel is an ally who has the capacity to criticize her own privileged position. She notes the difficulty faced by movements that incorporate outsiders to their struggles, “allies get to fight and then leave,” she said, but after intimately acquainting herself with the personal lives and struggles of F.U. students who she now considers close friends, she admitted: “for us this could be just another experience, but for them, this will continue to be their lives.” The meaningful friendships built over the time used to prepare for the action empowered Handel to remain in solidarity: “Now, my investment in the movement will be sustainable through the relationships we have, and even though I still have the privilege to shut all of that out, the long-term investment will maintain the movement.”
Like many of the students who participated in the F.U conference and #GreensboroNow action, Handel soon returned to her college. At Bard, she is collaborating with other students who attended the action in order to salvage a privately funded scholarship program that could enable F.U. students to enroll without concerns once accepted. Institutions, like Bard, where The Ban doesn’t apply, have the potential to emulate Emory and set their own admission rules regarding undocumented students. Bard is currently reviewing the applications of two F.U. students.
Handel echoed the dilemmas that tend to stick to the lives of activists. Should her chapter focus on collaborating with F.U. students in their struggle against the isolated context of status-based segregation in Georgia, or should they foster a culture of awareness at Bard and attempt to expand resources and opportunities to the undocumented population that lives locally? Translating the fight in Georgia to one’s own context seems to be a difficult process, as activists strive to address the fight they are already members of as allies, while considering strategies to combat the amalgam of issues that face the large undocumented population that lives among all of us in this country.
This admission season, Melissa Rivas-Triana shifted her focus from Georgia’s best to some of the elite private institutions of the North. She aims to study anthropology and art history. Melissa has applied to Smith College, Mount Holyoke College, Yale, and Bard. The process of applying to college as an undocumented student often means entails navigating an unprepared admission department, which lacks tested methods to evaluate the candidacy of undocumented students adequately.
Many of these private institutions have adapted policies that simultaneously enable them to accept students regardless of their status, while also failing to take a stance on the issue; undocumented students usually apply under the classification of “international students,” criterion that enables admission and financial aid, but also fails to review the uniqueness of the undocumented experience in the United States. The applicant pool to schools like Yale and Bard reflect different values, but all share a distinction between domestic students and international students. Many of the international students who apply to such schools come highly prepared for higher education in the United States, as many have attended elite private schools located around the world. The standard for domestic students requires less exceptional qualifications than the criteria for non-U.S citizens. For Meslissa Rivas-Triana, this is but one of the many obstacles she is bound to endure and overcome. After meeting her I hold no doubt that she will succeed, and when she does receive her acceptance letter she is bound to reconnect with some of the people she has grown to know in the course of her role in the movement. “We shared tears and laughs and there’s a very strong connection when you go through something like that together.”

Sagiv Galai was born in Israel and has spent half of his life in New York. After studying human rights at Bard College he has continued to work as an independent journalist, writer, and researcher.