Freedom Dreams and Abolitionist Youth Organizing

by Kaitlyn J. Selman and Cori J. Farrow

[featured image by Pete Railand]

Visionary fiction writer Walidah Imarisha says, “We live in a quantum universe—the possibilities are endless. The way systems of power maintain themselves is to deny us that and to tell us there’s only one or two terrible options.” Racial capitalism’s presence, the conditions it creates, and the mechanisms that reproduce it, have become so naturalized that our ability to imagine alternatives beyond it seems severely limited. Working instead towards a society kept alive through liberation, safety, and community necessitates that we disentangle these notions from the ideological hegemony bounded by racial capitalism. Put another way, to “create a world that works for more people, for more life, we have to collaborate on the process of dreaming and visioning and implementing that world” (brown, 2017, 158). It is through the process of Robin D.G. Kelley’s (2002) freedom dreaming, the dreaming up of new worlds beyond the dispossessive cages and conditions of the current one, that the fictional narrative of (limited) possibility is ruptured. Like a dandelion pushing its way towards the surface, through the soil, around the utility lines, and finally breaking into and between the cracks in the concrete, freedom dreams are the beginnings of life on new worlds.

Here, we uplift the freedom dreams of youth-focused organizations and collectives across the territories currently known as the USA. Abolitionist geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore (2017, 226) says that “racial capitalism’s extensive and intensive animating force…is people in the prime of life or younger, people who make, move, grow, and care for things and other people.” In this way, it is young people who are uniquely vulnerable to the dispossessive and exploitative conditions of racial capitalism, and today’s youth are attempting to navigate particularly devastating times: they have suffered through multiple economic collapses, the gutting of an already deteriorating education system, the exponential growth of the carceral state, and the quickening burn of the earth—all of which is now accelerated by the novel coronavirus. That is to say, youth are the fodder for the driving forces of racial capitalism as its institutions remain intent on the “production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death” (Gilmore, 2006, 28). Thus, it is youth, and particularly youth forced to the margins, who are made exceptionally exposed to the enmity of this system.  But—and most importantly—they are also the ones transforming this hellscape into the fertile land we need to grow new worlds beyond racial capitalism. Because of this, many of the organizations we discuss here are led by youth, most are comprised predominantly of youth, and all focus on issues that uniquely impact young people. In particular, they center the experiences of and challenges faced by those who are both young and socially/economically marginalized, including poor youth, Black and Brown youth, undocumented youth, and queer youth. And while these organizations operate primarily in the USA, their efforts contend with racial capitalist forces on both a local and global scale—they envision and work towards new worlds, unbounded by fictionalized borders.

Expanding the realm of possible futures requires that we directly challenge the slender confines of “reason” and rely instead upon the exponential powers of the imagination, for “it is within the spaces of imagination, the dream spaces, that liberatory practices are born and grow, leading to the space to act and to transform” (Carruthers, 2018, 25). The worlds these organizations and others like them imagine, hold firmly in their collective minds, and towards which they always look and move, are ones in which “all Black people have economic, social, political, and educational freedom” (BYP100), the Southeast Asian community is “free from state, street, and interpersonal violence” (prYSM), “communities and working folk control their own lives”, no longer “controlled by the authority of people who don’t care about us” (Youth Prison Blockade). Put simply, they are worlds built on and through freedom: “Freedom from poverty, freedom from prisons and police…freedom of movement, freedom from war, violence, and environmental destruction, freedom to be” (Dream Defenders). To bring those worlds into being, these organizations (re)imagine relationships in ways that fundamentally challenge those imposed by racial capitalism. They understand the ways in which space can be used for dispossession but also for liberation, and thus seek to both protect existing spaces from the influence of exploitative logics/policies and create new spaces for freedom dreaming. They are also acutely aware of racial capitalism’s dependence on isolation, an awareness that in turn informs their efforts at establishing and deepening connection between people and across communities.

As one of the most sprawling and adaptive forces for dispossession, many organizations have taken up campaigns against the carceral state, particularly as its expansive growth continues to destroy vulnerable communities. In 2016 the now-disbanded Youth Prison Blockade successfully blocked the building of a new residential juvenile detention facility proposed in Minneapolis’s Twin Cities. Two weeks after YPB members disrupted one of the “community engagement and discussion sessions” about the facility, plans to move forward were halted. Similar goals motivate the #NoCopAcademy campaign. Comprised of various organizations like Assata’s Daughters and Black Youth Project 100, #NoCopAcademy was formed to block the construction of a $95 million police training facility in Chicago, demanding instead that those resources be invested into supportive services and spaces like schools and community health centers. Unfortunately, in March 2019 the city council voted to allow construction to begin—though the fight against carceral expansion rages on.

Boston’s Young Abolitionists fight spatial exploitation as it manifests in gentrification. Their “Keep it 100 for Egleston” campaign uses street occupation, tent cities, protests, and presence at Boston Development Association Meetings to stop the gentrification of the Jamaica Plain/Roxbury neighborhoods. In Chicago, Kuumba Lynx uses art to respond to this violent process: their 606 Graffiti Garden is a 3-mile stretch of murals collaboratively designed and painted by Chicago artists, serving as “a sanctuary for street artists working to reclaim space, resist gentrification and utilize their art as an alternative to violence.” Pipeline construction similarly involves the violent re-appropriation of land and resources fueled by the thirst for profit and buttressed through the dehumanization of its residents. The International Indigenous Youth Council and other Water Protectors have been disrupting the unrelenting pillage and destruction of ancestral land, coordinating relay runs up to 1,000-miles long meant to urge those in power to halt pipeline construction, and setting up prayer camps along the pipeline routes. While their communal movement across the land is a way to demonstrate that the water is connected and so too are those who protect it, the prayer camps have become major points of contestation against the pipeline and the agents put there to “defend” it.

Through their Queer Transformative Roots program, Providence, Rhode Island’s prYSM seeks to both protect existing spaces by fighting gentrification and createa liberatory space in the form of a housing cooperative. As they describe it, the Queer Community Housing Initiative “aims to reduce QTPOC homelessness and combat housing instability in our city through the creation of a housing cooperative, while combating oppressive systems like gentrification, heterosexism, and capitalism.” Through this project, then, they are reimagining how queer people can access existing spaces and co-creating a safe space to call home. But the creation of freedom-spaces need not be so large-scale. The St. Louis Chapter of Youth Undoing Institutional Racism has engaged with this practice through their community garden. The garden was created to place people in direct connection with the earth and their neighbors by promoting health and vitality, providing free or affordable food, and cultivating new and old relationships, thus countering the structure of global capitalism.

But these dreams of new worlds are also defined by interconnectedness rather than the suffocating alienation of the racial capitalist regime. As pleasure activist adrienne maree brown implores, to manifest such futures we must be “fractal”—working through our channels of connection to create patterns that spiral upwards. The logics of racial capitalism continuously aim to shatter such relationships, and so we must create opportunities to learn how to protect and strengthen them. As the Florida-based, and most aptly named “Dream Defenders” explain, “a fundamental change in what we learn and how we learn will change our society.” This idea underlies their YoungSquaDD program, which provides leadership development and revolutionary analysis for students so that they may “determine their destinies by taking ownership over their education, their history, and their communities.” Similarly, the Highlander Research and Education Center’s Seeds of Fire program trains youth in critical political analysis and organizing strategies aimed at uprooting state-sanctioned violence and dismantling oppressive regimes. Across time and space, these programs and others like them help to develop an orthography of resistance to systemic oppression. It should also be noted that Highlander has been a space for some of the most transformative freedom dreaming, providing literacy education and training in non-violent resistance during the Civil Rights Movement and even earning the not-meant-to-be-complimentary label as a “bastion of radical communism” in southern white newspapers. Surviving busted out windows, repeated threats of violence, and most recently arson, Highlander has continued to train new generations of activists and helped to bring their freedom dreams to life.  

More informally though, many of these organizations build “community to dream and scheme” (Carruthers, 2018, 132) by providing spaces for young people to simply and freely be together.  Channeling the healing power of community, in 2015 Chicago-based Project NIA hosted a “Play-In” to uplift the life of Tamir Rice. At this event, people were encouraged to create art, play games, and have fun together to honor another life lost to the oppressive state. In much the same way, the International Indigenous Youth Council offers monthly “Kick Backs” where young people can “just straight up chill at some of [their] favorite community spaces” and the BYP100 Jackson chapter hosts mixers that bring together Black people “who are looking for a place to envision a future of freedom together.”

Whether through learning or laughter, as these communal bonds are forged and strengthened they reverberate outwards, forming a rhizomatic system of connectivity much like brown describes of the oak tree’s root network: “under the earth always they reach for each other, they grow such that their roots are intertwined and create a system of strength which is as resilient on a sunny day as it is in a hurricane.” Reminiscent of this network, on February 16, 2016, Assata’s Daughters participated in an action of civil disobedience led by Organized Communities Against Deportation. Together, they shut down the ICE office and the highway entrance ramp into Chicago during the morning rush-hour commute. Drawing connections between anti-blackness and settler colonialism (without equating them or dissolving their differences), Assata’s Daughters joined with OCAD as a sign of solidarity. As they see it,

Solidarity is as much to do with difference and self-reflection, as a shared commitment to end oppression. It is, at its best, a verb: It means the ongoing work of appreciating another community’s oppression and resistance even when it has nothing to do with you, building deep relationships, developing shared analysis and strategy, taking action together, studying and being transparent about the ways we are complicit in each other’s oppression, showing up for each other and practicing accountability. 

The importance of play, joy, and solidarity cannot be understated—these are revolutionary acts and states of being that directly challenge the stinging isolation of racial capitalism and instead make possible new worlds based in interconnection.

If, as apocalyptic Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch (1986 [1959], 1374) once claimed, “the tomorrow in today is alive,” the possibility of tomorrow rests in our imaginations right now. The people that comprise these organizations think (and act) these new worlds into existence, dissolving the boundary that seems to separate the “real” from the fantastical. Imarisha (2015, 5) beautifully illustrates the collapse of this false dichotomy: 

For those of us from communities with historic collective trauma, we must understand that each of us is already science fiction walking around on two legs. Our ancestors dreamed us up and then bent reality to create us… together they dreamed of freedom, and they brought us into being. 

Blocking jail expansion and pipeline construction, cultivating community gardens, training radical activists, demonstrating against ICE, and everything in between and beyond continues this long legacy of freedom dreaming. Each new vision resists not only the material pressures of a racial capitalist world set to clench us in its jaws, but the imaginative enclosure that always comes first in such a process. “Imagination is one of the spoils of colonization,” brown explains,  “which in many ways is claiming who gets to imagine the future for a given geography.” And so, the act of dreaming new worlds is one of reclamation and resistance. It is, in the words of Imarisha, “the most dangerous and subversive decolonization process of all” because it signifies a rupture in the existing structure. The simple act of being able to dream up a world outside of and beyond this one means that the racial capitalist regime is not natural or inevitable, it is not an immovable and indestructible structure. Instead, through freedom dreams, we come to see that it is vulnerable to the quakes and shakes, even to the slightest of splinters that can trigger collapse. The visions and actions of these organizations, of those that came before them and those that will come after them, then, are “clues to a real that we are not allowed to imagine” (Collins, 2018). These clues offer us a way forward, as we collapse the real and the fantastical, and move towards a reality marked by futures of simultaneity and freedom dreams.

About the authors

Kaitlyn J. Selman is an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky. Her research interests and community engagement lie at the intersection of youth justice, critical carceral studies, and abolitionist organizing.

Cori J. Farrow is a recent graduate from the Department of Sociology at Framingham State University in Framingham, MA. Her research and life interests are in carceral abolition, reproductive justice, and the search for joyful community.


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Brown, adrienne maree. 2017. Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Shaping Worlds. Oakland: AK Press.

Carruthers, Charlene. 2018. Unapologetic: A Black, Queer, and Feminist Mandate for Radical Movements. Boston: Beacon Press.

Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. 2006. Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. Berkeley. University of California Press.

Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. 2017. “Abolition geography and the problem of innocence” in Futures of Black Radicalism, edited by Gaye Theresa Johnson and Alex Lubin, 225–240. Brooklyn, NY: Verso Books.

Collins, Samuel Gerald. 2018. “Anthropology’s Latent Futures,” Society for Cultural Anthropology, December 18, 2018.

Imarisha, Walidah. 2015. “Introduction” in Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements, edited by adrienne maree brown and Walidah Imarisha, 177-186. Oakland, AK Press.

Kelley, Robin D.G. 2002. Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination. Boston: Beacon Press.

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