In this fifth story from the blog series School Days in 2040, Erik Assadourian explores an activist high school in São Paulo, Brazil. At this school students are activists first, students second. They’re learning by doing and, in the process, bringing about positive social change in their city, their country, and their world.
It’s hard to even see the Freire School of Activism in São Paulo, Brazil as a school. The 200 students spend far more of their time engaged directly in activist campaigns than in anything resembling traditional academic work. Of course there are classes—two days a week—where all the basics are covered. Portuguese and English, math, history, systems thinking, sustainability sciences, persuasive speech, advocacy, law, and ethics. But unlike other high schools in São Paulo, all coursework is regularly oriented toward how students can use this knowledge to make their communities, their city, their country, and their world better.
The 200 students spend far more of their time engaged directly in activist campaigns than in anything resembling traditional academic work.
To keep costs to a minimum, class days take place at a few local churches, and tutorials and campaign meetings, which dominate the week, typically rotate between students’ homes, public libraries, and cafés. Most meetings consist of updates and strategic planning for the dozen or so campaigns that the students have chosen to initiate and participate in—from efforts to establish new health clinics and bike paths, to campaigns to reduce air pollution and clean up abandoned brownfields. There is even an ongoing campaign to persuade city officials to pass a law requiring green roofs and rainwater catchment systems on all new or rehabilitated buildings—essential infrastructure as climate change has made access to fresh water a dire challenge in the city.
What’s been most powerful about this educational model is that the students learn to reach out to a broad range of constituencies.
What’s been most powerful about this educational model is that the students, like any good campaigners, learn to reach out to a broad range of constituencies to build strong coalitions. Students at Freire learn to identify potential partners, communicate strategically, engage groups with varying interests, and apply a whole host of skills such as running meetings, management, and organizing. Inevitably they also end up spreading a philosophy of empowerment to their families and communities as they seek out broader support, often inspiring others to join the campaigns.
Beatriz, now a teacher at the school, graduated from the very first class of Freire in 2024. One of the earliest campaign successes of the school was an effort to expand the Clean City Law—which banned billboard advertising across the city—to the entire state. The removal of billboards from the city had significant impacts on revealing social inequities and also reducing materialism and unhealthful consumption patterns. Although the campaign succeeded a few years after Beatriz graduated, her role in organizing nonviolent civil disobedience actions—including a relentless “ad-jamming” campaign to replace billboard ads with public service announcements and artwork—had a major impact in exhausting the opposition and persuading the populace and the state to pass the new law. Today, 15 years later, the state of São Paulo continues to be the largest ad-free area in the world.
Now Beatriz teaches Portuguese, persuasive speech, and civil disobedience, and serves as a mentor and advisor for students as they run their campaigns. It is part of the philosophy of the school that the students always lead the campaigns (with them organizing the spokespersons, community liaisons, lobbyists, and other leadership) and that teachers only take an advisory role. A recent survey of the school’s first ten years of graduates found that the majority have continued to be socially and politically active, and many have gone on to be leaders in local and state government, in education, and in socially responsible business.
It is part of the philosophy of the school that the students always lead the campaigns.
Beyond activism, complementary skills such as conflict mediation, debate, and management are deeply integrated into the curriculum at the Freire School. And everyone is encouraged to participate in physical activities—particularly aikido, a martial art that encourages exploration of both how to de-escalate conflict and, when that fails, how to use the attacker’s energy against himself, a skill regularly put into service in the students’ activism. While there are many more campaigns to wage, the Freire School has been instrumental in making the city and state of São Paulo into healthier, more sustainable, and more livable places to reside.
Read more School Days in 2040 posts:
- Rima’s Day at École Gardiens de la Forêt
- Saikou’s Day Aboard the Tigerfish Floating School
- Lakshmi’s Day at Bunker Hill High
- Arivan’s Day at the Garden City Eco-engineering Academy
This concludes the School Days in 2040 series. What do you think? Would you want your children to go to any of these schools? To the Forest School? The River School? The Social Entrepreneur or Activist School? Or the Eco-engineering Academy?
Teachers: Would you want to teach at these schools? Do you know any schools that approach this level of “Earth-centric-ness”? Is there any chance that education will ever reach this level of potential? Or will the stresses of dealing with and paying for climate disasters in the coming decades simply deplete state coffers to the extent that education becomes poorly funded and we should count ourselves lucky when our children graduate literate? Your reactions, comments, and insights are welcome!
Erik Assadourian is a Senior Fellow at Worldwatch and the Project Director for EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet (State of the World).
Author’s note: While these case studies may sound utopian, nearly all of them exist already in some form or another in today’s world (although not actualized to this degree). While the stories and their specifics may be fiction, the models described are real. What is, perhaps, utopian is that even as ecological and social disruptions occur, at least in these scenarios, they have been met with increased innovation and equity, rather than with less-equitable distribution of resources and overall school decline (as is happening all too often today). But there are enough examples of dysfunctional schools out there today (in a world swimming with resources) to not dwell on how terrible schools could be in a resource-constrained future. Instead, these visions of EarthEd schools of the future are designed to inspire all of us to strive for schools like these in the years ahead.
I plan to keep working on these scenarios to include them in State of the World 2017. Any comments, suggestions, or ways to make them more accurate and compelling are very welcome.