In Memory of Thomas Nikundiwe

By the Education for Liberation Board

Dear Rethinking Schools Family,

On July 4, 2021, our beloved Thomas Nkondo Nikundiwe transitioned from this world. Partner, father, brother, son, friend, Thomas was truly our North, South, East, and West. As our community mourns him, we hold close the gifts of his words, deeds, and relationships that remain in our hearts and practices. As we lift up the values by which he lived, our offering here is to keep close to the deeply human ways of being with and caring for each other that were passed on to Thomas, embodied, and evolved into legacy. 

When Thomas interviewed for the executive director position of Education for Liberation in 2014, already a member of our network since its start, he said, “We can do so much more, build and leverage connections for young people to thrive and create freedom. I’m talking Civil Rights Movement level.” Thomas’ vision for our work was influenced by critical figures such as Ella Baker, whose deep commitment to youth, liberation, and democratic non-hierarchical leadership helped nurture future generations of organizers, including Bob Moses, who would become a crucial mentor in Thomas’ life.  

 As an educator and organizer, Thomas embodied a public pedagogy of love, community, and transformative process. He reminded us that “We all struggle for a common, collective purpose. This single, shared purpose is human being, which we use as a verb rather than a noun [where our] educator activism is the struggle for the inalienable right of all people to human be — to be liberated from any project of violence that treats persons as property, persons as things, persons as disposable, or persons as in any other way less than fully human.” This is the praxis he would want to thrive in our classrooms, organizing spaces, collectives, and families.

 Thomas also taught us, most often in quiet ways, that relationships mattered above all else. That the how — how we are with ourselves, with each other, and within the world — is everything. He taught us that liberation work is centuries work, and that makes what we do today no less urgent. When gearing up for Free Minds Free People 2021, he said, “There is a real opportunity in getting to practice what it is we’re trying to do in the world — we have certain ways of being, values, and dreams for the world, our communities, our families, and we have a chance to practice that with folks. And, if we don’t, then it’s just a lost opportunity for us to get better at what we’re trying to do out in the world.” How Thomas spoke and moved was a constant source of liberatory learning.

 Whether it was through the co-creation of the annual Planning to Change the World lesson planner, through the continuous (re)making of the Free Minds Free People conference, or through regional building with other organizations, the daily work of listening in order to best be with each other is woven into our practices. Education for liberation is always being made. Because of Thomas we will always struggle to keep education rooted in liberation. We do not wave education credentials around like membership cards, rather we have been taught to be with liberatory education as tools. Tools for education to be wrenched back from racist capitalism and colonialism. Tools for dealing with harm in movement spaces. Tools to think about every action with our values. We have endless gratitude for these lessons. And we hold, with this wider family, the extraordinary gift to teach, organize, love, and take care of each other as we live with Thomas’ legacy.  

In Lak’ech,

The Education for Liberation Board