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Abishai Freeman: Arts & Special Projects Coordinator

A man sits on a fence on the sidewalk and in front of a colorful wall mural.

On a swelteringly hot day nearly 15 years ago, Abishai Freeman taught his first design class at HCZ’s TRUCE after-school program.

It went badly.

Freeman was young and inexperienced. His class was restless and rowdy. The air conditioner broke and the students began to argue. Nothing got done.

That night at home, Freeman thought of ways to engage the class again while feeding his two-year-old daughter. When she refused to eat her vegetables, Freeman got creative and convinced her by talking to her favorite puppet, Mr. Moo Moo. The trick worked and suddenly, Abishai had an idea for the next day.

“I was about to do my lesson and I pulled the cow out. I had a whole conversation with Mr. Moo Moo in front of the class,” laughed Freeman. “The class went quiet.”

This is how Freeman approaches problems — with a creative, often unconventional solution. Mr. Moo Moo broke the ice and the high schoolers laughed and empathized with the young teacher and father. The semester went smoothly.

Abishai Freeman’s childhood revolved around creating solutions. When his neighborhood of Bed-Stuy grew dangerous, Freeman’s parents, a social worker and a doctor, became part of a community of adults who protected the neighborhood’s children. Freeman’s father opened his home to young people looking for mentorship.

“I came to HCZ with the initial values of my family — which fell in line with Geoffrey Canada’s mission and the values [at HCZ],” said Freeman.

Now, as the Arts and Special Projects Coordinator at HCZ’s Countee Cullen Community Center, Freeman’s classes are designed to provide the students the essence of a collegiate art class at Parsons School of Design, his alma mater.

“I’m not giving [the students] the exact answers or telling them what to do,” said Freeman. “I’m giving them a strategy on how to analyze. I want them to feel secure in their decisions.”

As a young man, Freeman dreaded conversations with his father about the importance of being meticulous in his decisions. Years later, he finds himself echoing the teachings of his father’s relentlessness, through the framework of design.

Freeman and his students’ projects are imaginative — cityscapes made of wood and plexiglass, collages of stickers found around Soho, puppets nearly eight feet tall — but no project is done without learning the discipline of design. Students must think through their work, be able to explain their creative decisions and support each other.

Before students can dive into Freeman’s projects, they must learn the basics. Start with a sketch and an idea. Write down all the details. Be able to explain your concept. Follow the instructions thoroughly. Swear by your X-Acto knife, ruler, and spray mount. Put the blade down when having a conversation. Do not give up. Embrace the unorthodox. Trust the process.

“You can see how they can attack a problem — that makes everything worth it,” said Freeman. “Every parent wants to see their child become a self-sustaining adult who can make decisions for themselves.”

It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it.

Abishai Freeman

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