Hungry For Justice

(Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)
(Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)

This post was co-authored by Transformative Spaces author Kelly Hayes and Chicago Public School teacher Katie Osgood. Katie is an education activist and special education teacher in a Chicago Public School on the South Side of Chicago. She has taught at one of the Dyett High School feeder elementary schools.

Why is there a hunger strike generating headlines on the South Side of Chicago?

Why are parents and community members starving themselves to the point of collapse and being hospitalized?

Why are bureaucrats unmoved by their plight – with some failing to so much as halt a meeting when an ailing community member is carried out on a stretcher?

There’s no explanation that anyone should be able to live with, but here’s a brief breakdown, for anyone who doesn’t understand:

This is how it works in Chicago. A 23-year old white woman rides her bicycle to the Board of Education and asks for a green technology and global citizenship-themed school. The powers that be rubber stamp the proposal before you can blink. Today, the Academy for Global Citizenship Charter School steals space and resources from an existing neighborhood school like a growing cancer. This cancer is looking to spread onto nearby land, which once held a whole community of public housing—LeClaire Courts. It’s now leveled. An empty lot where only the whisper of the promise “right of return” can be heard on the wind.

This is how it works in Chicago. A community group made up of Black residents of the historic Bronzeville neighborhood go to the Board of Education to ask for a green technology and global citizenship themed school. The powers that be ignore that proposal, just as they have ignored the people of this community for years. For decades. Forever.

Prudence, one of the hunger strikers rests on day four of the hunger strike. (Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)
Prudence, one of the hunger strikers rests on day four of the hunger strike. (Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)

The Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO) – the group at the core of the fight for Dyett High School – has been fighting for the schools in their neighborhood for over 50 years. They fought when the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) tried to change their local neighborhood high school into a selective enrollment school that would only serve a limited number of students from the community. They fought to turn Dyett, at one time a local middle school, to be turned into an open enrollment high school that would serve all children in the area. They fought when the Board of Ed began a mass program of school closures following the wake of public housing demolition called Renaissance 2010 2010, which eventually closed 20 schools in the Bronzeville area. They fought as CPS gave incentives to privately-run, undemocratic, outsider charter operators to throw up shiny new privately-run charter schools in a failed attempt to attract a new middle class of gentrifiers and to push out the undesirable low-income residents. They fought when CPS attempted to sabotage Dyett High School from the very beginning with lack of funding, constant churn, and threat of closure. And they fought when CPS finally voted to close the school in a slow-death fade-out over three years.

The members of KOCO have done everything in their power to save this school, the last open enrollment high school that serves their community. They have spoken at the Board of Education numerous times. They have partnered with researchers at the University of Illinois-Chicago to produce reports on the destabilization of Dyett. They have held press conferences. They have run the former head of KOCO to become the State Representative of the area. They mobilized the youth to speak out powerfully about their right to a quality education. They have marched alongside the Chicago Teachers Union to save all schools facing closure. KOCO helped organize for an Elected Representative School Board in Chicago, instead of our current biased mayoral appointed corporate Board. They have been on television and radio and media more times than you can count. They have partnered with organizations across the country fighting school closures and racist school policy in a “Journey for Justice,” visiting places like New Orleans, Detroit, and Washington DC. They held sit-ins outside the local alderman’s office. They held sit-ins outside the mayor’s office. They have been arrested. But every time, their voices were ignored.

When CPS announced that Dyett would finally be phased-out, the community came together and created a proposal for it to be reopened. That was never part of CPS’ plan. But the people fighting for Dyett were so unstoppably determined, CPS agreed to a “Request For Proposals” (RFP) process instead. RFPs are typically a way to turn over public control of a school to private operators. CPS has used this faux “community input” model as a way to pretend at democracy with the outcome predetermined numerous times. The Dyett folks were outraged that CPS was once again silencing them, this time threatening for outsiders and private entities to come in and take over the school they had fought for over 15 years to reclaim for the community. So KOCO and the newly-formed Coalition for the Revitalization of Dyett High School fought on.

They jumped through the hoops CPS put up and created a clearer vision for the school calling it the Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology High School. In order to improve their proposal, they arranged partnerships with UIC’s education department, Chicago Botanic Gardens, and the nearby DuSable Museum. They used their strong community connections to build relationships with all of Dyett’s feeder elementary schools to ensure the curriculum was aligned-naming that network the Bronzeville Global Achievers Village. It was clearly the best proposal.

But then came the final straw. CPS would not even do its own RPF process honestly. They stalled and pushed back the hearing dates again and again, with seemingly no intention of going through with the deal.

So twelve brave members of the Dyett Coalition began the most radical strategy yet. They stopped eating, a hunger strike of protest against this twisted, racist system that has denied their children an equitable education for too long. These parents, grandparents, Local School Council representatives, teachers, and activists decided to put their own health at risk to save Dyett.

The Dyett Twelve have not stayed silent in their protest. Every day, huddled in chairs outside the school, they hold “teach-ins” where the hunger strikers along with a growing number of supporters speak truth to power. They have spoken loud and clear about the racism of the treatment of black citizens by the Board of Education. The Dyett Twelve have shouted out the injustices happening in schools serving black and brown children in this city. They have looked to their elders, who were fighting for better schools sixty years ago and asked, “How is it 2015 and we are still forced to put our bodies on the line to get an education for our children?” They have gone to the Board hungry and weak and told the glaring truth: that they have not been granted this proposal because they “made the mistake of being born black.”

People all over the globe have responded to this hunger strike with outpourings of support. Places like South Africa, Chile, and Puerto Rico are sending solidarity photos. Twitter and Facebook are alight with the hashtags #FightForDyett and #WeAreDyett, which are topping the trending charts. But the hunger strikers are becoming dangerously ill. Three members have already been rushed to the hospital.

On Thursday, a letter signed by 17 doctors and nurses, including a retired chief medical officer for the Cook County Department of Public Health, was delivered to Rahm Emanuel’s office. The letter urged him to take action to end the hunger strike, saying in part, “We consider the current situation to be a deepening health emergency in our city. It is one you can abate by reaching out to the strikers, entertaining their grievances and accepting their proposal.”

(Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)
(Photo: Sarah Jane Rhee)

Emanuel’s only response thus far has been to stress how underutilized the area’s schools are. Under-utilization is a familiar refrain in Chicago, where the Emanuel administration has repeated the same talking point in the face of countless pleas from community members, begging not to lose their schools and clinics. The argument is often taken at face value by those who aren’t aware that efforts to drive people away from public resources and community hubs, such as schools and public clinics, are fueled by a city-wide push toward privatization. The “new Chicago” that Emanuel has long claimed to be building caters to private interests, even as residents who’ve lost their clinics fall through the cracks, and perish, just as they warned they would. Children lose their music and art programs, their teachers and their school librarians – and finally their schools, which have long been the beating hearts of their communities. Emanuel’s response today has thus far been no different than it was when mental health clinic patient Helen Morley warned him, “You’re killing us!” in 2012.

Morley later died after losing her clinic, just as she predicted.

Once again, the mayor’s efforts to shuffle community members through his reimagined, profit driven Chicago have become a matter of life and death. Once again, a struggle for dignity, survival and community itself is playing out in the public eye, garnering headlines and prompting widespread pleas that the mayor rethink his position. But the great question remains: how far will Rahm Emanuel and his unelected school board go to deny this community a fully public, democratic school? Will CPS continue to force these justice seekers to put their lives on the line in order to complete the neoliberal takeover of prime Lakefront property? When will CPS do what is right and approve the Coalition for the Revitalization of Dyett High School proposal? This is how it works in Chicago. The powerful try to crush the people. And the people resist.

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