Suffice it to say, this specific confrontation is unlikely to happen in real life. But man did I wake up feeling GOOD. It wasn't hard to make the connection between this dream and the huge step of publishing this blog. I've written about the personal significance of committing to putting myself out there in this space. To write in this way, reflecting on personal experience as a way to make sense of the bigger events and patterns and purpose in our lives, is what I feel called to do. Never before have I felt like I was exercising my voice.
I've been thinking about voice, and the various currencies we use to make ourselves heard.
There is a hunger strike happening in Chicago. 12 parents, grandparents, and educators have denied themselves food for nine days now because they believe it to be the last resort for having their voices heard.
When I first read about the hunger strike last week, I felt disoriented. A hunger strike? Is this a gimmick of a fringe group of activists trying to bypass a fair consideration process in order to strong arm the school board into accepting their proposal for a new high school? Or are these desperate, passionate, and committed community leaders pushed to a breaking point by a political machine? Thanks to this piece by Peter Greene at Curmuducation, archives from DNAinfo Chicago, and many other sources (listed below), I've pieced together the following story.
What led to this Hunger Strike?
In February 2012, the CPS-appointed school board voted to phase out Dyett High School, and persisted despite outrage over the closure and organized community protest. Activists from Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO) and other community members formed the Coalition to Revitalize Dyett. They worked with organizational partners Chicago Botanic Garden, University of Illinois at Chicago, Brown University, and others to develop a proposal for the Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology High School. They hoped to use this plan to keep Dyett's doors from closing in 2015.
The group presented this plan unsuccessfully to the Mayor's office, the School Board President, and 4th Ward Alderman Will Burns (who declined to support the plan because he said it represented KOCO only and had not been developed with enough broad-base community support). In May of 2014 Jitu Brown and a few Dyett students filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education claiming the lack of resources given to Dyett High School represented a violation of their civil rights.
Members of the Coalition to Revitalize Dyett pushed in June 2014 for an immediate public hearing on ideas for keeping Dyett open. They staged a three-day campout outside Alderman Burns' office calling for a meeting to discuss their plan. The town hall meeting that Burns led in July 2014 was far from consensus-building, "with speakers being shouted down and school boosters commandeering the meeting at several points" (Sam Cholke, DNAinfo Chicago).
Following further protest by the Coalition to keep the school open, CPS announced that Dyett would be re-opened and in December 2014 CPS released the "Innovative Programatic Design in Dyett High School Site RFP". It received two proposals by the April 6, 2015 deadline: one from the Coalition and the other from Little Black Pearl, an arts organization that is already running one contract school for CPS (and which was rumored in June, 2015, to be under consideration for moving into the site, although this was denied by Little Black Pearl founder). A third proposal was received after the deadline by Charles Campbell, the current principal of Dyett High School - who was, perhaps not inconsequentially, appointed to the position by CPS.
In June 2015 the doors of Dyett closed following the graduation of Dyett's final 13 senior students, who had chosen to stay at the school even as classes like art and physical education were relegated to online courses and even as they were encouraged by CPS to complete high school at other sites. A public meeting was scheduled for June 17, 2015, to consider the proposals for Dyett High. This meeting never occurred and has been rescheduled for September 15, 2015.
This was the breaking point for the Coalition members. On August 17, 2015, a group of twelve started a Hunger Strike calling for the immediate public consideration of the Dyett proposals. The strike is now on Day 10.
Here are the three Dyett High School proposals under consideration -
The first proposal, for Walter H. Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology High School, is for an open-enrollment public school. This proposal was developed by Coalition to Revitalize Dyett in partnership with Chicago Botanic Garden, University of Illinois Chicago, Brown University, and other partners. The proposal was developed and proposed over the course of a few years, in immediate response to the proposed phase-out of Dyett High School. Read proposal in full here.
The second proposal, Little Black Pearl School of the Arts, is for a contract school that combines theater and the arts with science, technology, and math. This proposal was developed by Little Black Pearl, a not-for-profit organization that already runs one contract school for CPS. This proposal was developed in response to the RFP and was received by the April 6, 2015 deadline. Read proposal in full here.
The third proposal, Washington Park Athletic Career Academy, is for a contract school focused on athletics and athletics-related careers. This proposal was developed in response to the CPS RFP. It was received by CPS after the April 6, 2015 deadline but was still accepted for consideration. It is supported by Charles Campbell, the principal that CPS instated to carry out the Dyett High School phase out. Read proposal in full here.
All proposal documents, the RFP, and information about community meetings may be found here.
Why a Hunger Strike, and Why Now?
The fight for Dyett is the story of an appointed school board voting against community wishes to phase out a high school, a school board that also implemented the most massive school closings in U.S. history (disproportionately affecting brown and black communities, and only bringing about moderate gains). It is the story of a group of activists that worked with local and national partners to develop a proposal to keep a school open and then fought for years to get this proposal considered by public officials. It is the story of district officials who gave in to pressure in order to call for proposals, officially towing the line of consideration of community ideas, but who give preferential treatment (such as accepting a late proposal) from a contractor supported by a city insider (the principal that CPS appointed to phase out Dyett High). It is the story of a group of highly vocal and perhaps controversial activists clashing publicly with the local alderman and school officials.
But most of all, this is a story about race and power. Can you imagine this story taking place on the North Side of Chicago? Can you imagine all of the neighborhood schools being closed in Lincoln Park? Parents feeling so disenfranchised, experiencing such a sense of dismissal from those who hold power over the well-being and futures of their children, that they felt the need to offer themselves up as physical proof of their commitment?
I sure can't imagine such a scenario because that's not the way the power circles work in this city and nation and world. Money talks. It is the leveraging of generations of accumulation of wealth, education, and social capital that push for change in white communities.
But in brown and black communities, schools are disproportionately underfunded and then closed as failures. Children are bussed or forced to walk across enemy gang lines. Committees of community members are forced to compete with big money charter schools and contractors for the right to determine the opportunities that will be offered to their children.
The currency available in these communities is the currency of non-violent resistance. After years of community meetings, staged protests, and public rallies, the Coalition to Revitalize Dyett has now turned to the the most drastic form of non-violent resistance - by taking violent action against themselves.
I am trying to imagine feeling so passionate, so committed, and so desperate that I felt called to use my body as leverage and currency - to put myself and my health on the line - in service of something bigger than myself. Thanks to my privilege, I don't have to fight like this on behalf of my own children. What kind of world do we live in that such passionate cries on behalf of any children can go unheeded? I am still trying to understand the complexities of this situation, but if it comes down to sides, I know which side I'm on. I stand with Dyett.
If you want to learn more about the Fight for Dyett, check out these resources:
Read Peter Greene's analysis at Curmudgucation (I especially appreciate his consideration of the dynamics of race and power here).
Get updates from Teachers for Social Justice here and here.
Learn more from Living in Dialogue.
Follow #WeAreDyett or #FightForDyett on Twitter
And for a quick intro, watch and this: