On August 17th, a group of 12 parents and community activists in the historic Bronzeville section of Chicago began a hunger strike to preserve the last open enrollment high school in their community. Their fast, where they have consumed nothing but water and light liquids such as broth, is now in its third week, and even though they managed to get Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to meet briefly with them after a contentious town hall style budget meeting yesterday, no commitments were made that satisfied their needs. So they continue their hunger strike, despite the adverse effects on their health, and a public plea from a coalition of health professionals urging the Mayor to taking action on the strikers’ issues to prevent a tragedy.
Despite the insulting tone argument that The Chicago Tribune’s Eric Zorn recently offered, chiding the Dyett hunger strikers for their tactics, this action is not taken rashly and is the result of a true community coalition being rebuffed at every turn. The Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago is one of America’s most historic African American communities and was a major destination for African Americans seeking a better life during the Great Migration. In 2012, Chicago Public Schools announced it would “phase out” and close Dyett High School which is the last open enrollment high school for Bronzeville, and this year the CPS accepted three proposals for a new school in the building, two from outside organizations and a proposal for a “Global Leadership and Green Technology” school submitted by the Coalition to Revitalize Walter H. Dyett High School. The coalition, which has been advocating all along to keep the school open and to transform it into the leadership and green technology school based in the community, has played by every rule and procedure put in front of it by Mayor Emanuel’s school department, seeking to keep their voices and the voices of their neighbors heard.
The process, however, has been repeatedly delayed, most recently with an August meeting pushed out to September, which precipitated the decision to begin a hunger strike:
And the strikers remain there, outside a shuttered high school that, as Peter Greene rightfully points out, was actually improving before the central office decided to abandon it and where an entirely community based proposal for its future remains ignored and stalled by a city bureaucracy more interested in opportunities to gentrify than in building up communities. They are now in their third week without solid food, waiting for the city to answer them.
Especially significant is for what the Dyett hunger strikers have put their bodies on the line. Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig details a timeline for Dyett High School since 1999 when it was converted from a middle school that seemed almost intentionally to court failure. Nearby King High School was turned into a selective enrollment school, and CPS converted Dyett into a high school that opened with only 7 books in its library and unequipped science labs. Community members worked to build up the school which is where students who do not qualify for King go, and then in 2006, CPS closed Englewood High School, sending an additional 125 students to Dyett with no additional resources. Despite this, the community continued to invest in Dyett and its future and then in 2012, CPS announced plans to phase out and close the school. At every point, community organizations and parents have worked together to help develop a school community within Dyett, and at every point, authorities outside of Bronzeville have hurled wrenches into those efforts.
If Walter H. Dyett remains closed or if it is replaced with schools that do not have open enrollment, there will be no high school in Bronzeville that is truly the responsibility of the entire community. While education reform touts parental “choice” as a cure-all for urban education, it is far too often comprised of “any choice but a democratically organized and locally comprised school.” The ideal of an open enrollment, neighborhood, school is not merely an organizational choice for school departments. It is a profound expression of the democratic ideal and of communities’ investments in themselves. A truly public school is open to everyone who lives in its zone with no exceptions, and it is bound by law and by professional morality to do its utmost for every child regardless of race, socioeconomic circumstances, or special needs. Public schools cannot counsel out or harass students with special needs until they give up and transfer somewhere else, and while it would be incorrect to assert that our urban and predominantly minority public schools have always lived up to these ideals, when properly supported and given investments in facilities, staff development, and surrounding community development, they remain one of the truest expressions of democratic equality in our society and are bedrock for their neighborhoods. Consider the stunning investment in architecture that was once expressed in Chicago’s public schools for a nice visual understanding of how important these ideals were and wonder at what children must have thought when brought to the doors of these buildings.
The point is not lost to note that as neighborhoods became more and more minority over decades such grand investment vanished. Organizer and now hunger striker Jitu Brown expressed this eloquently last year as he questioned CPS’ plans for Dyett:
Why can’t we have public schools? Why do low-income minority students need to have their schools run by private contractors? We want this school to anchor the community for the next 75 years. We’re not interested in a short-term contract that can be broken.
And there may be more at stake than the consequences to Bronzeville if Dyett is not allowed to reopen as an open enrollment school. Chicago teacher and activist Michelle Gunderson notes:
For those of us who have witnessed the privatization of our school systems, we know all too well what is at stake if Dyett High School no longer is in the hands of the community. Once we have one neighborhood without an open enrollment high school it will be all too easy for subsequent parts of our city to fall like dominoes, creating a system of privatized schools.
Perhaps that goal makes sense to people who only envision disruption and competition as vehicles of improvement over investment and cooperation, but to lose all fully public schools is to lose far more than a system of governance. It is to lose community identity, shared responsibility for community youth, and institutions purposed for democratic equality. Hunger striker Monique Smith told The Washington Post, ““This is really about the privatization of education, it’s about having sustainable community schools in every neighborhood…This is a much larger struggle.”
That this should happen in Bronzeville — which Eve Ewing reminds us is historically significant for its role in The Great Migration and for the African American intellectual, literary, and political leaders who have called it home — is an even more significant blow in a time when black activists have organized to highlight the violence state sanctioned actions have inflicted against their bodies. It is not an exaggeration to observe that the deliberate neglect and subsequent closing of Walter H. Dyett High School is an act of state sanctioned violence against the community body of Bronzeville.
And now 12 brave activists have called upon a long tradition of direct action and placed their actual bodies on the line for the sake of their community and whether or not it will be deprived of a core democratic institution. If you believe that Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Public Schools are long overdue to respond to that injustice, call (773) 533-1500 to leave a message for CPS CEO Forrest Claypool. It is week three. Enough is enough.