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Parents, Teachers and Activists Engage in Hunger Strike to Save Dyett High School in Chicago

Posted Sept. 2, 2015

MP3 Interview with Jitu Brown, community organizer in Save Dyett High School hunger strike, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

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On Aug. 17, a group of black parents on the southside of Chicago, along with a few teachers and other supporters – 12 in all – began a hunger strike to stop the privatization of public education in Chicago and advocate for their vision of what a good neighborhood public high school could be. They've been protesting in front of the recently closed Dyett High School, demanding that the Chicago school board recognize their proposal to create a Global Leadership and Green Technology Academy in the Bronzeville neighborhood made up of mostly low-income, African Americans.

Chicago Public Schools put out a request for proposal, or RFP, seeking plans for reopening the school, but rejected the community's submission. After the hunger strike began, the school board hinted that perhaps the school would not reopen at all. Strikers maintain that the school board and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel have responded positively to similar proposals made by parents in whiter, more affluent areas.

At least two hunger strikers have been briefly hospitalized while participating in the juice- and water-only fast. Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus spoke with one of the hunger strikers, Jitu Brown, national director with Journey for Justice Alliance, on the 12th day of the strike, shortly after American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten visited to lend her support. Here, Brown explains how their struggle relates to the mayor's closure of more than 50 Chicago public schools last June, with the rationale that they were under-enrolled and underperforming.

JITU BROWN: What we began to do with the core parents from the feeder schools is talk about what do we need to do to win with Walter Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology High School. We had went through a process of about three years of developing a comprehensive plan not just for Dyett High School, but six of our feeder schools - what we call a sustainable community school village. We got the buy-in from those schools; they want to be part of the process. As Chicago Public Schools basically gave us the runaround, lied, played misdirection with us, I think the final straw was when there was supposed to be a hearing on Aug. 10 and we tried to get the location and the time of the hearing and they would never answer. So finally on Aug. 7 and 4:30 p.m. we found a press release on CPS's website saying the hearing is canceled and the board vote would not happen on Aug. 26. So that was the last straw.

We had done everything else you can do: we had met with every bureaucrat; we had jumped through every hoop; we did sit-ins, we protested, we got arrested. Everything you can do, and before that, engaged over 3,000 people in Bronzeville in support of this particular plan. We had submitted this plan to the Board in April of 2015, and instead of the board saying they would work with the community's desire, they opened an RFP. And we felt that was discriminatory, but we made the decision to participate in it, to pressure the district. Now, mind you, in other communities in the city of Chicago - Rogers Park, parents did not want Intrinsic and Noble Street Charter School. These are middle-class, white parents, and within two weeks the deal was off the table. Parents in a community called Hyde Park - a diverse group with a large number of white, middle-class parents, wanted a closed school by the name of Cantor to relieve the overcrowding at Kenwood Academy. There was no RFP; they didn't have to do any protest; they didn't have to get arrested. And in two-and-a-half, to three months, the keys to Cantor were handed over to Kenwood Academy to become the seventh and eighth-grade academy. So there's a two-tier system; there's a devaluing of the voices of African American parents, and it's just the truth.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Jitu Brown, what kind of support has the hunger strike gotten from the community?

JITU BROWN: It's amazing. When we're out in front of Dyett, people come from all walks of life. You get a lot of people from the neighborhood. You get people that have just heard about it that you don't know that walk up to you and bring bottles of juice and just say, "We really want to support what you're doing." Today, we had about 50 young people from the Albany Park neighborhood surround us and sing around us, you know, because the hunger strikers are beginning to get weak. You may know that two hunger strikers were hospitalized. They're both out now; Jeanette was released yesterday, so this is taking a toll physically. But support like that has helped bolster this effort.

In addition to that, what's happened on social media. We're very clear there's been a media blackout of this, but they can't stop it. So, what's happened is we've trended on Twitter for five straight days. It's going crazy on Facebook. So what happens is, people have been really pushing so the day before yesterday we had an enormous press conference. Washington Post began to cover it; Al Jazeera covered it; so it's growing, and that's all because of people's support because they realize it's not just about a high school. It's about school privatization in general.

And our schools haven't struggled because of bad teachers or ghetto kids who don't want to learn, or jaded black teachers. Our schools struggle because our schools have been failed. It's plain and simple: our schools struggle because they've been designed to struggle. And that's what this is about. You know, Dyett High School was not a failing school; it was not. Our young people were the national trainers for restorative justice. Our young people were going to D.C., Baltimore, Philly, Oakland, California, training adults in how to implement restorative justice. We led the city for two straight years in reductions in arrests and suspensions. We had the largest increase in students going to college in the entire city. Our science team routinely went to state finals.

BETWEEN THE LINES: About 10 days into your hunger strike, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten came to Chicago to support your efforts. What’s been the role of the local chapter of the teachers' union? I know they opposed Rahm Emanuel's massive school closures.

JITU BROWN: I think the Chicago Teachers Union has been very supportive, and I think they personify a fighting union. As a matter of fact, two of the hunger strikers are teachers; they're teachers who live in the Bronzeville community. I think that this particular fight has been community led, because that's what community fights should be, and then labor works with you, labor supports. But the soul of this has been mothers and fathers.

For more information, visit Coalition to Revitalize Dyett High School at progressillinois.com/category/tags/coalition-revitalize-dyett-high-school and on Facebook at facebook.com/pages/Dyett-Global-Leadership-Green-Technology-HS.

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