I will die! And my kids will know I died trying to save their school!” Jeanette Taylor shouted at Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel during a September 2 city budget hearing. But her pleas and rage fell on deaf ears — the mayor failed to react, let alone meaningfully engage.
Emanuel and his staff were fielding questions at the South Shore Cultural Center, where five hundred people had gathered to debate next year’s proposed city budget. The Dyett 12 — a group of twelve parents, teachers, and education justice activists who recently engaged in a thirty-four day hunger strike to save Dyett High School — had taken center stage, determined to protect the last remaining open-enrollment high school in Bronzeville, a historically African-American neighborhood on the South Side that has been hit hard by privatization and school closures.
Parents like Taylor, who is a member of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO), have been fighting to protect Dyett for years. Despite their efforts, the Chicago Board of Education voted in 2012 to phase out the school over three years. Parents and community organizers knew they’d have to escalate their tactics, and in the years that followed, they launched sit-ins, protests, and rallies. While their attempts failed to convince the board to reverse its decision, they did wrest one concession from the board: the community group was given the chance to draw up a counter-proposal for Dyett.
KOCO’s plan was one of three submitted to the board. It argued that Walter H. Dyett High School should remain an open-enrollment community school (every school in Bronzeville with the exception of Dyett is a selective enrollment school — students must apply or win a lottery to be accepted) and that the school should become a “global leadership and green technology” academy led by a community-elected principal.
The Board of Education was due to vote on the three proposals in late August, but on August 17 it abruptly cancelled the scheduled vote. In response, as KOCO organizer and Journey for Justice Alliance National Director Jitu Brown said, the Dyett 12 “made the decision not to play by Rahm Emanuel’s rules.”
Instead, they decided to employ the last and most drastic tool at their disposal: the hunger strike.
In all, tens of thousands of students have been directly impacted by CPS School Actions since 2001. 88 percent of students affected are African-American. . . . Black communities have been hit the hardest — 3 out of every 4 affected schools were economically poor and intensely segregated African-American schools.
So every morning, seeking to defy that fate, the Dyett 12 met on school grounds to talk, strategize, and greet supporters who stopped by to show solidarity and share words of encouragement. Over the weeks, they held press conferences, attended public meetings, rallied at city hall, and organized marching vigils from the school site to President Obama’s house, located only a half mile down the road.
On September 15, the thirtieth day of the strike, the Dyett 12 called a press conference, where they spoke alongside members of the black press.
“In the past we just reported the school closures, but this week there will be a headline in our black newspaper telling the mayor that we must look to the future; that the green world is here,” said Dorothy Labelle, editor of the Chicago Crusader, referring to the Dyett 12’s proposal to turn the school into a global leadership and green technology school.
Two hunger strikers also announced they would have to discontinue the hunger strike due to health concerns from their doctors.
Finally, a resolute Jitu Brown, KOCO organizer and hunger striker, cleared up rumors that the Dyett 12 had negotiated with the mayor.
“It’s been said that the mayor sat down with us, but that was not what that was,” said Brown, explaining that several members of the city’s black leadership had conferred behind closed doors with the mayor. Though they had claimed to represent the Dyett 12, the strikers were effectively locked out of the meeting.
“These ‘leaders’ no longer have a place in our communities,” Brown said. “We will not sit here and accept crumbs and fashion it a victory.”
The Dyett 12, he said, were wiling to take it as far as it needed to go.
“We will not be moved,” said Brown, channeling leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, and then vowed to win “by any means necessary.”
The history of hunger strikes in the US is a long one: Africans who had been kidnapped and sold into slavery rebelled by starving themselves during the brutal Middle Passage. In the 1960s young Freedom Riders engaged in hunger strikes while imprisoned on trumped-up charges after peaceful protests. Perhaps most famously, César Chávez and the United Farm Workers repeatedly used the tactic to fight California grape growers and the racist local government and police who suppressed the farmworkers movement at their behest.
At its core, the history of the hunger strike is the history of disenfranchised people, particularly people of color, fighting against injustice in any way possible. Jeanette Taylor and the Dyett 12 are part of that lineage.
The Dyett 12 can also claim antecedents in Chicago itself. Twenty-one years ago, ten parents — including mine — voted to initiate an indefinite hunger strike until then–Mayor Richard Daley Jr and the Board of Education agreed to throw out a proposed bussing program that would transport the students of Richard J. Daley Elementary — my elementary school at the time — to a neighboring school.
For years, parents in the local school council – elected leadership bodies comprised of parents, teachers, and community members — had filed grievances and pressured Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and city officials to address the unsafe conditions that plagued the school. From broken toilets and heaters to asbestos and lead, the school had long been unfit for use. Yet the complaints were ignored.
One week before the 1994–95 school year, the Board of Education sent parents a letter informing them that the school would be shuttered and its students would now be bussed to an elementary school three and a half miles away.
The board’s answer was not to fix the crumbling school or build a new one as parents had petitioned them to do for years. Instead, the board decided to solve the problem by displacing students from their community school, exposing them to possible violence by forcing them across neighborhood boundaries and gang lines.
Daley Elementary is located in Back of the Yards, a predominantly Mexican neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. At the time, the majority of its students were first-generation Mexican-American children born to parents who were primarily monolingual Spanish speakers — many of them undocumented. Given these community characteristics, CPS, the Board of Education, and the mayor did not anticipate significant pushback from parents. But on the first day of class, as parents and students arrived at the school only to be told that students would be sent to a school three and a half miles south, parents refused to make their children board the bus.
As parents talked amongst themselves, trying to figure out what their options were and what they should do, my father, Joaquín Becerril, suggested they organize a boycott and strike until the board agreed to build a new school in the community. The parents agreed and unanimously voted to defy the board’s plan.
The outpouring of support for the boycotting parents from activists, community leaders, and even congressmen was strong, but the city officials and the board remained unmoved — prompting parents to begin considering alternative tactics. Two weeks of protests, teach-ins, rallies, marches, and impromptu classes taught by volunteers and parents in a vacant parking lot across the street from the shuttered school finally got the media’s attention and put pressure on the board. They responded by threatening parents with arrest, revocation of their driver’s licenses, social service cuts (including food stamps), and even deportation.
Facing such draconian repercussions, some parents withdrew from the boycott and agreed to send their children to the new schools. The majority, however, resolved to keep fighting.
At this point parents realized that they would have to step up their tactics or retreat in defeat. My mother, Leticia Becerril, and four other mothers marched into the Board of Education on Pershing Avenue and announced that they were going on an indefinite hunger strike until the city agreed to build a new school in our neighborhood.
Armed with gallons of water and cases of Gatorade, the five hunger-striking mothers camped out in tents in front of the board’s building while their spouses led marches and rallies to garner community support. The board and the city government again remained unmoved. But with the help of six Latino legislators, among them future mayoral candidate Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, hunger-striking parents began negotiations with the board on the fifth day of the hunger strike.
The hunger-striking parents’ proposal for a new school needed six “yes” votes from the local school council. Defeat came quickly as five of the nine council members rejected the parents’ plan. Hunger-strikers and parents erupted in anger and demanded a second vote. After a closed-session meeting, and some vote-switching by council members, the proposal once again failed. Amid the anger, disappointment, and frustration, my mother fainted, bringing the meeting to a standstill as paramedics looked after her.
Still, parents refused to give up and as soon as my mother was revived, they demanded a third vote. Valerie Arredondo — the council member whose “no” had defeated the proposal during the second vote — agreed to a third vote and this time the parents’ proposal for a new school passed.
When I asked my father how they had won, he just said, “Honestly, we had no idea what we were doing. We just knew we weren’t going to give up.”
Following the Daley hunger strike, state Rep. Edgar Lopez (D-Chicago) — one of the six legislators advocating for the parents — told the Chicago Tribune: “This is a great victory for the parents. It’s the first time someone has taken on the Board of Education and won. I hope it will motivate other parents throughout the city to fight for what they want.”
Seven years later, on Mother’s Day 2001, another group of mothers launched the second hunger strike for public education in Chicago.
Parents in Little Village — a West Side neighborhood of nearly one hundred thousand people — had grown tired of seeing the promise of a new high school, desperately needed amid severe overcrowding, broken time and again. In 1998 three neighborhoods had petitioned and won a new high school, each to help alleviate overcrowding. By 2001 two of the promised high schools had been built — both in two of the city’s majority-white neighborhoods, North Park and Near North Side. Little Village parents were incensed.
The Little Village mothers’ hunger strike lasted nineteen days. Intransigence from Mayor Daley and CPS CEO Paul Vallas, along with political maneuvering from local Mexican-American political organizations, prolonged the strike. But the strikers prevailed, and two years later the community received the school it had been promised.
Little Village Social Justice High School — or SoJo, as community members and activists lovingly call it — is a daily reminder to the South Lawndale community that progress is impossible without struggle. The school’s legacy of social justice activism is even embedded in its slogan: “Born out of struggle and the struggle continues.”
The mantra has rallied (and been chanted by) students on numerous occasions. In 2012 SoJo students stood up to the Board of Education after two veteran were fired without notice. The teachers, who were founding members of SoJo, were outspoken opponents of CPS’s attempts to dilute the progressive curriculum the school was known for.
Students fought back by holding walkouts in the spirit of the Chicano student walkouts of the 1960s and 1970s, and by striking for nearly a week at the end of August — just one week before the historic Chicago Teachers Union strike. CPS and the Board of Education realized they had made a huge mistake in going after teachers at a school with such a radical history of direct action. They reinstated both teachers the following week.
SoJo continues to be an example of what democratic teacher, student, and community power can look like.
For education justice activists in Chicago and beyond, the challenges often seem insurmountable. But we continue to fight, and sometimes we win.
That’s what the Dyett 12 did last month. After a dogged thirty-four-day hunger strike, following years of community struggle, the people of Bronzeville secured an important victory when city officials agreed to reopen the high school as an open-enrollment community high school. As Jitu Brown pointed out during a celebratory press conference on September 29, ten days after the strike: “Never before has a closed school been forced to be reopened as an open enrollment school.”
But the struggle to make Dyett a global leadership and green technology academy is not over. Parents, even those whose children will never attend Dyett, want Chicago’s students to be part of a school guided by a forward-looking vision.
“They tell our kids that all they can be are football players or singers, but we want our kids to be able to be part of green technology because that’s the future,” said Nelson Sosa, director of the community organization Pilsen Alliance and one of the Dyett 12. He says he joined the hunger strike to show solidarity to the black community from the Latino community because as he put it, “this city has tried to keep us apart and segregated for too long.”
The Dyett victory is a powerful example of how working-class people can win when they come together to fight for justice. But the struggle for education justice in Chicago is just beginning. And it won’t end until the city has a community elected school board instead of mayoral control; until every public school has a library, art classes, counselors, and nurses; until we stop the proliferation of charter schools; until teachers have job and pension security. It won’t be over until it’s impossible for the mayor to close fifty-four schools in a single day so he can continue to fund the for-profit pet projects of his banker and developer friends.
Three times in the past two decades, Chicago parents have collectively starved themselves to secure a better education for their children. In doing so, they joined a history of working-class struggle peopled by everyone from Lucy Gonzales Parsons and the Haymarket martyrs to Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party.
As neoliberalism continues its offensive against working-class people, pushing our standards of living to historic lows, it is important that we recognize these contemporary struggles as part of the working-class history we must engage and learn from in order to move our fights for justice forward.