- Interview by
- Micah Uetricht
Chicago has seen an explosion of working-class organizing in recent years. Such organizing produces working-class activists, and Jeanette Taylor is one of those activists.
Taylor is running for a city council seat representing Chicago’s twentieth ward, on the city’s South Side. She has been involved in recent key battles, as she explains here, including the Dyett High School hunger strike, the Chicago Teachers Union’s (CTU) 2012 strike, and the campaign demanding a community benefits agreement (CBA) as a condition of the construction of Barack Obama’s presidential library.
On a recent break from canvassing ahead of the city’s February 26 municipal election, Taylor spoke with Jacobin managing editor Micah Uetricht. You can also read our interviews with leftist Chicago city council candidates Byron Sigcho Lopez, Carlos Rosa, Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez, and Ugo Okere.
You grew up in Chicago, right?
I was born and raised in Chicago. I’ve lived on the South Side my entire life. I’m a mother of five. I am the daughter of a retired CPS clerk, who died two weeks ago, and a cab driver. I had my first baby when I was fifteen. By the time I was nineteen, I had three kids. So I went to school and I worked two jobs.
I went to Dunbar Vocational High School and Dauphin Tech to take a business tech class. I wound up working for H&R Block as well as at a bar — I was a bartender that didn’t drink.
How did you get involved in community organizing on the South Side?
It started when my oldest boy went to school. My mother was a PTA mom, she was one of the first people to be on a local school council at Mount Greenwood Elementary. When I had a baby she was like, “You gotta do it. I’m not gonna do it for your kids. It’s your responsibility.” So I was on a local school council.
This is the elected body of community members in schools that has some decision-making power about what goes on in public schools. Your mom said you had to be on the LSC?
Yep. I didn’t want to do it, but I did what I was told. For maybe the first four or five years, I was not an effective local school council member. I thought the principal knew everything — she was educated and I really didn’t know much, so I was like, “Yes, ma’am.”
When I did an LSC training through Chicago Public Schools, I didn’t learn anything. So a friend of mine suggested I look up the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization (KOCO). I heard that they were troublemakers, but I thought, “I don’t care what they are — as long as they can help me with this training.” So I started training with a brother named Jitu Brown.
At the same time, the [possibility of Chicago winning the 2016] Olympics came up [in the late 2000s]. People were coming to our community, and they were talking about displacement. People had been buying property in our community. KOCO was one of the community organizations saying, “We need a community benefits agreement. The community needs to benefit from the Olympics.”
I realized that they were one of the only organizations to march on the International Olympic Committee [when its members came to Chicago on its official visit to assess the city], and ultimately they’re the reason why we didn’t get the Olympics. After that, I wanted to join.
At the same time, we were hit with the announcement about Mollison Elementary closing. We were like, “What? Why is it closing?” We weren’t the highest performing schools — we were right in the middle. But the district never talked about the fact that we never got the resources we deserved.
Mollison is in Bronzeville. It’s a gentrifying community. I was told by one of the people who bought a home there that they didn’t want their kids to go to school with my kids. This was a black person who had a little bit more money than me that moved into my community and felt like I wasn’t supposed to be there.
I was like, “Oh, I’ll show you.”
So me and a couple of parents — three hundred parents — we went to CPS and made sure that they did not close the school.
You were also part of the Dyett High School hunger strike. What was going on with Dyett, and how did you decide to take this very drastic step of going on a hunger strike?
[The school district] started talking about closing Dyett. We had heard conversations about it being proposed as a possible site for the Obama presidential center. And the only thing standing in the way of it was Dyett and some residents of Garfield Park.
When they first talked about a hunger strike, I was like “hell to the no.” Let’s do something else. I’ll even go to jail. But, you talking about not eating — that’s insane. But after I got kicked by an elected official when I blocked the city hall elevator doors [as part of a civil disobedience action demanding Dyett stay open], I had had enough.
So when they talked about it in May 2015, I was ready. But it was after two years of getting my ass kicked.
We cornered Rahm Emanuel at a press conference as he was opening up a new playground. We had told him, “If you don’t meet with us, we gonna bust up your press conference.” So he had one of his chief of staff take us in a room. I was telling him what the school meant and what had happened when they had closed the schools [in previous rounds of closures in Chicago]. It pushed the kids into violence. We knew what was going to happen if they closed the school.
He said, “Well, I’ll think about it.” And we were like, “Okay, you gonna think about losing this job. You gonna be working somewhere else. We gonna make sure that we let people around the city know this what you think of the black community.” I never had anything nice to say to him.
So we decided we were gonna go on a hunger strike. We met with the Little Village hunger strikers.
This is the 2001 hunger strike in the Little Village neighborhood that eventually led to the creation of the Little Village Lawndale High School.
Yes. They went on a hunger strike and got a school built from the ground up. They are the people who told us what the hunger strike meant, what they got, how to take care of ourselves, some of the foolishness we were gonna deal with.
I’ve never heard that part of the story before. You all were on this hunger strike in Bronzeville, historically the heart of black Chicago, focused on a school, Dyett. And you met with residents of Little Village, the heart of Mexican-American Chicago, who had successfully gone on a hunger strike focused on opening a school.
That’s always the lie, that black and brown people don’t work together. Yes, we do.
But the Dyett hunger strike would not have happened without the Little Village hunger strike. That’s just it. Anybody who was on that hunger strike could tell you that. They sat with us. The oldest lady who was on the Little Village hunger strike, I think she was eighty-six. She sat out there with us, explaining that it wasn’t going to be easy.
[Dyett eventually reopened in 2016, and the hunger strikers claimed the reopening as a victory.]
How do you see the state of the city of Chicago as a whole today?
The city of Chicago has gotten rich off the backs of low-income and working families, predominantly in black and brown communities. We have a city of haves and have nots. And the haves are okay with us being have nots.
There’s also been a strong working-class movement here.
Exactly. The movement made and pushed me. I don’t like doing all this, running for office and talking in public. That’s something I was molded into doing. I’m the person that likes to talk to people one-on-one, organizing behind the scenes. When I die, my gravestone will say “mama, wife, and organizer.” Because that’s the most important job in the world to me.
You talked about Dyett and KOCO, which is part of a broad educational movement in this city that people most associate with the Chicago Teachers Union. How have you related to the CTU?
Of course. I was one of the parents who stood with them, who told other parents “don’t fall for what the district is saying — they don’t care about your children.” Their working conditions are our children’s learning conditions.
Were you on the picket line with the CTU in 2012?
Oh yes, I was. I got pictures.
Let’s talk about the 20th ward. It’s a majority black ward, with a population that is on average very poor, the product of decades of racism and housing segregation. On the other hand, it’s close to the University of Chicago. Parts of the ward will include the Obama presidential library, which stands to further the displacement of black people from Chicago. There’s simultaneous poverty and gentrification.
The twentieth ward is made up of Woodlawn, Washington Park, Back of the Yards, New City, and Englewood. It’s been disenfranchised. The University of Chicago has a long history of displacing folks in our community.
The ward as a whole is in jeopardy from the Obama library. All of a sudden, parts of the ward are getting clean, there are lights, they’re making it pretty. That’s not for us. That’s for selling it. They’re going to say you’re fifteen minutes away from the Obama center. Move in. The entire ward will be a victim of this placement if we don’t get an elected official who is willing to stand up and fight for this community.
Can you talk about your own thinking about the Obama presidential library? I’m sure a lot of people on the South Side were very proud of Obama’s election in 2008 and still have a very high opinion of him. But his presidential library has this potential for massive displacement.
You spoke with him once about a potential community benefits agreement and he rejected it, right?
Yes. I asked him the question [at a community meeting announcing the library]. He kind of bounced around it a little, bit but then he turned around and said no, he does not support a community benefits agreement, because you’ll have organizations coming out of the woodwork and demanding he sign something with them.
I was upset. I didn’t like what he said. I was honestly in shock, because he is an ex-community organizer. He knows better.
I voted for Obama twice. I have nothing against the first black president of the United States. But when a person has the power to protect low-income and working families, and they don’t — if it’s Queen Elizabeth, if it’s Beyonce, I don’t care: we should always challenge it. Period. I’m not backing down off that.
When you’re out talking to potential voters about the Obama library and the potential for displacement on the doors, what do they say?
In the very beginning, I got the question “do you hate Obama?” I said, “This has nothing to do with me liking him. This is about displacement in our community. This is about over a hundred thousand black folks being pushed out of Chicago.” I love Chicago. I’m gonna fight to stay here. That’s one of the reasons why I got in the race.
You’re endorsed by a number of progressive groups: United Working Families, Reclaim Chicago, the Democratic Socialists of America. There are a dozen other endorsees on the UWF slate. There are four other people who DSA endorsed. What is the vision for that whole progressive slate of city council members?
Making Chicago into a true Sanctuary City. Winning a living wage. There’s so many. Getting rid of the gang database. Winning the CBA in this community but also for any big project that uses our tax dollars — think about all these big projects that come to the city, and the people who pay taxes and live in those communities never benefit from them. And making sure we tax the rich.
To win all of this, it’s not enough for people to vote for me — they have to go to city hall with me.