By Rob Schroeder
“The Mayor and his clique of real-estate developers, hedge-fund investors and bankers don’t want low-income neighborhood Black youth next to the Obama Presidential Library.”
When Monique Redeaux-Smith told her 8th-grade class at Morrill Math and Science School in Englewood she was beginning a hunger strike, her students were dumbfounded.
“‘Why would you not eat?’ they asked me,” Redeaux-Smith said. “It’s interesting to hear children talk about this, because when you say you are fighting for a school, they say, ‘That makes no sense, why would they close a school that so many people worked on for so long?’”
Redeaux-Smith, PhD Policy Studies in Urban Education ‘11, Prudence Browne and Asif Wilson, PhD Curriculum and Instruction students, spent 34 days with 12 other Bronzeville parents and education advocates without a bite of solid food in solidarity with the Coalition to Revitalize Dyett High School’s plan for re-opening the shuttered school.
The plan, written with extensive input from the College’s Rico Gutstein, PhD, professor of educational policy studies and other College faculty, students and alumni, called for a global leadership and green technology neighborhood school. The CPS Board’s decision to create an open enrollment arts academy was another step in what Redeaux-Smith and Browne argue is a long history of actions by the city that destabilized Bronzeville and its predominantly low-income Black population.
School closings, loss of public health care access and elimination of public housing have changed the demographic face of the community: 80 percent of public housing residents have been displaced over the last few decades, and Chicago’s Black population shrank by a whopping 17% from the 2000 to 2010 censuses.
Despite the losses, the hunger strike is not an extremist tactic or a last-ditch resort, as various media commentators and public relations gurus have said. The strike was simply the next step for Black residents and advocates exercising their own agency to implement their community vision.
“When the strike was brought up after a CPS meeting postponement in August, I said, ‘I’m in,’” Redeaux-Smith (photo, below) said. “We had done everything, we weren’t going to be listened to, we were going to be shut out of this process, and we were not okay with that.”
“The Mayor and his clique of real-estate developers, hedge-fund investors and bankers don’t want low-income neighborhood Black youth next to the Obama presidential Library,” Gutstein says. “From that perspective, the land is valuable, and the people are not.”
Chicago’s vision for the community, centered around the new library, is driving the Board’s decision, Gutstein argues. History, it seems, is playing out on a loop: the city announces plans to remake public resources in Bronzeville, and Bronzeville’s residents respond with their own plans to maintain their place in and ownership of their community.
Act 1: Dyett opened as a middle school in 1972, a school which Gutstein says was stable and high-performing. Abruptly, and without significant levels of community input, CPS transformed the school into a high school in 1999.
Dyett’s local school council methodically crafted a supportive learning environment at the new high school. Community members and the council formed college preparatory programs, restorative justice programs and after school activities. The school experienced the largest drop in suspensions and the highest growth in student graduation rate in the district, according to Catalyst Chicago.
Act 2: In the early 2004, a CPS plan to close 20 of the 22 public schools in Bronzeville leaked to the media. The community fought back, proposing a Bronzeville Global Achievers Village, which would create five feeder schools to Dyett connected with vertical curriculum, wrap-around supports and extended day school until early evening.
Act 3: In 2012, despite the community’s years-long planning process, CPS slated Dyett for phase-out and closure, citing low attendance. And indeed, only 12 seniors arrived for the first day of class in 2014. Prudence Browne, PhD Curriculum and Instruction student and one of the hunger strikers, argues the systematic withholding of resources to the school led to its ultimate downfall: the school lost its sports teams, clubs and elective classes due to budget cuts. Even community-sponsored college preparatory programming was cut. The school’s library, which was stocked with seven books upon the high school’s opening in ’99, was chronically short on resources. Despite a high proportion of students with special education needs, adequate staffing was not provided.
Despite the setback in 2012, residents and community organizations including the College, the DuSable Museum, the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, the Chicago Botanic Garden, the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, Teachers for Social Justice, the Chicago Teachers Union and others formed the Coalition to Revitalize Dyett High School. In April 2014, the Coalition submitted an unsolicited proposal to the Board outlining their vision for a new neighborhood Dyett High School preparing students for careers in green services, technologies and industries like other CPS career vocational programs and exposing students to global challenges throughout the curriculum.
“This is part of a larger struggle of Black people as marginalized people in the United States controlling their own destiny, controlling their own history,” says Rico Gutstein, PhD, professor of educational policy studies (photo, below). “The notion of community being able to determine education for their own children is part of a larger political struggle for a community to determine its own destiny.”
Hunger strikes have a history in Chicago as a tool to highlight the need for local control of public schools. On Mother’s Day 2001, 14 Little Village residents embarked on a 19-day hunger strike demanding CPS open a new high school in the neighborhood. The neighborhood’s predominantly Latino residents had expressed discontent for years with the overcrowding of Farragut High School, which served the neighborhood.
In 1998, the CPS Board allocated funds for a new Little Village High School, as well as two new north side selective-enrollment schools: Walter Payton in the Old Town neighborhood and Northside College Prep in the North Park neighborhood. Both the selective enrollment schools were to be located in areas featuring higher income populations with a higher proportion of White residents. After Northside opened in 1999 and Payton in 2000, the CPS Board announced funding was no longer available for the Little Village school.
The Board’s decision to not open the new high school spurred the 19-day hunger strike, which ended due to health concerns but not before major media coverage and a tense standoff with Chicago Police. Shortly after the strike’s end, the CPS Board announced funding for the high school. Today, four distinct schools operate as part of the Little Village Lawndale High School Campus: Multicultural Academy of Scholarship High School; Infinity Math, Science & Technology High School; World Language High School and Social Justice High School. All four schools are public neighborhood schools open to any student within the boundary area.
What would cause the CPS Board to acquiesce to the demands of the Little Village hunger strike but not the Dyett strike? Gutstein sees demographic differences that influence the Board’s decision-making. Bronzeville sits a mere ten minutes from the Chicago Loop and the Magnificent Mile; the area already features some gentrified housing; its location to the lakefront is strategic from a real estate perspective; the neighborhood is well-connected via the CTA Red and Green Lines and the Dan Ryan Expressway. Little Village, on the other hand, sits adjacent to Chicago’s last coal fire power plants that remain abandoned to this day; no train lines access the neighborhood and little gentrification or real estate developments have crept into the neighborhood.
Lipman’s research points to explicit connections between school closings and openings and neighborhood gentrification ostensibly designed to boost life outcomes for low-income residents, despite little evidence of such outcomes. Her article on “Mixed-Income Schools and Housing Policy in Chicago: A Critical Examination of the Gentrification, Education and “Racial” Exclusion Nexus,” details a long lineage of attempts by Chicago leaders to push out low-income residents, typically Black or Latino, from Chicago neighborhoods in favor of wealthier residents who often are White.
Lipman outlines a neoliberal agenda for remaking cities that use schools as agents for gentrification by attracting new residents. This neoliberal mindset, characterized by reinvestment, privatization and elimination of local governance in areas ravaged by deindustrialization and disinvestment, relies on an assumption that middle class residents will deploy social capital to connect low-income residents to job markets and resources, intervene to promote safety and social harmony and bring resources to the community.
In the mid-90s, cities across the country sought to address long-neglected public housing complexes via $4.5 billion in federal funding to rehabilitate public housing. In Chicago, the Chicago Housing Authority largely demolished distressed public housing units and replaced them with large-scale private market rate development and mixed-income housing.
At the same time, neighborhood schools historically characterized as anchors in Chicago communities were flipped to charter and contract operators to attract middle-class students. Proponents of mixed-income education argue the presence of a majority middle-class student body creates attitudinal merits contrasted with problematic attitudes, behaviors and values of low-income students.
The realities in Chicago neighborhoods are far different from the hopes of the neoliberal agenda, Lipman says. According to her article, more than 22,000 public housing units featuring three, four or five bedrooms were destroyed and not replaced, forcing families either out of the city or into homelessness. Only one-third of replacement housing was designated for public housing residents, causing about 80 percent of public housing residents to move to a new location. A 2006 study found 80 percent of new public housing was to be concentrated in two census tracts and a narrow slice of an adjoining third. For low-income Chicagoans relocated to new mixed-income housing developments, studies indicate little social interaction and neighboring between income groups, despite claims of benefits from exposure to middle-income residents.
Students displaced by changes in public housing who relocated schools garnered few benefits, with 84 percent of students attending schools with below-average district test scores and 44 percent in schools on probation for low test scores. In Bronzeville, overwhelmingly low-income schools were closed and re-opened as charter schools with significantly fewer low-income students, a trend seen around the city.
It is this historical legacy of displacement via housing and schooling in Chicago that informs Gutstein’s belief that the city, in refusing to meet the demands of the Dyett Coalition, hopes to change the face of Bronzeville in conjunction with the library’s opening.
“Hunger striking was a strategy, not the totality of our politics,” Prudence Browne says. “When they try to pull us out, we have to put our lives at risk.”
For 34 days, the hunger strikers held vigil at Dyett, at Rainbow PUSH Coalition offices and at CPS headquarters. Monique Redeaux-Smith continued her full-time work as a teacher at Morrill on a liquid-only diet for the month-plus duration.
“When I wasn’t with the strikers, I physically felt the effects,” Redeaux-Smith said. “Mind, body and spirit work together when you are engaged in an extended fast; when I was with the group, I didn’t feel hungry, I didn’t feel tired.”
Redeaux-Smith sees the conflict as a battle for contested public space. She theorizes that the community anchors Bronzeville has lost—schools, hospitals, housing stocks, police stations—will return when the demographics of the neighborhood change to reflect more upper middle class residents.
She questions the logic of sending students to school outside the confines of their own neighborhood. Parents, she argues, are not universally comfortable sending their child to another part of the city for school. Students regret the increasingly early morning wake up calls necessary to catch a bus headed across the city to attend school. Why, she asks, is a hunger strike necessary in 2015 to call for a quality school in each neighborhood?
As a teacher, Redeaux-Smith sees a critical role for the Chicago Teacher’s Union in advocating for place and space for neighborhood schools. She says she is frustrated that teachers who invest thousands of hours in practice and education to perfect their craft are shut out of decision-making in favor of people from outside of the communities impacted.
“You aren’t more invested than us, you aren’t better than us, you don’t love our children more than us, and we will not let you use that narrative,” Redeaux-Smith said.
The city’s response to the strike is troubling to Browne (photo below, middle). In the midst of Black Lives Matter campaigns calling out issues of social justice nationwide, she sees the city’s lack of response to a hunger strike as an indictment of prevailing attitudes towards neighborhoods with predominant Black and Latino populations.
She points to the continuous privatization of public resources, namely schools, in Bronzeville that depart from the notion that public schools can serve as a public good. Browne argues that the winning bid for re-opening Dyett came from a private operator whose current schools produce only four percent of students meeting or exceeding state standards. Further, she cites the fact that the winning bidders had no interest in operating Dyett until requested by CPS as another indictment of the privatizing agenda.
“What this means is that it is good enough for Black children to be educated in unequal, inadequate schooling systems, and that is not OK with us,” Browne said. “But this entire experience says something powerful about the resolve and deep love Black parents have for their children.”