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Turning Our Backs: The People We Let Starve at Dyett High School

The hunger strikers who protested the unacceptable treatment of Dyett High School in Bronzeville illustrate how unforgivable the government’s dismissal truly is.

By News

illustration by Zach Cooper

illustration by Zach Cooper

Hunger striking — willfully starving yourself as an act of protest — is a tactic associated with the most desperate and deprived, reaching out for some semblance of equality. Historically, this act calls to mind Gandhi fasting to protect the independence of India; 10 Irish prisoners dying to protest political persecution under Margaret Thatcher; Cesar Chavez starving to establish fair wages and workers’ rights for Latino and Filipino farm workers. Now, there is another group to include among these icons: 15 parents and community members from Bronzeville, a neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, who starved themselves over 34 days in order to protect their children. As a city and nation, we all must endure the shame of admitting this crime: We ignored an entire neighborhood so thoroughly that they were forced to go 34 days without food before officials would take notice. Many narratives have emerged in the media regarding the Dyett High School hunger strikers, also known as the Dyett 15, but for all Chicago’s complications and nuance, this issue is clear. Chicago cares so little about residents of poorer, predominantly minority neighborhoods that the city government was willing to watch 15 people die before agreeing to give their children a quality education.

In 2012, Walter H. Dyett High School was scheduled for closure by Chicago Public Schools (CPS). The process, as designed, lasted four years, with no new students being allowed to enroll. Jobs were cut, students were pressured to transfer, and the building fell into such disrepair that students were forced to enter their school through the back door. Historically, this neighborhood was the famed “Black Metropolis,” which Gwendolyn Brooks, Louis Armstrong, and Ida B. Wells all called home. Dyett provided the only realistic educational option for many neighborhood families, and with its closure, children of this historic neighborhood were left without any legitimate access to quality education. As you might expect, a community this rich in history and tradition refused to let its children be abandoned.

In 2013, the Coalition to Revitalize Dyett High School was launched, comprised of concerned parents, teachers, and community activists who saw the loss of the neighborhood’s only open-enrollment public school as unacceptable. After announcing Dyett’s closure, the coalition pressured CPS into accepting proposals for a new high school, to be established at the site of the former Dyett High School. The Coalition to Revitalize Dyett High School brought together members of the community as well as education experts to draft a proposal for what they called the Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology High School. The proposal, which drew a great deal of support, would focus on world studies and sustainable technology, preparing students for modern society both in terms of business and culture. The coalition also demanded a fully elected local school council be put in place, and that the community be guaranteed meetings with local alderman and CPS officials. If you sense a theme in how the city handles neighborhoods like Bronzeville, you’ll see this coming: CPS ignored every demand.

At its core, this is a situation in which citizens were actively ignored by public leaders on every level before, during, and after a 34-day hunger strike. What is missing from many distracting narratives offered by Chicago media outlets is that the people who undermine this community are the same people who claim to serve it.

The man most immediately reachable for students at Dyett was interim principal Charles Campbell, assigned to Dyett to oversee its closure. While it is easy to sympathize with a man given such a heartbreaking task, Mr. Campbell does his best to make it difficult. Parent and hunger striker Irene Robinson, when asked about Campbell, answered quickly: “He needs to be in jail, the way he treated our kids. He never supported them. He never fought for them.” She detailed the way he, and by extension CPS, treated the students, saying, “They tortured them their whole senior year, making them take classes online, degrading them. They [the students] had to watch other children enjoy their pool and their basketball court.”

This man revealed how seriously he took Dyett students when CPS put out its call for proposals for a new school. Where the Coalition to Revitalize Dyett pushed for a curriculum which treated its students as children capable of the highest academic achievement, Campbell submitted a proposal he called the Washington Park Athletic Career Academy. The school, for lack of a better word, would teach children statistics by having them enter a fantasy football league. This is not satirical. This is actually the position of the man chosen to educate Dyett’s children.

A tier above Campbell, in terms of authority, is Alderman Will Burns. As the alderman of the 4th ward — which consists of Bronzeville, Oakland, Kenwood, and parts of Hyde Park — Burns should be the Dyett protesters’ most immediately accessible political outlet. He is perhaps the most complicated person on this list, as he has a track record of being pro-education. However, he is very close with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and therefore will not come down on the same side of an issue as the mayor’s opponents. With the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) backing the Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology High School, Burns has moved quickly to characterize the protesters as a political group who are “holding the community hostage” with their hunger strike. In 2014, the coalition had to camp out on Burns’ lawn just to secure a meeting with the alderman. Meeting with and representing community members is an alderman’s primary function. Even Burns supporters, such as the Chicago Sun-Times, admit the alderman “can be arrogant, not listen closely enough to community concerns and is often tightly aligned with the mayor.”

Parents involved in the hunger strike were not as soft in their criticism. “Will Burns sat idly and did not want to meet with the community. Where was Will Burns when our 13 children were going in the back door of at Dyett? Where was Will Burns when we went to jail protesting? There was no engagement from the board, the mayor, or Will Burns. Every effort that was made concerning Dyett came from the people, it came from the community,” they said.

It is difficult to discuss CPS without mentioning its CEO, Forrest Claypool. Recently appointed in July 2015, replacing Barbara Byrd-Bennet (who is currently being charged in a bribery scheme) , Claypool was brought on not for his experience in education, but for his political and financial prowess. A former chief of staff for both Mayor Daley and Mayor Emanuel, Claypool is also the former head of the Chicago Park District (CPD) and the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA). Claypool has moved quickly to present himself as the face of compromise in the Dyett fight, while simultaneously belittling and ignoring the protesters. On September 13, Claypool announced that CPS would re-open Dyett as an open enrollment arts school, portraying this decision as a great compromise on the part of the city. What Claypool did not mention in his speech was that as he spoke, the hunger strikers were locked out of the building under police guard. Robinson commented on this, saying, “For the last four years that’s how we’ve been treated — like criminals.”

Jitu Brown, one of the hunger strike’s leaders, said Claypool only informed him of his decision 15 minutes prior to the public announcement. Even after the coalition’s proposal garnered significant community support, its key elements were noticeably absent from the arts school announced by Claypool. The parents involved in this fight believe that an arts school is not a solution for the community’s problems, as without the elements proposed in their Global Leadership and Green Technology High School, their students will not graduate with the same quality education that students in wealthier, whiter neighborhoods will enjoy. Claypool is a politician and businessman who, in his recent threat to layoff 5,000 teachers, made it clear that his aim is to nurture the city’s fiscal interest, even if that means abandoning what should be the city’s primary investment — its children.

In Chicago politics, all roads lead to Rahm. Throughout his career, Mayor Emanuel has been responsible for the closure of over 50 schools. Being so busy displacing over 12,000 students, Rahm obviously has little time for 15 starving people. Following years of refusing to meet with the coalition, including one incident in which protesters chained themselves to the fifth floor of his office, Emanuel only sat down to talk after protesters threatened to shut down more town hall meetings. At one point, during a speech in which protesters yelled out for the mayor to answer their questions, Emanuel condescended, “I have three teenagers at home. I’m really okay with this.” For members of a predominately black neighborhood, having a mayor ignore and insult them by comparing their concerns to that of a wealthy teenager is doubly painful. In 2013’s historic school closings, which shut down 50 of Chicago schools, 88 percent of displaced students were black. When looking at the difference between how Emanuel handles minority neighborhoods and wealthier white neighborhoods, it is hard to disagree with Robinson when she says, “This is a hate crime.”

No matter how complex each official is, in this situation there is a clear line one can draw through them all. They each, individually and as a group, have denied the people they are supposed to represent any agency, and have consistently dismissed the outcry of parents, even as they starve. As Robinson said, “Who allows parents to go 34 days without eating? They have disrespected us, but most of all, they’re hurting our kids. What parent in their right mind loves their kids and allows this to happen? We love our kids.”

What sort of role in society are Chicago officials grooming children for when they eat lunch on the floor? When they take special needs classes in a stairway? What is at risk here is, as Robinson says, the possibility that “the hate that they have spread among these schools, into our children, will spread to communities all over and into other children.”

And yet, even as they are ignored, the community remains hopeful and tenacious. Robinson went on to say, “It’s our vision that our kids will have high quality green technology, where we would be building leaders. All kids should have the right to a quality education. The community stood with us because we are the community.” This is a shame the whole city must bare. We’ve allowed people of color to be persecuted, degraded, ignored, and denied representation on such a level that even a hunger strike was not enough to help them.

As Robinson said, “It’s like telling a mama to give up on her child. How can you tell a mom to just give up? I’d die for my kids.”

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