On Sunday, I took two buses, going west and south from Hyde Park for the first time since I’ve been a student at the University of Chicago. I was going to a leg of the three-day march organized by the Chicago Teacher’s Union. On the surface, this march was to protest the massive closing of Chicago public schools, but really, I think it addressed the larger issue of educational justice.
Before arriving meeting up with the people at Imagine Englewood if, a wonderful community organization where we started the march, I felt conscious of my own light skin. I’m not white– I’m half Chinese, half Jewish, but in many ways did enjoy the privilege that comes with being white and upper middle class, and on both buses, was the only light-skinned person. I’m not completely sure why that is, but as we passed a street named for Martin Luther King, I couldn’t help but wonder what he would think of the continued lack of integration in one of the biggest cities in the United Sates.
I got to Imagine Englewood if early, and stood around awkwardly. I know from past experiences that teacher-activists (and even though I was that early I was already surrounded in a sea of red CTU t-shirts) are some of the most interesting people ever, and some of the best conversationalists as well, but I’m an introvert, and I felt a little out-of-place. What was my stake at this march? Why did I decide to come? I didn’t grow up in Chicago. I don’t know any teachers or students in Chicago Public Schools. I don’t have a kid who’s going to be affected. And I’m not even sure that I have a good answer to that question. All I can say is that I care about a good education for all children, and I feel strongly that working with teachers, with communities, with parents, and with students is the best way to “reform” and improve schools, not techno-managerial, top-down “Rheeform” that is so prevalent in the city of Chicago.
In any case, I signed my waiver forms, filled out my emergency contact information, wondered at the signs and the risks of lead poisoning (how the other side lives), and filed in to the headquarters of Imagine Englewood if to hear a few short speakers. One thing that I learned that I hadn’t realized before is the activism of the janitors and lunch ladies (workers?), and the effect of schools closing on them. We heard the words of a janitor and a Spanish-speaking elderly lunch lady, and I was moved by their passion for their students.
Onto the march. I held a banner that read “Support our schools, don’t close them.” We chanted enthusiastically. My favorite was “Education is a right, not just for the rich and white.” Other chants included “Hey hey, ho ho, Rahm Emanuel’s got to go,” “Public education’s under attack, what do we do, stand up fight back!” Suddenly it didn’t matter what my motivation was, what my stake was. I had the opportunity to get caught up in something bigger than myself, to “collectively effervesce,” to be a part of a movement that means something, a very real fight for educational justice.
I’m so glad that I went on a leg of the march that was in the neighborhood and stopped and closing schools. Looking around, I saw graffiti, many heads sticking out of a single window of a small apartment, and boarded up doors and windows. It really brought home the idea of the school as the center of a community, and a place that kids can not only feel safe, but feel validated, to be surrounded by color. To close a school is to cripple a community, and that shouldn’t happen haphazardly. As we stopped in front of Banneker and Dewey, we heard from Karen Lewis and from an eloquent high school (and Banneker) graduate going to college on a full scholarship in Virginia, both of whom emphasized the value of community-centered neighborhood schools. I finally begged off at Dewey, walked to 55th, and took the 55 bus back to campus.
Today, the CPS has announced the closure of 50 schools, including Banneker and 4 schools, including Dewey, will be “turned around.” And honestly, I felt discouraged and disenfranchised. If I, as a college student with less personal stake in this debate than most, as someone who went on only a 5 mile march, feel disenfranchised, how must the parents and students feel? I wouldn’t doubt that all of the community meetings were a farce and a placation attempt. I don’t want to end on such a pessimistic note, so I will comment instead that I continue to be impressed with the parents, teachers, janitors, lunch ladies, and students who will not give up without a fight.
Rachel Kulikoff is a second year undergraduate at The University of Chicago majoring in Biology with a minor in Human Rights.