Jitu Brown is a mountain of a man, tall and broad shouldered – the kind of person whose presence you notice when he walks into a room and whose deep, resonate voice commands your attention. When you shake his hand, you can’t help notice your palm completely disappears in his all-encompassing grip.
Yet on Wednesday, “Brother Jitu,” as he is customarily called, looked weary, a little slumped over, almost faint, as he sat in a folding chair at the base of the US Department of Education in Washington, DC. Brown you must know is on his 17th day of a hunger strike. He has traveled to here from his Chicago neighborhood, hundreds of miles away, with one of his fellow strikers, April Stogner.
According to one health news source, “After two weeks, people on a hunger strike may have difficulty standing; they can also suffer from severe dizziness, sluggishness, weakness, loss of coordination, low heart rate and a chilled feeling. Low levels of thiamine (vitamin B1) become a real risk after two or three weeks and can result in severe neurological problems, including cognitive impairment, vision loss, and lack of motor skills.”
Two of Brown’s fellow hunger strikers – there are 12 in all – have already made trips to the hospital.
So as Brown listens quietly to the handful of speakers presenting before him, it’s natural to worry he won’t be able to address the crowd gathered on the plaza, or be concerned he’ll suddenly be overwhelmed by the travails of withholding solid food for so long.
Why have Brown and his fellow striker made the trek to Washington?
Reporter Lyndsey Layton for The Washington Post briefs the story: “The hunger strikers are concerned about Walter H. Dyett High School, which was closed by Chicago Public Schools in June after years of poor performance and dwindling enrollment … Protesters say they want to keep the school publicly operated and have asked that Dyett be reopened as a ‘leadership and green technology school’ with a science-based curriculum that takes advantage of the school’s location near a major park.”
But the backstory is way more complicated, and more importantly, of national significance.
As the Chicago Sun-Times reports, “Members of the Coalition to Revitalize Dyett High School have lobbied for years on behalf of the neighborhood school, without success.”
The school is located in the Bronzeville neighborhood, a community that historically was a destination for throngs of African Americans migrating from the rural south in the early decades of the 20th century. Bronzeville was home to numerous black cultural luminaries including Gwendolyn Brooks, Richard Wright, Louis Armstrong, and Ida B. Wells, and the school is named after a legendary music teacher who taught the likes of singer Nat “King” Cole and tenor saxophone giants Von Freeman, Gene Ammons, and Johnny Griffin.
Brown, a chief organizer from the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization (KOCO) in Southside Chicago, has been on Dyett’s local school council since 2003. During his term, Dyett underwent a community-led improvement effort that brought honors and AP classes to the school, and, according to a local news outlet, the school “had the highest increase in graduation rate of any facility in the 600-school district.” In 2011 the ESPN program Rise Up made a $4 million investment in the school to revamp its athletic facilities.
What also happened in 2011 was Rahm Emanuel resigned as the White House Chief of Staff for President Barak Obama to run for the mayor of Chicago. After Emanuel won, he and his administration began a program to disinvest in local schools, closing 50 neighborhood schools – a historic high – while opening dozens of new charter schools that are privately operated. The school closures occurred in neighborhoods that are overwhelmingly black (88 percent) and low-income (94 percent).
As a local, independent news website reports, the Chicago Board of Education, an administrative body appointed by Mayor Emanuel, “voted to phase out Dyett in February 2012, citing continually low performance and graduation rates … But advocates for Dyett have argued the low performance was due to continual disinvestment that destabilized the school.”
The reporter quotes Brown lamenting the loss of all the improvements he and his fellow school council members worked for: “Students don’t have honors or AP classes … Students don’t have art. Students don’t have music classes, and students also have to take physical education as an online class.”
Brown accuses the mayor and his appointed board of “gutting” the neighborhood by closing the school.
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“After news of the closing plans broke,” the International Business Times reports, “the community reacted negatively, even filing a civil rights complaint alleging the planned shutdown was racially motivated. In response, the board decided to accept proposals with the intent of reopening Dyett as a public or contract school for the 2016-17 school year. The Coalition to Revitalize Dyett put forth the idea of focusing the school’s curriculum on the environment, economy, green technology, and community, while the Little Black Pearl Art and Design Academy advocated for an arts and culture institute. The third and final proposal would turn Dyett into the Washington Park Athletic Career Academy, centered around letting students explore sports-related jobs.”
Brown and his fellow hunger strikers argue, in a letter they went to DC to deliver to Secretary Duncan, their plan should take precedent over the other two because it has been community led, developing over a four year period that included town hall meetings, extensive consultation with community and educational institutions, the input of experts who have developed Level 1 high schools in Chicago, and the support from over 3,000 Bronzeville residents.
In their letter, the protestors point out that were Dyett to close, Bronzeville students would not have access to any neighborhood high school that is open enrollment and free of an application process.
Working under a city regime that declares its allegiance to “school choice,” you would think officials would respond to the community’s demands for an open enrollment neighborhood school based on their vision and values. But instead, the hunger strikers accuse city officials of delaying tactics and hidden agendas.
They call attention to the fact that while neighborhoods in whiter, more affluent parts of Chicago continue to enjoy neighborhood schools that have well-maintained facilities and rich, well-rounded curricula, schools in black and brown, low-income communities increasingly have imposed on them charter schools that practice minimalistic “no excuse” approaches to educating their children.
“There are more Dyetts across our country,” declares American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who spoke just before Brown. In an AFT press release she says, “In communities where neighborhood public schools were closed, not fixed. In communities destabilized by bad policy … in Chicago, in Newark, N.J., in Philadelphia, in Pittsburgh.”
“In places like Chicago, Boston, New Orleans, and other large districts that serve primarily children of color,” writes Eve Ewing who is a former Chicago classroom teacher and currently a doctoral student at Harvard University, “where once the only way to exercise some kind of ‘school choice’ was to attend private school, children can now stay in the public school district and apply to a magnet school, enter the lottery for a charter school, apply to a special vocational or career academy, or try to test into an academically elite ‘selective enrollment’ school serving only a small sliver of top-performing students.”
The problem this system of “choice,” explains Ewing, is that parents who want a local school that guarantees their children access to a high quality education increasingly have no choice at all. Instead of a choice, they get a chance at testing into one of the few selective enrollment schools (which in Chicago only serve about 12 percent of the students), they can win a lottery to place in a desirable charter school, or they can be resigned to attend one of the more prevalent charter schools that are notorious for expelling or suspending students with disabilities or losing high percentages of students between freshman year and graduation.
This system of choice rolling out in so many communities, Ewing argues, “is based on the premise that children, teachers, and schools are indistinguishable widgets, to be distributed as efficiently as possible across the landscape. But the fact is that schools are ecosystems, each with its own history, culture, and intricately woven set of social relationships. Schools are community anchors. They not interchangeable, nor are they disposable. Schools are home.”
So that’s why Brown and his neighbors are on a hunger strike. They refuse to be treated as numbers. They protest attempts to make their proud neighborhood indistinguishable from everywhere else. They will not let their children be rendered disposable. They are fighting for their home.
Back at the plaza in front of the US Department of Education, when it is Brother Jitu’s turn to address the audience, he rises to his feet without any sign of faltering. In commanding the microphone he declares his refusal to remain “voiceless” in determining what happens in his neighborhood and what prevails on his and his neighbors’ children. His strong voice reverberating against the concrete, he speaks undeniable truths: “What happened to Dyett is a case study in separate and unequal education in this country … We’ve lost the choice of having a neighborhood school … There has to be accountability to the public for the destabilizing of schools in our community and the sabotage of our children’s education … This is structural racism at its worst.”
After his address, Brown and Stogner indeed met with Secretary Duncan. According to the Chicago Sun-Times , the two said the meeting “went well,”although the Secretary made no commitments.
Later that night, back in Chicago, when Mayor Emanuel attempted to conduct a town hall address, protestors chanting “Save Dyett” rushed the stage and forced him from the room.
Brother Jitu is being heard, loud and clear.