On Saturday, a group of parents, grandparents, teachers, and community members ended a historic 34-day hunger strike. Their cause? To save what is the last open enrollment public high school in the historic Bronzeville community in Chicago, Walter H. Dyett High School. Several strikers had been hospitalized; one collapsed at a recent Chicago Public Schools (CPS) Board Meeting. The chief medical officer for the Cook County Department of Public Health, Dr. Linda Rae Murray urged Mayor Rahm Emanuel to negotiate with the strikers. Other prominent physicians echoed her calls. Yet for 34 days, the twelve hunger strikers remained resolved, and were joined by three more. The attending nurse for the strikers, Erin Raether for Nurses for Justice, has pronounced that it was “a life threatening situation.”
And it is life—and the struggle for it—that seems to be at the heart of the fight for Dyett. Recently, a study from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation affirmed what many have known to be true for a very long time: premature death is significantly determined by access to education, which is stratified by race and class. These findings are demonstrative of Professor Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s definition of racism as “group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” Understood as such, education becomes representative of life, while segregated education becomes representative of a differentially valued life. As Jitu Brown, a long-time Chicago organizer, hunger striker, and member of the Coalition to Revitalize Dyett put it, “[t]he same value system that leads to a mayor shutting down 50 schools at one time and have children moving around like they don’t matter, that’s the same value system that strangled Eric Garner in front of millions of people and somehow said he deserved it….There’s a core value system at work here and it doesn’t value any of us but it values some of us a lot less.”
In 2009, Dyett, along with 51 schools, was slated to be phased out, or eventually closed, by the Chicago Board of Education. Since 2001, over 100 Chicago public schools have been closed or reconstituted. In the most recent round of closings, nearly 90% of the students affected were Black and over 50% qualified for free lunch or special needs services.
Government officials and policy pundits often claim that decisions to close schools are an effort to fix a failing public education system and to make schools more accountable to students and communities. Sounds right. But a closer look shows otherwise. Dyett, for example, was a school that was improving. Even Arne Duncan, the former CEO of Chicago Public Schools, and former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley hailed Dyett’s restorative justice and post-secondary programs as models to be replicated; Dyett nearly doubled the college attendance rates while simultaneously achieving the largest decrease in arrests and suspensions compared to other schools in the district. Moreover, Dyett successfully forged partnerships with community organizations to establish successful youth summer employment programs.
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Given it’s exemplar improvement and high levels of community investment, the decision to close Dyett doesn’t make sense—or does it? As Jitu Brown, recently explained in an interview, CPS’s decision to close Dyett is not surprising but rather, is an indication of how urban education reform works in tandem with the dispossession of low-income communities of color marked for urban renewal. As Brown explains, “[c]losing schools has been a way to, one, accelerate the movement of African-American and Latino families out of communities, but then also to line the pockets of people that are politically connected. And that’s the same thing that’s happening in the case of Dyett High School.”
Bronzeville, a historically Black community, has experienced gentrification with average housing prices in certain parts of the neighborhood increasing by as much as fifty-seven percent (57%) since 2000. It has also been one of the neighborhoods in Chicago where school closings have been most concentrated. Contrasted, however, with Dyett and Bronzeville, is the story of parents in the whiter and wealthier neighborhoods of Rogers Park and Lincoln Park who were able to successfully lobby for the types of schools that they wanted for their children. They did not have to go on a hunger strike; what they deemed fit for their children was considered, their voices—and their children--mattered to CPS. Dyett then---and the efforts to save it---teaches us that over 60 years after Brown, education continues to be a key site through which the dispossession of poor and working class communities of color occurs, and is contested.
To be sure, fight for Dyett extends beyond that of just one school or one neighborhood and points to the unfinished work of the Civil Rights movement. And the struggle---for education, and for life--that these brave freedom fighters are engaged in is a renewed, but not new fight. Its legacy is one that points to stories often untold, such that of the Harlem Nine, a group of mothers who in 1958 risked jail time because they demanded their children’s right to access a decent education. As one of the Harlem Nine, Mrs. Viola Waddy put it, “We will go to jail and rot if necessary…” What she was willing to risk for the education of her community’s children--- are similar to the sentiments of hunger striker Cathy Dale, who pronounced at a press conference on September 14th, “We are prepared to die,” or those of Irene Robinson, a grandmother of nine Dyett alum and one of the hunger strikers. Robinson, in an interview with the Chicago Tribune, declared “I will stand here and I will fight … until the last breath I have" Robinson has since been hospitalized. Indeed, like the Harlem Nine, and so many others before them, the battle over Dyett is about the relationship of education to the present as well as the future of a community---and the right to determine what that future looks like. Throughout the hunger strike, which surpassed a month’s time, public health officials called for the Mayor and CPS put an end to very real health risks that endangered the lives of the Dyett hunger strikers. The strike has stopped. But the fight to demand that the Mayor and CPS end the way that racism works through education to abbreviate the future of Bronzeville---and so many other communities---continues.