Dyett hunger strikers get a small win

Protesters at Dyett High School in Chicago have vowed to continue fighting for what they believe to be a high-quality education for students in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, even after their hunger strike brought Mayor Rahm Emanuel and school leadership to a “compromise” on Sept 3.


The scene in front of Dyett High School, Aug 27, 2015, location of a hunger strike. (Voxitatis)

Chicago school officials said they’ll reopen the school at the heart of a hunger strike that has drawn national attention next fall as an arts-themed high school, not the green technology and science school Jitu Brown and fellow activists had sought, the Washington Post reports.

Many opinion writers, including Eric Zorn in the Chicago Tribune, have called on protesters to end their hunger strike, but they have pledged to continue not eating solid food until their demands are met. Mr Zorn wrote that the hunger strike was effective, as they often are, that the protest was indeed necessary because “politeness and decorum—following the well-ordered democratic process—will only get you so far,” but that protesters need to know when to quit and take the gains that have been won.

Mr Brown, I believe, wouldn’t characterize what has been called a “compromise” as a victory, although it’s not easy to understand his rationale for that negative opinion. The Coalition to Revitalize Dyett High School submitted three good proposals they had worked on, and an arts-themed school wasn’t one of those proposals. Mr Brown’s group of protesters characterized this action as “shameful” and “yet another example of the disenfranchisement and paternalism heaped upon low-income and working African-American families.”

The compromise concession marks a victory over a Chicago bureaucracy that would have all but razed the school in that it will now offer a more complete program of study than it had even during the long phase-out, including a new technology lab. The district will also maintain high expectations by padding the school population, even if enrollment from the neighborhood declines in the future. But that’s not enough. Mr Brown told the Network for Public Education:

This privatization of Dyett calls into question the intention of the privatization movement. It’s really colonialism. It is removing the right of people to control the institutions that affect their lives. Our communities are defined by outside forces. And so the people, the interests that closed all those schools—Rahm Emanuel is not the leader of that. He’s just the trigger; he is the initiator of it.

They view our children through a lens that is based on profits and based on racism. They don’t see our children and see the genius and the strength that children growing up in the inner city have to have; or the resilience they have to have; the creativity that we have to have; the “how to make something out of nothing” that we have to have; the endurance that we have to have; the ability to reconcile unbelievable conditions and still look up and see the sun and smile.

That lens is a lens that loves our children. But to see our children and to see inmates, to see our children and to see people that are less than you, or less than anyone else, has driven a lot of the policies that have us on a hunger strike for twenty days.

Whether or not it’s officially a compromise—and it’s not, because only one side was included in the development, not negotiation, of the terms—I think the decision to reopen the school neglects important elements in the lives of students it purports to serve. But I want Mr Brown, a great leader, to live to fight another day and not kill himself from starvation. Meeting him almost three years ago, when the struggle for Dyett was in its infancy, changed my life and my understanding of school operations in predominantly black and low-income neighborhoods, where public schools are being replaced by for-profit charters at an alarming rate.

The population of Dyett High School will change in the four years that follow the reopening, and the kids who go there will be just as important as those that will enroll next year thanks to his selfless and tireless efforts. Those kids need him, too, and if he dies from hunger, he won’t be around to fight those battles.

Jitu, I admire you greatly, and I beg you, live to fight another day, because as schools go, this one needs to stay on the Chicago landscape. What I believe you stand to gain from a continued strike isn’t worth the risk to your health and the potential loss of a great warrior for our kids tomorrow. If these children are as strong as you say they are, they have the strength to make this work—no matter what it starts out as: an arts school, a green school, a vocational school, or whatever. It’s opened and now is the time to make it great. We need you.

[Editor’s Note: This post was updated on Sept 8 to reflect the following correction: Because media coverage tends to be one-sided, the proposal by Chicago Public Schools was labeled a compromise in multiple news sources. As shown in the tweet we added, that’s an incorrect term to use in describing a set of conditions hoisted on one side by the other. Voxitatis did mention the “paternalism” character in the arrangement, and unlike Badass Teachers, we do believe it’s a victory to reopen the school as open-enrollment. However, there were no negotiations involved, so there was no “compromise” per se. Insertions and deletions have been marked, and Voxitatis regrets the error.]

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.