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Approximately 200 students, parents and educators rally before school for our pre-February 17 walk-in.
In Chicago a million flowers are blooming. Every blossom is opening toward justice.
The world was watching Chicago on March 11 when Donald Trump got scared and ran away. But what he ran from is the norm in our community these days.
Trump sees himself as special, so it’s no surprise that he characterized the protests at his rally as exceptional. But we the people of Chicago are doing this on the daily. We challenge fascist politicians on a regular basis. We organize and struggle to keep hope alive. We protest to live.
This struggle is not only necessary, it is the best teacher of literacy, math, civics, world language, science, art, health, music, technology and everything else a young person could hope for.
In a small desk, crammed in the back of a too-small classroom in the Brighton Park neighborhood on the Southwest side of Chicago, seventhth grader “T” writes:
“When I dream of the future, I dream of getting into college, getting a Master’s degree and if I work hard, I know I can do it. But I say this knowing that my uncle’s same dream was destroyed because he isn’t a citizen. When I see funding for us to go to college cut, I know that some ignorant people want me to stop my education; to steal it from me. These things that cruel people are doing is unacceptable. They know what we need, what we dream of and they snatch it away anyway. We must fight back!”
To many of my students, the cutting of MAP grants—the main vehicle that allows students of color to attend college in Illinois—is just one more cruel blow to thier education.
Another student, “G”, who is on track to become class valedictorian, saw his sister achieve academic success, but then finish school with lifelong debt and few work opportunities. “She did everything they tell us to,” he said. “What good is being ready for college if none of the promises come true?”
Every day we discuss the upcoming elections. There is much talk of stopping Trump. “M” says, “If El Chapo gets him, I won’t care.”
I push. “You’ve decided you don’t want Trump, but what do you want?”
“I want us all to be citizens. I want to not worry about losing my home and education. I want to know my family will be together,” comes the reply.
Jen Nava, Justice Estrada, Peter Rokowski, Ciera Speer and "E" hold signs in Springfield after meeting with legislators to push for an Elected School Board.
“A”, who finished our speech unit with a rousing multilingual “press conference” on immigration, adds, “I want my father back.”
The students know that this isn’t only about a presidential candidate. Daily, we prepare to fight with a school district in which more and more funds are shifted out of classrooms and into the pockets of the wealthy. Right now we are preparing for student actions on the upcoming city imposed furlough days, and for a possible teacher’s strike April 1.
A month ago, “T” helped organize over 200 parents, teachers and students to attend a before-school “walk-in” where two of her seventh-grade classmates gave speeches. It was one of 200 walk-ins citywide and 800 nationwide.
Joseline Rojas and Jen Nava design a poster for our February 17 walk-in at Brighton Park.
Two weeks ago, she was in Springfield with twenty of her fellow seventh and eighth graders, lobbying for an elected school board for our community. A bill that would allow Chicago to have an elected school board, replacing Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s appointed school board, has been approved by the Illinois House and now goes to the Senate.
Last week, "T" was one of several students hosting a two-and-a-half-hour meeting with two state senators informing them how not having a library or a playground means that students have no access to traditional free reading or research, and that students have to play in the street during recess. She urged them to support an elected school board and oppose further charter expansion.
“We need our basic human rights here, not taken from us to build charter schools,” stated “A.”
One senator asked, “Do you have a preference in the presidential primary?”
“A” smiled. “I’m feeling the Bern! He knows about our schools and wants to help.”
That evening, we received a midnight phone call and the next morning, “A” is standing in front of national media with Bernie Sanders. She gets a chance to talk to him about the closing of universities that serve students of color, including Chicago State University, which graduates the majority of diplomaed African Americans in our state.
"A" is in the first row, second from the right.
Yesterday, “T” designed and cut buttons with messages like “Feel the Bern,” “Don’t be afraid, #OptOut,” “Students and Teachers Support Each Other,” and “Hear Our Voices.” She worked with students from other schools involved in an “Art for Justice” program. While she made buttons, “J” drew up the template for T-shirts they will use to support our upcoming social justice trip to New Orleans.
In writing class, “K” points out that in Gwendolyn Brooks’ We Real Cool and Kevin Coval’s We Cool, youth are referred to with the pronoun “we.” “Not like in the media, where we are always ‘they,’” he observes. “It’s a lack of compassion. They treat us contemptuously.”
Another student points out how in the Trump rallies, they beat or eject people of color, but when we stand up to stop that, the media call us “violent.”
In social studies class, students researched Honduras and the death of human rights activist Berta Cáceres. “N” and “B” find articles connecting Honduran political murders and Hillary Clinton. They begin to make a poster depicting what they’ve found.
"El" and "Ev" hide behind their self-researched art poster of Berta Cáceres.
“B” says, “I don’t want to just show what happened. Our images should make people want to act.”
This is one classroom in one school in one neighborhood in our great city.
Elsewhere in Chicago, Assata’s daughters drop 16 banners (one for each bullet that killed Laquan McDonald) denouncing State Attorney Anita Alvarez for what many see as her complicity in the cover up of the murders of people, especially black people, along with other transgressions.
That same night, thousands of Chicagoans gather until past midnight at a Bernie Sanders rally that features many youth activists. Thousands worked together to protest at Trump’s rally; thousands came together to celebrate Sanders’ candidacy. Thousands will come together again to support the teachers' strike to fight for our public school system. At school, we are asked to send home letters to parents accusing us of breaking the law by considering a strike, and yet we still vote to stand with our communities fighting for equitable education.
And today, we are in school teaching and learning. We are voting—less for candidates than for our vision of the city we love. We are studying and living our struggle. We sit up late on Twitter as #ByeAnita celebrations of Alvarez’s defeat surge to become the top trend on Twitter. We congratulate BYP100, Assata’s Daughters, and so many others for their incredible work, and we get to do it all again tomorrow.
We’ll use the rigged game of elections to bring people together, but we are building something bigger. We are learning to build the society we deserve.
Xian Barrett is the Progressive Education Fellow in Chicago. He is a founding member of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators and former political director of the Chicago Teachers Union. He has received numerous teaching awards, including being selected as a 2009-2010 U.S. Department of Education Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow. Xian founded a citywide youth-led social justice organization and believes that if you ask students what they are passionate about and work with that—their learning will belong to them.