According to Jitu Brown, the organizer’s job is to create a space where people can begin to actually envision what they want to see, then create the experiences where people begin to win. The continued closures of our public schools and high-stakes testing illustrate the institutionalized racism that is embedded in our educational system. Jitu reflects on his work as National Director of Journey for Justice Alliance (J4J), which defends public education against school closings, turnarounds, phase-outs, and charter expansion. To combat institutionalized racism present in public schools, J4J has begun organizing campaigns at the local and federal level for sustainable community schools, calling for 25,000 by 2025.
Gentrification is a term used to describe the displacement of working-class folks and people of color from their communities by more affluent persons moving into existing housing and new developments driving the prices of the market up and making it impossible for most long-time residents and business owners to remain in the neighborhoods they live due to increasing costs of real estate. This increase in the cost of housing paves the way for fragmenting the social and economic fabric of communities affected by capitalism’s obsession with the profits of surplus value and with little to no regard for the health and well-being of our people immersed in the reality of today’s neoliberal urban life.
By Greg Jobin-Leeds & Thalia Carroll-Cachimuel What can you do now that you’ve listened to When We Fight We Win! Podcast: “Black and Brown Solidarity: The Struggle to Defend Public…
[rapping over hip hop music]
Hola, hola, and welcome to When We Fight, We Win!: The Podcast. My name is Dey Hernández.
And I’m Greg Jobin-Leeds. This is episode six, and today we’re featuring Jitu Brown, National Director of the Journey for Justice Alliance, and a community organizer from Chicago, Illinois. Jitu’s organizing focuses in the defense of public education. His organizing has not only generated deep impact in Chicago, but across the entire United States. Jitu is known for leading the Dyett High School hunger strike in 2015. As you may remember, we previously heard from Jitu in episode four, titled “Black and Brown Solidarity: The Struggle to Defend Public Education in Puerto Rico and the U.S.A.” If you haven’t heard this episode already, we encourage you to listen to it. I wanna add that Jitu is a dear friend. He is featured in When We Fight, We Win! the book, and part of this interview was recorded in 2018.
The people who are closest to the pain have to be closest to the power, and that, um, everything we see teaches us that we can’t win, so our work has to be to create those spaces, but we can redefine who we are and what our possibilities are.
Jitu Brown is a former member of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, also known as KOCO, and is currently the National Director of the Journey for Justice Alliance, J4J. J4J is an alliance of grassroots community, youth, and parent-led organizations in more than 30 cities and continues to grow across the country. J4J organizes to win community-driven alternatives to the privatization and the dismantling of public school systems. Jitu is also a hip hop artist who goes by the name of Jitu Tha Jugganot and is one of the pioneers of hip hop in Chicago. Stay tuned and listen to his story, fighting the city of Chicago’s agenda to close schools in black and Latinx neighborhoods.
[rapping over hip hop music]
Man, I’m- I’m like anybody else. I’m from the South Side of Chicago. Um, I’ve been a community organizer most of my adult life since I been 24 years old, 25 years old. Um, I’m a proud son of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, which is Chicago’s oldest, uh, black grassroots community-based organization, and, uh, I’m now the dir- National Director of the Journey For Justice Alliance, since 2013. Um, I’m married. I have one son. Um, I lived most of my adult life in Bronzeville, uh, but since 2008, I’ve actually lived on the West Side of Chicago in the Austin community. Hey, I’m just- I’m just a guy out here swinging like anybody else that wanna be free.
Chapter One: The Pain.
Today we look at Chicago, where a record number of schools are preparing to close their doors for good. In a controversial move last week, the Chicago Board of Education voted to close 50 of the city’s public schools. It’s the largest mass school closing ever in one U.S. city. Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel has pushed for the closures. He says the city will save more than $500 billion.
At protests and public hearings, closure opponents have denounced the plan as discriminatory for overwhelmingly targeting African-American and Latino neighborhoods.
After the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minnesota, the U.S. has seen a nationwide growth in the demand to defund and abolish the police. The claim from Black activists is that the government must dramatically reduce funding to the police force and give more money to schools, universities, social services, and hospitals in their communities, among other essential services. For decades, both governments, Democrats and Republicans, have starved social programs, denying support to people of color from low-income communities, and instead enforced oppressive policing system based on the nation’s long and brutal history of racism. Public schools have suffered greatly from this police-centered governance, which continues to champion oppression over education. This attack on public education has two main functions. The first is to intentionally control the access to high-quality education for people of color, and second, the systematic gentrification of Black and brown neighborhoods, which displaces poor and working class people from their homes. Let’s listen to what Jitu Brown has to say.
When I was a child, I remember the gas station owned by a man who looked like me, the corner store owned by a man who looked like me, the McDonald’s owned by somebody that looked like me, so school privatization is part of a effort to remove us from urban spaces. It’s not about education. It is about the removal and the retaking of cities for folks who fled those cities in the ’50s and the ’60s. By school privatization, we mean school closings, charter school expansion, coupled with the loss of affordable housing. Without fail, every city has seen a plummet in, uh, the black population in those cities. In Chicago in the year 2000, people that looked like me were 53% of Chicago’s population. Today, we’re 32%, right? Washington- Washington, D.C. was once known as Chocolate City, 72-75% of the population being African American. Today, they have about 46%. New Orleans, the black population in New Orleans is shrinking. Been less than 50%, America’s most African city. Oakland, Detroit, Cleveland, Baltimore, Philadelphia, you go on and on. So I think, you know, whether we’re talking about the climate justice movement, we’re talking about the movement for affordable housing, we’re talking about the movement for, uh, accountability from police, um, and, you know, I think there’s a belief system that drives what we’re facing. And by belief system, I mean value system, values that govern your behavior. So when you look at, um, police violence, what do we see? A lack of respect for our humanity. Vi- emotional violence and physical violence. We see a racist description or stereotype of the very people that are being brutalized. So this officer that was nearly my size can gun down Michael Brown in the middle of the street, walk up on this child and shoot him in the head, right? Eric Garner gets lynched on YouTube. We watched this man lynched on YouTube, and then he’s criminalized. This grandfather, this “Pop-Pop,” is criminalized as saying, you know, he was selling loose cigarettes, and so somehow he had it coming. So how is that different than the sabotage of our- the- the intentional starving of a neighborhood school? Just think about that. The intentional sabotage of a child’s education, to knowingly say, while this white baby who lives on the other side of town, they’re gonna have smaller class sizes. They’re gonna have the teacher aide in every class. They’re gonna have, uh, art. They’re gonna have music. They’re gonna have a li- a fully-stocked library with a librarian. They’re gonna have a speech therapist, blah blah blah, blah blah blah. But then you go in the same city, and this black child is gonna have, uh, 35 kids in their class, a teacher with no teacher aide, um, no art, no music, no after school programs, and then somehow say that we’re failing. No, we’ve been failed, and so I think the belief systems that- that connect all of these different areas are the same, so I think the work for us now is what is our vision for the climate? What is our vision for education? What is our vision for housing? What is our vision to- to get rid of food deserts, right? There is a reason why African American teachers have been purged from the system, because research tells… And Latino teachers have been- Latinx teachers, I’m sorry, have been purged from the system, because the research tells us that children learn best when they’re taught by folks who look most like them. And so if you create systems where the teachers don’t know the students, they can’t rela- they’re afraid of the students, they could- they walk into that room with their own implicit bias, then what happens is the response th- that they have to any type of behavior from the young people is rooted in those stereotypes and in those fears. So that’s why you have the over policing of Black students, right?
[rapping over hip hop music]
And that song leads us to the word of the day by our co-conspirator, Jorge Díaz.
My name is Jorge Díaz, and this is the word of the day. The word of the day is gentrification. Gentrification is a term used to describe the displacement of working-class folks and people of color from their communities by more affluent persons moving into existing housing and new developments driving the prices of the market up and making it impossible for most long-time residents and business owners to remain in the neighborhoods they live due to increasing costs of real estate. This increase in the cost of housing paves the way for fragmenting the social and economic fabric of communities affected by capitalism’s obsession with the profits of surplus value and with little to no regard for the health and well-being of our people immersed in the reality of today’s neoliberal urban life. The term gentrification in its current context dates back to 1964, when British sociologist Ruth Glass used it to talk about the flooding of middle class people into working class, urban neighborhoods in London. In modern U.S. times, gentrification is a phenomenon which took flight in most urban areas in the early ’90s as working class communities and communities of color were historically excluded from any opportunities to succeed, marginalized by the city’s urban planning and renewal projects, and targeted and criminalized by police. Gentrification in our communities is perpetrated mostly by white people with economic power who, after many years of rejecting the inner city in exchange for suburban life, decide to return, drawn by all the amenities and possibilities the city has to offer in an effort to recolonize the same neighborhoods left behind decades ago for working class and people of color to live in poverty. However, gentrification, or bourgeoisification, is not new. It is an unavoidable result of capitalism and its constant search for new markets and profit. Capitalists always seize possibilities for economic growth through the exploitation of working people and the extraction of our resource. In this case, the takeover of our underdevelopment and marginalized communities to be turned into highly desirable neighborhoods for the consumption and lifestyle of the privileged who can afford the new city. Defenders of gentrification point to the fact that development makes neighborhoods better and brings progress, yet they fail to recognize the effects that displacement has on the health and well-being of folks already struggling with the ravages of neoliberal, capitalist exploitation in their families and communities. As working class people who organize for liberation, we’re either working communities dealing with under development and repression by the State and financed capital, or face forced displacement and gentrification by the same institutions who uphold this patriarchal, heteronormative, white supremacist, capitalist system. Yet whenever we leave these oppressive conditions, we also have the possibilities of fighting, resisting, and organizing to struggle for a better world. Marxist professor David Harvey speaks to the important of these struggles in our communities in the context of Henri Lefebvre’s concept of the right to the city, and I quote, “The democratization of the right to a city and the construction of a broad social movement to enforce its will, it’s imperative if the dispossessed are to take back control of the city from which they have for so long been excluded, and if new modes of controlling capital surpluses as they work through urbanization processes are to be instituted. Lefebvre was right to insist that the revolution has to be urban in the broadest sense of the term or nothing at all.” End of quote. This has been the word of the day.
Chapter Two: The Fight.
In 2016, the world’s athletes will enjoy the magic of Chicago, where they will compete in the center of the city in the heart of a nation, becoming the focal point of a global celebration of friendship.
Once you discover the Chicago that I know, the city that I made my home, the city where my wife grew up, the city where we raised our daughters just blocks from where these Games will be held, I am confident you will discover that you’re already in the perfect host city for the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
I remember in 2000, Chicago was, um, a finalist for the, uh, for the 2016 Olympics, and we were fighting for a community benefits agreement.
What- what is a community benefits agreement?
So whenever there’s a major development, whether it’s the Staples Center in Los Angeles or a- a major event like the Olympics coming into a city, people- those types of developments, events can be, um, like steroids for gentrification. Um, so when they bring in an Olympics, they’re also gonna bring in housing. They’re gonna bring in stores. Uh, like, for example, we- they- we’re in the middle of a fight right now with the Obama Presidential Center, because when they bring the Presidential Center into our community, they’re not gonna- they’re not gonna build check cashing places. They’re not gonna build, you know, fast food places. They’re gonna build housing, economic development stores, to, uh, make this a global, um, tourist attraction. So if- if you don’t have benefits in place saying things like that, you know, se- 75% of the jobs have to go to neighborhood residents, resources from- that are made- revenue that’s made from the- the center has to go towards supporting neighborhood schools. Um, you know, uh, we want provisions for affordable housing as a result of this project. Those types of things help to stabilize your- your base or your constituency into a space, but if you don’t have those guarantees, then, like, the Olympics in Atlanta in 1995, it’ll be used to push people out of those communities. It’s never failed to do that unless you win a community benefits agreement. Now, Chicago didn’t get the Olympics, but if Chicago would’ve gotten the Olympics, our people would’ve been safe because we had won that benefits agreement, and I thi- and- and I learned that determination organizing with- with mothers and fathers and young people at the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, and we took that same determination, uh, to the Journey for Justice Alliance.
How did Journey for Justice Alliance, the national organization that fights against school privatizations and closings which you direct, get started?
While I was the education organizer at KOCO, Kenwood Oakland Community Organization… So when I say KOCO, that’s what I’m talking about. We had begun to do- connect with some national or- some organizations around the country who were also beginning to experience what we had started experiencing in Chicago. I began to do work with organizers in- around different cities like Newark, New Jersey, uh, Mississippi, New York, Philadelphia, and other places. D.C., Baltimore, Oakland, California, and so in 2012, many of the folks had begun to reach out and talked about the fact that, you know, “I feel really isolated. They’re trying to close our schools. They’re winning the public narrative.” And so I understood that isolation because if you- if your base is working and low-income, black or brown people, society has a view of your base that says that, you know, we don’t- our communities don’t thrive because of u,s as opposed to because of oppression. So we began to meet in these conference calls with 12 cities, and our first action was- there was a conference in Chicago in 2012 where, uh, we brought all of our member groups to Chicago at- at this conference, and we all filed Title VI civil rights complaints around the disparate impact of school closings on primarily Black but also brown families, and so that was the beginning of J4J. We- we realized then we had- we got national news. We began to pressure Arne Duncan, and that’s where the Journey for Justice Alliance was- was formed.
Appointed under President Barack Obama, Arne Duncan was the United States Secretary of Education from 2009 to 2015. Duncan has been the longest-running of Obama’s appointees.
Yeah, Arne’s done more to bring our educational system, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the 21st century than anybody else. Uh, America’s gonna be better off for what he has done. It’s gonna be more competitive and more prosperous. It is gonna be more equal and more upwardly mobile. It’s a record that I truly believe no other education secretary could match.
One of Duncan’s initiatives as secretary was a four billion competition known as Race to the Top, asking states to bid for federal education dollars by submitting proposals that include reforms such as expanding charter schools and judging teachers in relation to how well their students perform on standardized tests. Duncan’s aggressive overhaul was a direct attack on public education and directed millions upon millions of federal funds into charter schools with no accountability, no transparency nor oversight. A 2015 report titled “The Tip of the Iceberg” from the Center for Popular Democracy and Alliance to Reclaim Our School uncovered far-reaching alleged and confirmed financial fraud under Duncan’s watch.
This privatization agenda and broad mismanagement under the Obama administration led people to organize in Chicago, Detroit, Newark, New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington, D.C., Oakland, Eupora, Mississippi, and Minneapolis. Then Journey for Justice Alliance started with monthly conference calls to build connections between organizers in these cities. J4J has an education platform rooted in anti-racism and educational equity. Their demands are one, a moratorium on school privatization. Two, 25,000 sustainable community schools by 2025. Three, immediately end zero tolerance policies in public education. Four, equity in public education at the local and state level. Five, stopping the attack on Black teachers. Six, ending state takeovers with appointed school boards and mayoral control. Seven, eliminating the over-reliance on standardized tests in public schools.
It started in the response to school closings, but we also understood- and school privatization, charter school expansion, but we also realized that we have to- it’s not just what we’re against, but we had to identify what we’re for, and we recognized that all of the problems that we see in public education, whether it is the over policing of our young people, whether it’s, uh, uh, standardized testing that stated our young people are less than, whether it’s, um, school closings, whether it’s lack of resources in our schools, we were very clear that all of the- the lack of black and brown teachers in the classroom, that all of those things are symptoms of a bigger- a bigger disease, and that disease is inequity. And so we began to realize that our fight is for equity, it’s not just against privatization, and so we began to build a- a- an education platform, uh, rooted in equity. So we said, “We want a moratorium on school privatization. We want 25,000 sustainable community schools by the year 2025. We want, uh, more Black and brown teachers in the classroom. We want, uh, an end to mayoral control and state takeovers. We want a end to punitive standardized tests. We want our children to have multiple assessments like Arne Duncan and may- former mayor Rahm Emanuel and even President Obama’s children. They went to the University of Chicago Lab School, where standardized- where testing was purely for assessment. It was not to punish. And so if it’s good enough for their children, why isn’t it good enough for ours?
Hey, everybody. Welcome back to the show. Ladies and gentlemen, my next guest this evening is a former congressman, former White House Chief of Staff, former ballet dancer, and current mayor of Chicago. Please welcome his honor, Rahm Emanuel. Uh, you, uh, recently declared Chicago schools a Trump-free zone.
The city of Chicago, yeah.
The whole thing?
The whole thing, man.
[crosstalk, audience cheering]
What does that mean? Well, what does that mean? How do you… I mean, de Blasio, could he declare New York a Trump-free zone?
He could try, but we really- it’s- if we’re- our motto, “A City He’ll Never Sleep In.”
We don’t want him. Uh, so here-
How do you enforce it? You’ve got a big Trump-
That was Chicago’s former mayor, Rahm Emanuel, a Democrat, and although he presents himself as anti-Trump, in 2010, Donald Trump donated $50,000 to his campaign. Rahm Emanuel is a multi-millionaire and became a career politician, who was mayor of Chicago from 2011 to 2019, when he had to leave under much disgrace and protest. Prior to that, he was the White House Chief of Staff under the Obama administration, and before that, he was a U.S. Congressman from the 5th District of Illinois.
During Rahm Emanuel’s first term as mayor of Chicago, dozens of schools were closed due to a $1 billion deficit in the school district. In 2013, the district closed 50 public schools, the largest mass closing in history for any United States city. This forced around 11,000 students of the shuttered schools to switch to other schools. None of the community involvement in regards to the future of the structures was honored, systematically denying Black communities a say in the fate of their neighborhood schools and these vacant buildings. Emanuel also promised better opportunities to the impacted students when heading to a welcoming school. However, a 2018 report from the University of Chicago evidences the opposite. The merging of schools is a complex process that affects the outcome of students and severs social and family connections. Academically, students from both welcoming and closing schools underperformed on tests. The closures of these schools illustrate the continued segregation and institutionalized racism deep rooted in white supremacy. Here’s Senator Bernie Sanders talking about Rahm Emanuel at a presidential campaign rally in 2016.
Secretary Clinton has received the endorsement of many senators and congressmen, and some of them are my friends and good people, but she has also received the strong endorsement of Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
So let me say- let me say- let- let me say I wanna thank Rahm Emanuel for not endorsing me. I don’t want him, for God’s sake.
I don’t want the endorsement of a mayor who is shutting down school after school and firing teachers.
One of the schools closed during Rahm Emanuel’s neo-liberal tenure as mayor of Chicago was Dyett High School in Bronzeville, where Jitu is from. At Bronzeville, the community was fighting this closure since 2012, when the board voted to close the school.
Eleven protesters were led out of City Hall in handcuffs this morning. They’re trying to stop a Chicago public school closing, and they took their fight to the fifth floor. Protestors hooked themselves together outside the doors of the mayor’s office and wouldn’t move. They hope to save Dyett High School, which is in the city’s Bronzeville neighborhood.
Dyett High School sits in the middle of the Bronzeville community. I sat on the local school council at Dyett, that’s the local school governing body, for 10 years. Uh, 2008 we had the largest increase of students going to college in all of Chicago public schools. Uh, for two straight years we had the largest decrease in arrests and suspensions. We had a nationally-recognized, um, uh, restorative justice program. And then in 2011, ESPN held this big com- uh, competition called Rise Up, and they were looking for good schools, uh, that needed some support, so they came to Dyett. It was over 600 schools that applied for- that- that- that- that were, uh, that were competing for this honor. And Dyett won. Dyett won a $4 million investment in our a- in our athletic facilities. We got a state-of-the-art weight room, a brand new gymnasium, a rock climbing studio, and all of this. And then check this out. And the next year, they voted to close the school, so all this work we had done to improve the school, and the next year they voted to close it. Now, one would say, “Well, why did they vote to close the school?” Well, they cited low test scores. Um, our retort was, “If you’re- if you’re starving the feeder schools, if you’re starving the elementary schools and young people are coming to high school unprepared, then of course our sc- scores are gonna be low,” but our growth, the student growth was off the charts, which means when we got the students, they might’ve been reading at a fourth grade level. When they graduated, they were more ready for adulthood than they would be at any oth- at almost any other high school because we were a small school. We focused on student leadership. We had, uh, uh, students were restorative justice ambassadors. So it wasn’t about that. Now, the w- the real reason they want- they wanted to close Dyett was because Washington Park, where Dyett sits right in the middle of, was the proposed location for the Obama Presidential Center.
Everywhere we look, there’s history to reflect on and history to be made. That’s what the Obama Presidential Center is all about, honoring the stories of those who brought us to where we are today, and bringing people together to chart an even brighter future.
Ooh [laughs]. It’s so… And- and so what does that mean? If the Obama Presidential Center comes in the middle of the hood, we know that they’re not gonna build a- a African hair braiding shop next to it. We know that they’re not gonna build a check cashing place next to it, right? It becomes an international tourist destination, so closing Dyett was all about gentrification. Now, thankfully, I had begun working with parents around the community, um, to- ’cause we knew the CPS was coming for our school, so we had began working with parents in the feeder schools and in Dyett High School to say, “What is your vision? What would you want a pre-K through 12 system of education to look like in our neighborhood?” Not just the high school. A pre-K through 12 system of education, which most affluent communities enjoy. So I w- I met with literally over 1,500 people, um, before we even did a town hall meeting just to get people’s input, uh, and I- and I worked with our education committee. So we began building a plan even before they announced the phase-out of Dyett High School, so we began to pressure Mayor Rahm Emanuel, um, because Chicago does not have an elected school board. They have an appointed school board, which means the school board does what the mayor says. And so we understood that- that we had to target the person who had the power.
The final repertoire of tactics in this fight was the Dyett High hunger strike, which became international news. The strike began the night of August 17th, 2015. The hunger strikers and the people in solidarity were not only demanding the reopening of the school, which was closed in spring 2015, but they were also putting forward a proposal to make it a sustainable community school which offers African American students the education and opportunity they deserve and are owed. The Journey for Justice Alliance has established six pillars for sustainable community schools. One, engaging, challenging, and culturally relevant curriculum. Two, an emphasis on high-quality teaching, not high-stakes testing. Three, to assist learning with wraparound support such as healthcare, eyecare, and social and emotional services. Four, accountable and culturally competent providers. Five, transformational parent and community engagement. Six, inclusive school leadership. Now let’s listen to Jitu explain what led to the hunger strike to save Dyett High.
So as we began to escalate over time, we- we develop our full proposal, which was Dyett High School, uh, it was called Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology High School, and it was a plan for the high school and six of its feeder schools around. It was a wonderful plan. Uh, we began to hold town hall meetings. We held over six town hall meetings. We got five- over 5,000 petition signatures. Uh, well over 500 people ma- mailed postcards to Mayor Rahm Emanuel. The community was in full support of this plan. Chicago Public Schools, through the mayor of the c- former mayor of the city of Chicago did not want this plan to be successful for a simple reason. If you have a pre-K through 12 equitable system of education in your neighborhood, then what you actually have is stability for working-class families. You actually have opportunities for them to begin to lift themselves out of poverty because they have quality education, which means you can’t gentrify them, right? You can’t- and- and I’m a use the- the word that- that- that resonates with me more. You can’t purge them out of the community. You cannot remove them from the community if you build institutions that serve them the right way. So Rahm Emanuel, or Chicago P- Chicago Public Schools said, “Okay, we’re gonna take proposals.” This is in 2015. “We’re gonna take proposals for the new school.” Now- now we had- we had given them a plan a- a year ahead of time. They did not want us to win this, right? Because they knew who we would serve, so they had other organizations submit proposals. There was a process to select which proposal was the best, town hall meetings to show public support, and our proposal was head and shoulders above an- any of the other ones that were submitted, based off public feedback. So what Chicago Public Schools did on August 7th, they changed the rules and they said, “Well, we’re just gonna talk to this made-up community committee” full of what I call professional time wasters, right? Just- just the fake community members who- they prop up whenever they wanna say they have community support, and they were not gonna support our plan. So six months before, we had began meeting with a group of, uh, uh, uh, Mexican mothers in the Little Village community who had done a hunger strike in 2001, a 19-day hunger strike to win Little Village High School. They’d built the high school from the ground up to ease overcrowding in the Little Village community. Uh, for folks that may not know, Little Village is the home to the brother who ran for mayor of the city of Chicago, uh, Chuy Garcia. It’s a very highly politicized and organized community. So we, uh, met with them and they mentored us. We had been meeting with the parents from Little Village, and they’d prepared us, so they told us kinda- they let us know how our bodies may respond, uh, what type of supplements you might wanna take, um, security issues, they just talked a- through a lot of things with us, and we were ready. So when they reneged on August 7th, we picked August 17th as the launch of the hunger strike. It was myself along with, uh, 11 other parents, grandparents, and a couple of community allies from around the city, because getting someone to do a hunger strike is not easy. Um, but, um, our members are hardcore. Now, the issue was, uh, of course, you- you know when organizing, you really have to understand everybody’s not gonna be able to storm the castle for a number of reasons. A lot of our members live in public housing. If you get arrested and you live in public housing, you would get evicted, so this was one of the issues. We had members that had diabetes who- who wanted to do the hunger strike but for health reasons realized they wouldn’t be able to do it. So we had a couple of allies from around the city, uh, Brother Marc Kaplan from North- Northside Action for Justice, uh, and a few other brothers and sisters who, uh… Nelson Sosa, who was the Executive Director at that time of a organization called Pilsen Alliance. They joined us on a hunger strike and a- an- a reverend in our community, Reverend Robert Jones, then we had six parents from Dyett and a couple of te- uh, six parents in the Bronzeville community and a couple of the educators, who are also KOCO members who, uh, joined us. Uh, the hunger strike was important ’cause I- I- I wanna- and it built- it get- w- by the time we went on the hunger strike, we had won the support of the public in the city of Chicago, and what it became to me was a microcosm of what a movement should look like. It was a Bla- it was a multi-racial fight that was Black le- it was led by the people directly impacted, but- so people didn’t come and try to tell us what our goal should be. People came and said, “I’m with you.” So white mothers had to reconcile with the fact that they saw mothers their own age have- have to go to this length to be heard while they know all they have to do is have a couple of meetings and the- and the city’ll do what they say. And so they- they were confronted with that reality, and to their credit, you know, they- they- they- they stood with us. Uh, people talk about the lack of p- Black and brown unity, but every day those mothers from Little Village brought us broth, right? Uh, and the broth was delicious, man. It was like a sandwich [laughs], ’cause I mean, you out there starving, and every day these mothers brought that to us. They showed us love, care, and concern. And so what ended up happening, we- the reason we chose this tactic, I wanna be very clear, is because Rahm Emanuel was n- is not or was not a- he was one of- he- he- he’s one of the most powerful Democrats in the country. His brother is a major Hollywood agent, so he’s got Hollywood money and he’s got corporate money. His weakness was not local. His weakness was national, ’cause he’s a national figure. Remember, he was the Chief of Staff for- for, uh, former President Barack Obama, and so when we hit him with local tactics, as bold as they were, they weren’t moving him, and so we had to figure out as organizers, right, how do we get him? And we said, “We gotta- we gotta embarrass him at the national level. We don’t have the power to fight his war chest, so we can’t- we don’t have the- if we- if we run a candidate, he’s got a $35, 40 million war chest, right? So we have to- we have to embarrass him so that his funders call him and say, ‘Man, what are you doing?’ ”
Well, in Chicago, a group of public school parents, grandmothers, and education activists are entering the 19th day of a hunger strike to save Dyett High School, the only remaining open enrollment public s- uh, high school left in the community of Bronzeville. Supporters say the city neglected the school for years before announcing plans to close it.
[archival] We want the world to know that Rahm Emanuel, Chicago Public Schools, does not respect or care about the voices of black families.
Now, we had had members hospitalized. Uh, Sister Irene Robinson was hospitalized twice. Sister Jeanette Taylor, uh, passed out at the school board meeting. I mean, we were s- we were struggling. It was serious, and, um, with all the support we had, we were still confronted with this. On the 25th day of the hunger strike, Mayor Rahm Emanuel went to a- a wealthy white school called Lincoln Elementary and held a ribbon-cutting ceremony and gave them a $21 million annex while we starved in Washington Park, right? And that turned the p- I mean, the public was already on our side, but you would open a newspaper and there were all types of letters to the editor and- and even editorials that were saying Rahm Emanuel should listen to the hunger strikers. People looked at our plan, and our plan was a world-class plan. It was visionary. It was far beyond anything the district would think of for Black children, ’cause they don’t think about it with love, if that makes sense, right? So, um, when the hunger strike appeared on the front page of the New York Times, that’s when he began to crack. Then it was, uh, on the front page of the newspaper in Istanbul, Turkey, in Paris, France. People began to come from around the world to sit with us, so we had students from France who flew in from France to sit with us for three days [laughs] in the middle of Washington Park. We had folks from Detroit that drove in and sat with us all day, folks from, um, uh, uh, uh, uh, New Orleans. We had folks come from Maine. It w- it was a- it was truly, uh, an international fight. It was a international campaign, and so on the 34th day, he relented, and Dyett- now Dyett- we did not win Dyett as Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology High School, but we had two goals. I wanna be clear. Our first goal was for Dyett to be an open enrollment neighborhood high school, and then we had the name of the school and then things that we wanted in the curriculum. While it is the school of the arts, many of the things that we demanded, like more Black teachers, is in the school. Uh, an African-centered curriculum is in this school. Uh, a- Dyett as a sustainable community school, it is a sustainable community school. It gets 460,000 extra dollars every year for sustainable community school programming. Uh, we wanted our student garden preserved, ’cause we have a student-ran garden at Dyett, which is a huge garden. It’s actually begun to- to pr- produce profit, um, and it is a part of the science curriculum. So mo- most of what we wanted we won in- in this school with $16 million and more investments, but that m- that model of engaging the people directly impacted from the rooter to the tutor, from the beginning to the end, is the model of sustainable community schools that we b- then began to, uh, hunger strikers began to meet with groups around the country to share the model, uh, and now across the U.S. and Puerto Rico, uh, I know that FNPR is strongly looking at expanding sustainable community schools, so that would not have happened without the Dyett Hunger Strike. Elizabeth Warren would not be calling for 25,000 sustainable community schools without the hunger strike, um, and that campaign to save Dyett High School. So while it was a campaign for a school, I think the other thing that came from it was, um, and this is one of the most important points to me. We cannot struggle, uh, from the, uh, acceptable protest playbook, right? They know we might do a sit-in. They know we might go to a rally and chant, but we cannot be predictable when we’re fighting our oppressors. Um, and so they did not see a hunger strike coming, right? They didn’t see us busting up Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s press conferences. We decided that we were gonna be bold but that we were going to move from a higher set of expectations than our oppressor has for us. Uh, so we have a saying that the greatest weakness of any oppressor is that they’ll always underestimate the oppressed. They will always look at us through a racist lens. So- so the hunger strike started on August 17th, 19- uh, 2015, and it ended on September 24th, 2015. Now, just a side note, uh, uh, August 17th is the birthdate of the Honorable Marcus Garvey, right? Uh, Marcus Garvey’s the man who brought the red, black, and gray flag to the U.S. Uh, Marcus Garvey is the man who, um, uh, built the largest organization of black people in the history of the western hemisphere, uh, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, um, and he was around during the time of W.E.B. DuBois, uh, Ida B. Wells, and folks like that. The first day of the hunger strike, on August 17th, we had pitched tents. We were sleeping at Operation Push, so we had a headquarters. We were sleeping at Operation Push in Chicago. We pitched tents in the front of Operation Push, and there was a torrential rainstorm that blew all of our tents away, and so we were like, “Marcus Garvey is with us,” right [laughs]? Marcus Garvey is with us. So that- the hunger strike to us was also a spiritual fight. [singing]
[rapping over hip hop music]
Chapter Three: The Win.
In 2016, one year after a group of parents and organizers refrained from eating solid food in a hunger strike to save the Dyett High School from closing, the school reopened again. Chicago Public Schools, CPS, finally announced on September 3rd that it would open as an open enrollment arts-focused neighborhood high school. CPS spent $14.6 million in the refurbishment of the school, complete with a theater, dance studio, tech and fashion rooms, a digital media lab, and an innovation lab. The enrollment of student was 10 times greater than the previous graduating years, and the school has continued to grow since the reopening.
Oppressed people, we don’t believe we have a right to say nothing, because everything is designed to ignore our voice, so the organizer’s work is to create that space where people can begin to actually en- envision what they wanna see and then create the experiences where people begin to win, and as we win, we get stronger. So the fight for Dyett set the tone. And I’m cut from the cloth of people who didn’t have a pot to pee in or a window to throw it out of but spoke power to power and won, and I don’t mean that- I’m not bragging when I say that, because I’ve lost a lot of fights too, but you know, sometimes you have to- what we have to do is realize this system does not need a tweak. It had to be transformed. So one of the things you have to do is we have to begin to reeducate ourselves, so lots of times what we do is we have independent spaces where we engage our parents and our young people around what does it mean to organize? Not be an activist, not ch- pick and choose your battles, but to be a person who has mastered the artistic science of moving people and be able to speak power to power. To do that, ’cause lots of times in our communities when you talk, people will say things like, “Well, those people are gonna do what they’re gonna do anyway,” or “Ain’t nothing we can do about it.” And that’s- and that’s training. That’s conditioning. That’s co- and I- I’m- I’ve been guilty of it. That’s code word for “I don’t believe.” So what you have to do, what we must do is create those alternative spaces where people begin to win little victories. Those little victories are like push-ups. You d- you see what I mean? And then, you know, you know, the folks who waged the hunger strike with me in 2015, we weren’t ready to do that in 2012, 20… Even though we were still in the fight. What had to happen is people had to build their own sense of outrage. They had to go to meetings with elected officials that I didn’t wanna go to but my members wanted to go to, and I knew that they had to go so that they can see that this person does not care about you. And as they did that, their own sense of outrage and what they were prepared to do began to rise. Because they went through their own process of being politicized, and so then what happened is people began to say, “Well, let’s go to his house. Well, you know what? Let’s chain ourselves to the statue outside of his office,” because their sense of commitment grew. One, because they were engaged from the very beginning in what our vision was, right? I wanna say this to y- to your audience. You know, this might sound idealistic, but I’ve learned this and I believe this. The biggest weakness of our oppressor is that they’ll always underestimate the oppressed. When we dealt with Chicago Public Schools, they didn’t think that a bunch of Black people from the hood was going to develop a plan to include the- for Dyett to be a Global Leadership and Green Technology high school with six feeder schools connected into a plan, the American Education Research Association saying it’s the best academic plan they’d ever seen. That was done by us in the community along with educators working together. They were- they- they- they were completely blown away when we did that, so they had to renege. They had to say, “Well, we’re not- we’re- you- you all can’t have the school.”
What are the biggest mistakes that folks who are standing in solidarity that wanna be allies- Mm-hmm [affirmative]. What are the biggest mistakes people make?
I think, um, in the Black Power movement there was a, uh, phrase. It was a quote that said, “Kazi is the blackest of all,” and what that quote meant was that the work that you do shows what you really believe in. K- Kazi is a key Swahili word for work, and I think that, um, one of the mistakes that we make is that we assume unity that we haven’t built. In my humble opinion, I think that’s the biggest mistake, is we assume a unity we haven’t built. Sometimes what you have to do is support people on they stuff. Whatever their analysis is about what they’re going through, don’t try to argue with them about it. Don’t try to say, “Well, maybe it’s this.” Hear them, have their back, and build the unity that you need.
Yeah, and build that unity, because that, you know, that’s one of the things that’s really been violated in Black or brown communities, is trust, and often from folks that are supposed to be on the same side as us. And we- and- and so those of us that are on the left, you know, are we really together? Are we really allies, or- or do my white allies want me to conform to questions around budgets, questions around the wealth, the 1% versus the 99%. That don’t touch my heart, because the 99% [laughs], we’re not even in the top 1- the- you know, we’re at the bottom of that 99%, so to be allies, we have to be humble, we have to listen, we have to be able to validate our people’s pain, and then lastly, we have to be consistent. We can’t be part-time friends. We gotta be on the battlefield together. And so to me, that’s why Journey for Justice’s Alliance is so important and it’s a work that I’m- I- I really care so deeply about, because part of our work is developing, uh, dependable, competent, Black, grassroots leadership.
Parts of this interview were recorded during the COVID-19 pandemic. We did not want to lose the opportunity to ask Jitu what J4J is doing during these times of distress.
So we just did a town hall called “Education Equity or Else” on May 14th. Had over 4,000 people viewing it. Um, we are planning a presidential forum with Joe Biden, uh, in the next month, uh, so we’re- we’re organizing that right now, uh, to make sure that- that our education platform is reflected in his. Uh, but then we’re also… ‘Cause, you know, just like with Hurricane Maria when the government didn’t respond, the people responded. So they call it mutual aid, so we have a project here called, uh, KOCO Serves in Chicago. We pr- uh, it’s a youth-led process- process. We- we, uh, work out of a church, Kenwood United Church of Christ, and every, uh, we- we distribute about 300 bags a week to elders and the people in the community to help them shelter in place. We give a bag of food and then we, uh, fresh fruits and vegetables, canned goods, and then we also give, uh, a bag of, um, uh, supplies like bleach, uh, hand sanitizers, toilet paper, et cetera, et cetera. Fresh fruits and vegetables and meats. I didn’t mention the meat. So that project, um, is- is humming and is going strong, but there’s several other Journey for Justice cities where they’re doing similar projects.
[music: Rev. Sekou, “When We Fight, We Win”]
I wanna thank my brothers and sisters, When We Fight, We Win! Please support the Journey for Justice Alliance. Uh, we are organizing to win education equity in our lifetime. You can reach us at www.j4jalliance.com. You can follow us on Twitter @J4J_USA, and you can go to our Facebook page for Journey for Justice Alliance. I also wanted you to check out our podcast, man, called On The Ground, where we lift up the work of grassroots community organizers around the world, uh, to say that- that it is not hopeless, that people are fighting back, and we wanna lift up when our people fight back and when we win, because when we fight, we win. Thank y’all, man. This is Brother Jitu. I’m out.
This episode was produced by Juan Carlos Dávila and Osvaldo Budet. Our editor, Jorge Díaz, hosted and wrote the word of the day. Albino Mbie is our audio engineer. Reverend Sekou and Jitu Tha Jugganot Brown generously shared their music. We also used music from Blue Dot Sessions. Yooree Losordo is our managing producer, and Thalia Carroll is in charge of our social media. José “Primo” Hernández produces all the art every episode. We wanna thank our friends at The New Press. The New Press is the publisher of When We Fight, We Win! the book. It’s available on our website at whenwefightwewin.com or wherever books are sold.
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