How a Successful Hunger Strike Is Leading to a National Movement for Better Education
Jitu Brown helped lead one of the most striking protests in America in 2015, a weeks-long hunger strike to stop Chicago from closing a community high school. He's part of a coalition of community groups that have exposed and fought the institutional racism in K-12 education, from GOP-led privatization to Democratic neglect in blue cities. He spoke with AlterNet as his group, Journey for Justice Alliance, launches a new national coalition for equitable public schools.
Steven Rosenfeld: Today [Feb. 14], President Donald Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos had a White House event championing school choice. They didn’t use the word "privatization." Let’s begin with you telling us about Journey for Justice Alliance and what you've seen in communities that privatize schools.
Jitu Brown: The Journey for Justice Alliance is a national network of grassroots communities and organizations in 24 cities. We also have a member in Johannesburg, South Africa. These are primarily black- and brown-led organizations with a constituency of low-income families, the people who are actually targeted for school privatization or what they call school choice.
Building unity with the Journey for Justice Alliance was actually pretty easy because we all had the same pain. When the press conference ends, when local politicians finish their spin, what they leave in their wake are parents and communities who are suffering. Not only with schools but who have been failed as taxpayers. Parents and communities who have been ignored, who lost their voting rights and have suffered through a system that is gleefully inequitable.
So when people talk about school choice, if you as a parent [are asked], Would you like a great neighborhood school? I challenge folks to find a parent who would say no. The school choice movement is an illusion. As schools go, it is a shell game. It’s three-card monte. It’s parents who have lived through the sabotage of public education in their communities find[ing] somewhere to send their babies. So when charter school operators come and the school is shiny and every child gets a laptop, of course, a parent who has been denied their basic right will go for that.
I want to make this point. We are not at odds with charter school families. We have all been underserved. What we are saying is we want equity and not the illusion of choice. See, these schools boards and these elected officials who go around saying what black and brown children want, they never address the fact that often in those same cities, white children have a completely different reality at their neighborhood schools. See, that’s acceptable to them. And as our communities have suffered from violent retaliation as we become organized, many of our communities are unorganized. So the people have not been able to mobilize around what they would like to see because we are in survival mode. So, as communities have been made more vulnerable, the privatization movement has swooped in like a hawk and snatched up our most precious resource.
But the sabotage of public education in black and brown communities is very real. That’s not propaganda. That’s not me trying to be dramatic. It’s very real, and if we take the time to follow it, we can see it.
SR: You were invited in to keep a Chicago school from being shut down by that school district, which was very much involved in privatizing its schools. What was the key to that victory and what actions made the difference? Today people are looking for clues as to what’s effective.
JB: We have to understand that education right now is big business. It’s a big money game. We’re fighting for an elected school board in Chicago. We’ve done two referendums. Ninety percent of Chicagoans say they want an elected school board, but the mayor and the governor and the Democratic [Party] establishment, to be honest with you, are dead-set against it. Why? Because it is a $5.7 billion budget. And where is the easiest place to make that money? Disenfranchised, struggling schools in black and brown communities.
So the Dyett High School hunger strike, what we had to do was we realized that this was not about a moral argument. This was not about convincing the mayor [Rahm Emanuel], showing that he was wrong and hoping he would do right. This was about an organizing strategy that was determined enough to give us the space to win public sentiment, and then to make him look bad for denying us that.
I always say to people, we had to go on a hunger strike to win a neighborhood school in Brownsville. We had to risk our lives, literally. So I think what people have to realize as we organize, we can’t organize in a way that’s transactional. We can’t organize in a way like we’re insiders, because we are not—even if we think we are. We have to organize like we are fighting a system that is dead-set against making sure that black snd brown children receive a quality education. That’s my understanding. So if Journey for Justice collapsed tomorrow, I’m still going to be in the struggle, because that’d how we assess it.
This is not about playing the inside-outside game. We have to have an organizing strategy that is determined. People have to be prepared to struggle and suffer a little bit. We call it organizing outside of the acceptable protest playbook. You start at the rallies. You start at the disruptions of meetings and things of that nature. But we have to be prepared to go further. I don’t say that in an arrogant way. We have to tighten our belt, put our big-boy and big-girl pants on, and realize that.
Let me just share this with you. On the 25th day of the Dyett hunger strike, [during] which Mrs. Irene Robinson was hospitalized twice; while we were starving in Washington Park; while the former head of the Cook County Medical Association called it a public health crisis and urged the mayor to resolve it, that same day, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CEO of Chicago School Board Forrest Claypool had a ribbon-cutting event at a school called Lincoln Elementary. A neighborhood school for wealthy whites close to De Paul University, and they gave them $21 million for a new annex that several of the parents didn’t even want. Parents from that school advocated [to] give that money back to the South Side and the West Side; we don’t need it, they do. But despite that, while we starved in Washington Park, they did a ribbon-cutting to give them $21 million. That tells me all I need to hear. That’s what you’re up against.
You are up against a system that does not view black and brown children as valuable. And until we on the left acknowledge that—because we on the left don’t acknowledge that. And we have zero tolerance for that, for a system—like right now, as I’m talking to you, there’s an elementary school in Chicago on the north side where children get Mandarin Chinese, Arabic and Spanish. Every teacher has a teacher aide. They have a full-time nurse, social workers, speech therapist, drama teacher. At the same time, there are children on the Southside where children have to eat lunch under the stairs because the school is so crowded. There’s one teacher aide in the entire building. And a part-time Spanish instructor that they had to lose their librarian in order to get. See, that’s separate and unequal.
And that’s co-equal to the right and it’s acceptable to the left. And until we are honest about that, and that’s what we are trying to do at Journey for Justice; build a multi-racial alliance that’s grounded in the principle of unity through self-determination. The issues that we bring forth have to be championed by all. Not watered down in order to make white people feel more comfortable—no. We have to face the ugliness, the ugliness of how race has expressed itself in this country. And nowhere is it more profound than in public education.
SR: That’s really something to think about. It’s a really good question, where is institutional racism most embedded? There are so many places that could be on that list. But where is Journey for Justice focusing now and next, because what you’re talking about here is structural and deeply embedded and really requires a long view.
JB: Yes, but I think that there’s a moment. And the moment is that the Democratic establishment was rejected by Americans. And a person who got less votes than Mitt Romney got in 2012 is now the president of the United States. So there’s an opportunity to push the left to the left. And what we are involved in now is building multi-racial coalitions and alliances in cities across the United States who build the political power to influence political will, to stop privatization and to advance a progressive education agenda in our local cities. We think that’s the way forward. So base building—base building—has to be the word of the day. It has to be the frame of the day. It has to be.
We have to build the political power that says, if you don’t support sustainable community schools, this will—not may—this will cost you your job. If you don’t support us having an elected school board, this will cost you your job. And they [elected politicians] either look in that audience and see people mad as hell, like these Republicans are seeing in these town hall meetings around the country now. They have to be able to look out, just like the Dyett hunger strike. I’m not saying this to be boastful. I’m saying this to be real with people. It was a microcosm of what we need.
Yes, it was led by black people. It was led by, strategized by a black community-based organization on the Southside of Chicago. But we had a unified fight. When we stormed the mayor at the budget hearing, and 750 people check him out of the budget hearing, where his security had to pick him up and carry him out, that wasn’t all black people. There were Mexican mothers. There were our members. There were white folks from the north side. There were Puerto Rican folks. Chicago was pissed. And was grounded in the self-determination of our community. That is the type of feeling that we need to feel. We need to push and be absolutely intolerant of the way that the Democratic establishment has operated up to this point, because the Democratic establishment set the tone for what we experienced with school privatization. It wasn’t the Republicans closing the public schools in Chicago. It was the Democrats.
I think the moment is there, through local power building, to say, if you are for privatization, if you are for the elimination of our voices, which side are you on? You are either with the likes of Donald Trump or you are with us. If you are with us, this is your advocacy agenda right here. Make a decision right now.
SR: Tell me how this fits with the #WeChoose campaign that you are launching.
JB: The essence of the local power building is manifest through a campaign that we are calling #wechoose. It officially launches tomorrow [February 15]. It’s already trending on Twitter. And what we mean by #wechoose is the vast majority of Americans reject privatization. And we have united many of the education organizing and advocacy networks across the country. So when you look at our total membership in this coalition, it’s about 8 million people.
What we are going to do in our local cities is mount campaigns to advance the Journey for Justice education platform. The pillars of the J4J education platform have been developed through very slow and deliberate listening to parents and students and educators across this country. That’s why it was so easy for groups to sign on. They are networks that have memberships of close to 100,000 people. These members believe in restorative justice and student leadership development. There’s a soft place for them to rest their head in the J4J platform. There are millions of Americans who are against standardized testing—there’s been a revolt—and the J4J platform is a place for them to rest their heads.
We’ve united the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, Journey for Justice Alliance, the Alliance for Education Justice, Dignity in Schools Coalition, the Network for Public Education (that’s Diane Ravitch’s outfit), the Save Our Schools Coalition, Advancement Project, the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, the Institute for Democratic Education in America, others. And that coalition will grow. It is just starting off. These are the folks we are talking to. Instead of organizing around our single issue, we’ve united and mobilized our people around this platform. We will have a huge presence on social media and huge presence in our cities, base-building.
SR: That’s quite an accomplishment. We will track it. There’s going to be a growing push by people on the left to push back against what’s called Republican preemption—Republican-controlled state legislatures that are trying to pass laws that would usurp local legislation, whether it’s minimum wage or gun controls. But that’s not the same as what you are talking about here. You are saying that in a lot of these blue epicenters, things are not good around education, social justice and long-term institutional equity. Entrenched power is entrenched.
JB: That’s right. And the solution is not sexy. It’s simple, right? It’s people-power versus money-power. So the question is, how do you mobilize oppressed people, and then unite them with those who now feel oppressed? Well, we’ve been feeling that way for a long time.
One of the first things I say to people across race is we have to not take it personally. If we are trying to build a new America, that means we are nation building. That’s warrior’s work. That’s not advocacy work. That’s work where we may not all see the fruition of it. That’s work where your personal life disappears. That’s just what it is. And so if that’s what we are doing, one thing I say to a group of white allies, I said, Look, if you’re white, assume that you’re racist. And if you are black or brown, assume that you have been victimized by racism and internalized it. I said, Don’t feel racism as a thought, view it as a virus that we have all been infected by because it is woven into the DNA of America.
So we have all been infected by it. The question is when do we acknowledge it and struggle with it? I have a saying that I borrowed from a friend of mine that I just use every day. And I am going to be candid where I say this. I say that I wake up as a nigger every morning and I struggle to be a black man. And there’s a difference. Niggers are a creation of American racism. Living in communities we don’t control—all of that. Self-hate—all of that. Those are social constructs. I acknowledge that this is something I struggle with every day. I struggle with going places on time. I struggle with it. But because I struggle with it, I have improved. I acknowledge that it is an issue.
But when we don’t acknowledge that we have all been afflicted by the disease called racism, then what happens is we walk around as if we are okay. And that’s the problem with the left. The left believes because they tolerate us that they embrace us. And they don’t. If they embrace us, then the left would demand the same quality of education that people who live in middle-class white communities receive, they would demand it for everyone. They wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if they know that another human being was denied that on purpose. That’s it.