Chicagoans prepare to take back their city: 
A view from the West Side

“Imagine what a community would look like that you and your children deserve and what are you willing to do to bring that to fruition.”—–Tara Stamps

Chicago Teachers Union(CTU) activist and West Side resident Tara Stamps repeated variations of that phrase in a packed community July 17th meeting held at LaFollette Park in the 37th Ward  within the Austin neighborhood on Chicago’s far West Side. Each time she said it, she spoke slowly and distinctly to catch people’s attention.

Community meeting in the Austin community of West Side Chicago
West Siders and allies gather in the LaFollette Park fieldhouse on Chicago’s West Side

With the expected announcement that CTU President Karen Lewis will run for Mayor against Rahm Emanuel, along with plans by the CTU and groups like the newly formed United Working Families to conduct massive voter registration and coordinate efforts by progressive aldermanic campaigns, meetings like this one at LaFollette Park take on a more urgent significance. It is a good example of the working class community organizing that is going on Chicago right now.There have been a number of similar meetings across the city in recent weeks.

Austin is Chicago’s largest neighborhood by physical area. Like much of the largely African American West Side, Austin has been hit hard by divestment, unemployment, low wage employment, foreclosures, street violence, and school closings, as well as school privatization through ”turnarounds” and charters.

The year 2014 marks the tenth anniversary of the decision by the Board of Education under Arne Duncan to close Austin High School as a general high school for the community, instead putting three small schools (two of them charters) inside the cavernous building. Duncan’s attack on Austin (both the high school and the community at large) was one of the opening shots in the massive privatization and charter school plan that has unfolded in the decade since.

Community meeting in the Austin community of West Side Chicago
Tara Stamps

Such massive community destabilization can to lead to despair and demoralization, as several community members and leaders noted at the meeting. Tara Stamps was asking people to connect with their imaginations and dare to dream of the community that they deserve because of their status as human beings. Dreams can become reality if people organize and fight back against oppression.

Stamps connected the dots by showing how school closings and privatization are linked to community gentrification, foreclosures, unemployment and violence. She emphasized that in the 37th ward alone, the neighborhood schools recently lost $3 million in funding thanks to the cynically-named “student-based budgeting” that the Chicago Public School leadership instituted to weaken neighborhood schools. Meanwhile spending for a charter school in the community was increased by 50%. Charters drain money from neighborhood public schools resulting in overcrowding and starvation of resources.

The 37th ward is represented by Ald. Emma Mitts. Emma Mitts has unfairly criticized  the public schools in her West Side ward and supported the massive expansion of charter schools, both in her ward and elsewhere. Mitts speaks about “choice” a lot, but deliberately ignores the sabotage of the city’s remaining public schools through the 2013 school closings and the reduction in budgets for most schools.

There have been no school closings in the 37th Ward, but Mitts is an enthusiastic supporter of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and an outspoken charter proponent. This is despite the fact that Mitts served for several years on the Prosser High School Local School Council and was informed regularly of the challenges facing the schools in her ward.

Many 37th Ward students lack art, PE, libraries and other critical programs because of the way the mayor has attacked the city’s real public schools, but reporters and others regularly see Mitts standing up at media events with Rahm Emanuel, often telling the audiences that God sent the mayor to Chicago.

After settingthe stage for the discussion, Stamps then asked community members to voice their concerns.

Community meeting in the Austin community of West Side Chicago

Below is a summary of their contributions:

  • Since charters are businesses what will happen if they go out of business? This is not an unreasonable fear in Austin.  Residents noted  that  many businesses have abandoned the area. Long time community leader Dwayne Truss of Raise Your Hand (a education justice number crunching group) was one of the influential  participants in the July 17 meeting. pointed out that the boards of charters rarely have community members on their boards but claim to love Black children.
  • The community needs more recreational and job training facilities, especially for the young people. Several people talked about how CPS closed the electric shop program in a South Side school, effectively cutting off an avenue for African American youth  to obtain good jobs. Those kinds of programs should be supported and expanded, not shut down.
  • Residents asked what has happened to youth organizations like the YMCA, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and Better Boys. Some have ceased operations while others have been cut back. Meanwhile African American youth face greater social challenges than ever before.
  • Residents also were upset by many of the politicians and faith-based leaders who fail to represent the interests of the community and instead follow the script from the Mayor’s office and big business.
Community meeting in the Austin community of West Side Chicago
Dwayne Truss

The organizers finished up by urging participants to come to an organizing meeting on Wednesday July 23 to plan for voter registration and further community action.

July 23: Getting organized for a long struggle

“People with a thirst for change must come back to the idea that people can overcome the power of money.”—-Tara Stamps

The meeting on July 23 was focused on how people can organize in the 37th Ward and ally with others in what CTU organizer James Flynn called, “A critical moment in Chicago political history.”

He was referring to the proliferation of insurgent campaigns for City Council as well as the expected Karen Lewis for Mayor campaign. There are 3 independent City Council campaigns planned for Austin alone.

CTU member Tara Stamps explained why the CTU was involved in these community based movements for change. The CTU contract is up in 2015, the same year as the Chicago elections. The CTU needs to know what issues communities want the union to fight for, because community support is essential when the union goes to  negotiate and fight for quality education.

There are many CTU members in the 37th ward and they spend their money at local businesses.  Charter schools and turnarounds prefer to hire their own people. Most of them live outside of the community and spend their money elsewhere. So when there are closings and privatization, laid off CTU members who find it hard to obtain new positions  can no longer circulate as much money into the community.

Community meeting in the Austin community of West Side Chicago

The last thing the Austin neighborhood needs is more unemployment and more low wage work, a further example example of divestment that is strangling African American neighborhoods.

Community residents brought up additional issues of concern:

  • One was the problem of violence. One woman told of how she is afraid to take her children outside because she is frightened  of the gangbangers. She spoke in anguish about how she leaves the neighborhood to take her kids on outings. The violence problem was linked to the larger issues like disruption of the schools, inadequate social services and the elimination of truant officers.
  • People talked about the lack of engagement by many neighborhood residents in community affairs. This was attributed to a lack of education and their feeling that nothing much can be changed. 37th Ward City Council Ald Emma Mitts was criticized with not being responsive to the community except on small minor issues.

Matt Luskin answered by talking about the importance of concerned community members  being organized and visible. He cited the example of a large 2010 community protest in the 37th ward against a charter school that would bleed the neighborhood schools of resources.

Tara Stamps pointed out that while Mitts is well practiced when talking about fixing potholes and how she can’t do much about the gangbangers on the corner, she gets flustered when people talk about money. After some discussion the group agreed to send representatives to an  Emma Mitts ward meeting to ask what she planned to do to get the $3 million dollar education cuts rescinded. 

No one had any illusions that getting the $3 million back would be easy. The idea was to build momentum and gain more group members by being on the right side of vital issues. When someone said this is really about downtown billionaires  dictating the affairs of the 37th Ward, the room erupted into agreement. People understood that this is bigger than one ward and that people must  deal with the big picture as they organize on the local level.

The meeting concluded with an agreement to register voters and leaflet people about the impact  of $3 million loss in local school funding. There was a pledge to coninue to build out the organization for the future.

When people attended the Emma Mitts ward meeting the following evening, Mitts became verbally abusive to people who brought up the issue of the 3 million dollar education cuts, further demonstrating her unfitness for public service.

You ain’t seen nuthin’ yet……

It appears to me that the CTU is applying the template that the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) used to gain elected leadership of the union, lead a successful strike and then gain re-election to union office. Basically it involved face to face organizing and intense political education in as many Chicago schools as they could reach. CORE has a radical vision of education justice that would totally revamp Chicago’s racially segregated school system where resources are allocated by race and income rather than by the needs of students. 

Now imagine a campaign of face to face organizing in as many wards as possible supporting independent City Council candidates with a vision for a city where public resources are allocated by need rather than by race and income. Karen Lewis would be at the top of the ticket as the mayoral candidate, drawing on her popularity in African American and Latino neighborhoods. This could help bring out more voters to support the independent City Council candidates.

I’m hopeful that the kind of vicious racial hatred that accompanied the Harold Washington campaigns of the 1980‘s will not be a major issue. There are strong indications that the mostly white voters on the Northwest Side are very dissatisfied with Rahm and that Lewis could do better there than the traditional pundits expect. For example the CTU strike led by Lewis in 2012 was overwhelming supported in the Black and Latino areas while whites spilt evenly, according to polls taken during the strike. But support for the pickelines was solid throughout the city, without regard to racial demographics.

There is animus toward Karen Lewis based racial and gender prejudice, but I think trying to harness that that would be a losing strategy for Rahm and his minions. I’ve been to a lot of different community meetings over the past couple of years and there is yearning for basic change.

This yearning has created the basis for a broad and deep multi-racial progressive alliance that is now in the process of  being born.How this alliance will deal candidates who run as independents as well as those who run as progressive anti-machine Democrats remains to be seen. That can be a contentious issue in Chicago.

Lewis, along with the school and community activists who eagerly await her formal announcement, face an enormous challenge in a city when some of the deepest pockets in the USA are behind Rahm. But they know that organized people can overcome organized money when the circumstances are right. And more importantly, if they can maintain their organization after the election like CORE has done within the CTU, they can force accountability from those they elect.

I suspect that when Karen Lewis announces her candidacy we will see something far more profound than a political campaign. We will see the birth of a powerful social movement.

Now imagine the city that you and and the next generation of young people deserve. What do YOU plan to do to bring it into fruition?

Community meeting in the Austin community of West Side Chicago

A  somewhat different version of this article appeared in Substance News Online. Special thanks to George Schmidt for editorial help.

July 27, 2014 by
Filed under: Education, Unions, US politics 


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