Activism | Education | Politics

Students United in Power

High school activists in Brighton Park continue a familiar fight in the Trump era

In the summer and early fall of 2015, all eyes in Chicago’s education community were on the campaign and thirty-four-day hunger strike organized by community organizers, families, and educators, that successfully led to the reopening of Dyett High School in Washington Park as an arts school. Among the activists in the “Save Dyett” campaign were Dyett alumni and students, many of whom mobilized after feeling their communities and schools were being undervalued by city officials.

While the Dyett campaign was by no means the first example of students taking part in efforts to support Chicago Public Schools, it brought student activism at the high school level to the forefront of Chicago organizing again. Under the Trump presidency, many students in primarily Latinx neighborhoods, such as Brighton Park, are identifying the parallels between the problems facing their high schools and the wider anti-immigrant climate that has largely become the norm.

“Now that Donald Trump is president, those people who once were hiding…now are coming out because they think that it’s okay to be racist or it’s okay to segregate people,” said Jesus Sanchez, a sophomore at Hancock High School. “These people are showing their true colors, and it’s just sparking more fear here in Chicago.” Adding to Sanchez’s argument, Curie High School senior Karina Martinez said Trump’s election sends an even broader message. “It shows that in the U.S., if you have money and you’re wealthy, and you get to have a privileged background, then you get the ability to have power even if you’re unqualified for it.”

Martinez, Sanchez, and many of their friends have taken actions to combat Trump’s policies and rhetoric on immigration. “We helped with the march that happened [the day before inauguration day] and we all marched to 55th and Pulaski,” Sanchez said. At this pre-inauguration day protest, students chanted slogans related to budget cuts as they marched, drawing parallels between the Trump administration’s priorities and politics in Chicago and Illinois.

Martinez and Sanchez are both student activists with the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council (BPNC), a community organization founded in Brighton Park in 1997 to organize residents and to incentivize investment in their area. The group is now focused on mobilizing middle and high school students around education justice and immigration.

“Ever since the election people have been talking about it, and I think since the inauguration you’re seeing more actions being taken by students,” said BPNC student retention specialist Lynda Lopez, who works primarily with students at Kelly High School.

While BPNC students are fighting for an array of causes, they were all inspired to become activists by inequities they experience in their everyday lives.

“Most of the activism comes because they see the difficulties in their schools,” said Lopez’s colleague Olivia Abrecht, another BPNC youth organizer. “They’ve had teachers who’ve been laid off, they’re using old textbooks, they’ve seen their after school programs cut, they’ve seen a spike in violence on the Southwest Side, and they see that at the root of that is a lack of funding and this system in Chicago that is prioritizing the white wealthy neighborhoods on the North Side.”

Ethan Armour, a junior at Curie High School, said it was his experiences on his school’s track and field team that inspired him to take action.

“What made me get involved first was seeing my fellow athletes, not just on the track team but on the soccer team, football team, girls’ soccer team, boys’ soccer team, get injured on the Curie’s field because the field is in poor condition,” he said.

Sanchez shared a similar opinion on the impact this lack of investment brings on students—on the Southwest Side, certain cuts can potentially put students’ lives at risk.

“I heard stories of other schools…not having funding for after-school programs,” he said.  “A student should have after school programs in their school because sometimes they can’t go outside because of gang violence or violence in the streets.”

However, for many Black and Latinx students on the Southwest Side, daily life also requires dealing with police on high school campuses. Armour said many schools’ focus on keeping students in line rather than prioritizing their safety leads to deep-seated trauma. “There was…a situation that actually happened at Curie,” Armour recounted. “It was a fight that happened at Pulaski, on the Orange Line, and you know, even the kids that wasn’t involved was getting handcuffed and slammed to the floor—there was even videos. This is traumatizing. None of this is normal.”

Armour said direct actions at Curie High School against the strong police presence on campus ratcheted up after the Laquan McDonald police tape was made public at the end of 2015. “We would have walkouts [and] there would be police and security rounding up students, grabbing them, pulling them, handcuffing them, it was a really traumatizing thing to experience,” Armour said. “That happened because students tried to protest and walk out because we organized it. This was last year.” CPS’s communications office did not reply to the Weekly’s request for comment on police actions against students at their schools.

Armour said this cycle of police distrust feeds into the fears of undocumented immigrant students at Curie and other Southwest Side schools. “With what’s going on now with our president, you see these kids getting out of school, they see these law enforcement, and they feel so uncomfortable and fear that one day one of these police officers is going to get in their face and said, ‘Where are your papers, what are you doing here?’ ”

Sanchez, Armour, and Veronica Rodriguez, a junior at Back of the Yards College Prep, all have personal stories about individuals they know who could be impacted by Trump’s focus on deportations and ICE raids. They said the current national climate has made undocumented people in their lives fear for their livelihoods like never before.

The struggles facing undocumented immigrants and victims of police overreach are thus interrelated, as Armour and Rodriguez allude to. However, Armour made it clear that he believes the challenges he and his fellow activists are engaging with go back much further than Trump.

“This isn’t just Trump, these problems have been going on since who knows when,” he said… “I don’t necessarily think it’s a change. I think it’s waking people up more, now that he’s coming to power. He’s showing them what’s already been going on.”

As people continue to organize during the Trump presidency, activists are able to find creative ways to engage with a growing base of disaffected students to find solutions to the problems in their daily lives.

“One of the steps we took [to combat immigration fears] was that we created know your rights workshops,” said Rodriguez. “It’s basically to let people know that they have rights and that it doesn’t always have to be a fear to stand up to [law enforcement].” BPNC has worked with students across high schools in the area to create workshops and clubs like the one at Rodriguez’s high school, said Maria Martinez, who is a sophomore at Hancock High School along with Sanchez. “Our school created clubs like Sueño Libre with help from BPNC. We organized a lot of things with their help.”

Rodriguez also hopes to persuade the school board to adopt full sanctuary campus policies. “Last month we went to talk to [the school board] and we mentioned that we want to turn our schools into sanctuaries where students can feel safe and comfortable.”

According to Armour, one of the primary strategies student activists use to achieve these goals is walkouts. Students across Chicago stayed home on February 16 as part of the nationwide “Day Without Immigrants,” when around 50,000 CPS students missed school.

Armour said students on the Southwest Side see it as a useful tactic for tackling issues ranging from immigration to the lack of police accountability. “Now I’ve seen what really affects Curie, what gets our administration’s attention, and what it is, is attendance,” he said. “It’s because the school’s trying to become a level one school. So now we know how to get them.”

In addition to walkouts, walk-ins have also become an effective tactic. Karina Martinez and her peers at Curie High School have started walking into school on Tuesdays wearing black to raise awareness of the plight of undocumented students and their families.

Media attention is another critical tool: Oliva Abrecht brought up a CPS budget hearing in February where seven students including Kelly High School freshman Jennifer Nava testified about impacts of the cuts on their personal lives. “You’re messing with my nine-year-old nephew’s education, my best friend’s education, my family’s, my community’s education,” she said, according to news reports.

Nava’s powerful testimony quickly captured public attention. “Out of that there was a news article, and there started to be a moment,” Abrecht said. A few days later, CPS reversed some of the cuts that impacted majority Latinx schools like Nava’s. While the overarching structural issues that lead to the kinds of budget cuts BPNC organizes against have remained, small victories  have brought incremental progress to South West Side communities, empowering students to continue being active in speaking out.  “In all those situations you saw the importance of youth voice in the discussion, and so I think that’s what we most try to do at BPNC,” Abrecht said.

Abrecht said Nava’s impact demonstrates why it is so important to center student voices in the struggles facing young people’s worlds. In many cases, all it takes for a city or education official to change their mind is an anecdote from an affected student. “You just have to meet them.”

Did you like this article? Support local journalism by donating to South Side Weekly today.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *