avatar
The Chicago hunger strike for Dyett High School: Why it matters to us all


It’s been a tough week for the environment. A chunk of glacier so big it could bury Manhattan in 1000 feet of ice fell into the sea off Greenland. Monstrous forest fires raged in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest with some of those fires weakening the permafrost which protects us from a possible methane apocalypse. Scientists in Europe reported that climate change may be degrading soil quality, threatening a dangerous reduction in the world’s food supply.

And in Chicago’s largely African American Bronzeville, 12 people have been on hunger strike since August 17, demanding a high school in their community that would focus on green technology and global leadership. With humanity facing the greatest environmental crisis in the history of the species we could sure use more green technology and global leadership. Right?

Hunger strikers Jitu Brown and Irene Robinson are joined by
AFT President Randi Weingarten at an August 25 press conference

Well, Mayor Rahm Emanuel sure doesn’t think so. The Coalition to Revitalize Walter H. Dyett School has met nothing but delays and resistance to their proposal to transform the now closed Dyett school building into the Walter H. Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology High School.

Dyett hunger strike

The hunger strikers hold a sit-in at the entrance to the Mayor’s office.

The group has submitted a 53 page detailed proposal that outlines the philosophy, curriculum and governance for the school. I’ve read it. If I weren’t 68 years old and retired I would apply to work there in a heartbeat. Here’s why:

Our philosophy of education is to prepare young people to deeply study and understand their social and physical reality so that they can enter the global stage of history as actors transforming their world. In the process they learn the academic and artistic disciplines necessary for their own development and future life plans and for making a contribution to better our planet, which sorely needs both environmental sustainability and leadership for peace and justice—the two foci of our school”—— excerpt from the proposal

This is education for liberation, a freedom school in the tradition of the ones set up during Reconstruction and the civil rights era. The proposal outlines a rich curriculum in the humanities, the sciences, mathematics, music, art, world languages and more. It reminds me of the private Chicago Lab School where Rahm Emanuel and Arne Duncan send their children, only better because the Dyett proposal envisions deep involvement with the local community as part of its avowedly social justice mission.

The hunger strikers have received widespread solidarity in Chicago, across the USA and around the world.

Dyett Hunger Strike

The hunger strikers meet with supporters in front of the Dyett building

The historically African American community of Bronzeville is a logical place for such an institution. An important destination for Black people during the Great Migration from the South, Bronzeville was home to Ida B. Wells, Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, John H. Johnson and Louis Armstrong. Dyett High School was named for Walter Dyett, a Chicago Public Schools music teacher whose students included Nat King Cole, Bo Diddley and Dinah Washington.

Bronzeville has also been a center of resistance to segregation, racism and poverty. In the 1919 race riot, Bronzeville residents, some recently returned from service in WWI, were forced to defend the community against armed white racist mobs. Bronzeville is the location of the historic Quinn Chapel where human rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Susan B. Anthony and W.E.B. DuBois have spoken. It is home to the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization (KOCO) one of the oldest African American community organizations in Chicago. KOCO has been one of the leaders of the campaign to transform Dyett High School.

Jitu Brown of KOCO is one of the hunger strikers and said this at an August 17th press conference when the strike began:

“I’m here today because we have been pushed to the point of putting our bodies on the line. To say enough is enough. That we are tired of the destabilizing of our schools. We are tired of schools that have been sabotaged from the beginning and labeled as failing and our children being shipped around from school to school as if they don’t matter while on the other side of town children have Mandarin Chinese. They have Spanish. They have world languages.

They have all the opportunities they need while our children have to go to schools where they have to take art and physical education as online classes. We are tired of Rahm Emanuel and the Board of Education refusing to support a community driven proposal for a Walter Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology High School”

A revitalized Dyett High School would be more than a great school for Bronzeville. It could be a model for progressive education around the USA. It would also be Bronzeville’s gift to the world. The school would educate young people to help meet the environmental challenges that threaten the biosphere and the survival of humanity. The hunger strikers are risking their health and their lives to make all this happen.

And Rahm Emanuel and his corporate sponsors would rather close schools, privatize education and gentrify neighborhoods.

This is naked in-your-face environmental racism. To quote a well known popular movie, some of which was filmed right here in Chicago,”Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

Rahm Emanuel is one of them.

Dyett Hunger strike

In front of Mayor Emanuel’s office

For more information and daily updates please visit the Teachers for Social Justice page HERE

If you are on Facebook you can like the Dyett Global Leadership & Green Technology HS community page

Photos by Bob “BobboSphere” Simpson: More photos of the hunger strikers in my Chicago Teachers Union Flickr album

Leave a comment