On day three of a citywide educators’ strike, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson wrote a letter requesting that members of the Chicago Teachers Union go back to work—without a contract agreement being reached—while negotiations continued at the bargaining table. They highlighted that while significant movement had been made, keeping students out of school was causing unnecessary hardship and sacrifice for students and their families.

Strike rally at the Thompson Center, Oct. 23, 2019. Photo: Ronnie Reese

It is no coincidence that the day after their letter, a CTU/SEIU rally was held at Dyett High School on Chicago’s South Side. Dyett is both a physical and symbolic representation of sacrifice and struggle. The school is open as a result of the sacrifice of parents, students and community members and allies who fought city politics to ensure that the community of Bronzeville did not lose its last public, open enrollment high school. Parents and grandparents sacrificed their time and energy to engage in a process that was not just about halting the school’s closure, but about creating a collective and transformative vision of an education village that centered and prioritized their children, their issues and their knowledge. They sacrificed their freedom and risked arrests during civil disobedience protests.

When the decision was made to phase out the school, despite it having won an award for school excellence only a few years before, a handful of students chose to remain at the school rather than transfer, which would have facilitated its accelerated closure. These students spent their senior year of high school taking art and physical education courses online, despite having a newly renovated, state-of-the-art gymnasium. In Jim Crow-style fashion, they were not even allowed to enter their school building through the front doors.

While other seniors spent their last year of high school making prom and post-graduation plans, Dyett students were filing federal lawsuits against Chicago Public Schools for racial discrimination. These young people essentially sacrificed a “normal,” final year of high school.

The sacrifice of those Dyett students, though, is not unique. Unfortunately, it is the reality of many Black youth on the South and West sides of the city. And while Lightfoot and Jackson’s letter expressed concern for the student athletes who were missing competitions during this work stoppage, the CTU’s contract demands were an expression of love and concern for the hundreds of thousands of Black youth whose entire experience of school consist of overcrowded classrooms, school closings and sparse resources. But like their ancestors before them, these youth and their communities have never allowed their present conditions to deter them from envisioning—and fighting for—something better.

Dyett was closed in 2014, but the fight was not over. After several town hall meetings, letters and petitions to the Chicago Board of Education and CPS, sit-ins and arrests, a group of twelve parents, grandparents and community organizers vowed that they would refrain from eating in order to realize the community’s vision of Walter H. Dyett High School.

I participated in that 34-day hunger strike for Dyett. Myself and 11 others sacrificed our health and risked our lives because we recognized what the loss of the last public, open enrollment high school in Bronzeville would mean for the future of that community. In a city that has lost more than a quarter of a million Black residents in less than 20 years, and in a community that has lost affordable housing, grocery stores and stood to lose its last public high school, we understood that we weren’t just fighting the closing of one more school; we were fighting for our survival, and for the right of working class Black people to live and exist in this city.

And that is what many critics of this movement do not understand. From their privileged vantage point, the work stoppage from CPS educators was a political stunt, or a gimmick or temper tantrum. Some characterized the hunger strike for Dyett in similar terms. For those who did not inherit this struggle, it is easy to examine this strike from an isolated, ahistorical perspective. But those who are not well-versed in our oppression have no right to critique our resistance. This labor strike was the manifestation of struggle that pre-dates the CTU’s demand for a fair contract. It pre-dates Lori Lightfoot or Rahm Emanuel. The denial of a quality educational experience for Black students must be placed within the centuries-long history of exclusion and marginalization of Black people in this country and in this city. As CTU VP Stacy Davis Gates has said, it was once illegal for Black people to learn to read and write; in fact, even the attempt at literacy was punishable by death. When Black people were finally granted the “privilege” of formal education, they were never privy to the resources, access or opportunities of their white peers. Instead, their complaints and outcries against economic and educational injustices were met with obstinate refusal, indifference or pretend progress. It is in this historical context that we must situate this current struggle for the schools all our students deserve.

No amount of lesson planning by a teacher can fully compensate for students who are hungry, homeless or traumatized. Yet there are critics who argued that these proposals did not belong in a teachers’ contract. Poverty, homelessness, violence and trauma are daily realities for many of our Black and Brown students and the Black and Brown educators who serve and support them. So addressing the issues of affordable housing, lack of sleep, and lack of access to counselors, nurses and social workers were not only germane, but imperative to negotiations. Our legislative and political institutions—the so-called “proper” channels to address these issues—have failed working class people of color. These institutions have not only failed to create equity, they have intentionally perpetuated and exacerbated inequity, inequality and injustice. But as our history proves, these impediments have never deterred our pursuit of justice.

The CTU recognized both the history and the gravity of the moment. It was not simply the fight for more clinicians, the fight against overcrowded classrooms or the fight for increased wages and resources. It was what these things represent: the opportunity to live with decency and dignity. This was not just “bargaining for the common good,” it was a fight for the humanity of Black people, and a fight to fulfill the most basic human needs of Black and Brown children and families.

This strike, like the fight for Dyett, was about disrupting a system that has never prioritized the needs of Black children. It was about disrupting the normalization of inequity. It was an opportunity to demonstrate, concretely, the value of Black and Brown lives. It was an opportunity to elevate our humanity, our inherent worth and our deservedness.

This school year marks the 4th year of Dyett’s re-opening. It is the first time that a neighborhood school closed by the district has re-opened as a neighborhood school. The students who enrolled in Dyett following its re-opening are now in their senior year. Their final year of high school will be remarkably different than their peers of only 6 years ago because of the sacrifice and perseverance of people who believed they were entitled to a quality educational experience in their neighborhood. While the community’s vision has not been fully realized, the fight for Dyett High School demonstrated that another reality is indeed possible for Black and Brown communities.

In 2016, the CTU was able to bargain for $10 million to fund the creation of 20 Sustainable Community Schools across the city. These schools, modeled after the community’s proposal for Dyett, are designed to serve as anchors within communities that have been negatively impacted by years of racial injustice and disinvestment. They are a demonstration that a quality education for Black and Brown children is possible, not through privatization, but through investment and authentic community engagement.

We will not undo 400 years of oppression in a 3-5 year CTU contract. But we can help illuminate a new path. This contract fight was an opportunity to reject the status quo; it was a demand for a more just and humane future for working class Black and Brown people. It was an opportunity to re-focus our priorities and reset our moral compass. And the outcomes represents opportunities that we cannot afford to lose, and ones that will be worth all the sacrifice it took to get there.

Monique Redeaux-Smith is a Chicago educator who worked in CPS as a middle school teacher for more than 11 years. She was a Dyett hunger striker and currently works for the Illinois Federation of Teachers and serves on the CTU-CPS Sustainable Community Schools Taskforce.