In a surprise action, approximately 50 members of the local grassroots organization Gender JUST (Justice United for Societal Transformation) and allies took over the downtown headquarters of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) April 29. This was part of an ongoing series of actions by the group’s Safe and Affirming Education Campaign, which focuses on the issues facing LGBTQ and other youth in CPS. Members of Gender JUST, including several youth and students, have been trying to work with CEO Ron Huberman in an effort to institute a grievance procedure with the school system.
Sam Finkelstein spoke to Windy City Times after the event, as did Eric Kitty and Lucky Mosqueda; all three are members of the leadership circle of the group. (Disclosure: this reporter is also a member.) Finkelstein gave the context for the groups’ takeover: “This action was the second in a series of escalating actions that Gender JUST has been planning. We met with Ron Huberman a number of times until we realized they weren”t following through with their stated commitments. We thought it was now time to focus on the demand until they implemented it.” The group also led a protest outside CPS headquarters April 13. Members of Blocks Together, a direct-action community organization, and Southwest Youth Collaborative, a network of youth and community development organizations, also participated in this recent protest.
Finkelstein said that Gender JUST youth members have been asking for the institution of a grievance procedure, “a way to raise a flag when issues of violence, whether institutional or systemic, occurred.” Under current policies, interpersonal violence between students is usually dealt with by punishment of the perpetrator but a student has no recourse if a security guard or a teacher inflicts violence upon them, and the incident will often go unaddressed. Mosqueda, a graduate of Theodore Roosevelt High School, said that the group’s solution instituted something much like the conduct report that is filled out after an incident of violence between students; the difference is that this report would be filled out on an adult perpetrator.
After what the group saw as Huberman’s ongoing refusal to commit to change and his constant stalling, including the cancellation of a meeting scheduled for that morning, the youth decided to take over the building by way of stepping up their protest. This time they decided, according to Finkelstein, “to paint a picture: that this is a serious issue for us and we are willing to put our safety at stake. We shut the building down so that people couldn’t come in or out.”
Eric Kitty, a junior at Kelly High School, described the event to Windy City Times as “very successful,” and gave details: “At 4:30, we went into the lobby and demanded that Ron Huberman come downstairs. Four students, including Lucky and Ahkia Daniels, gave testimonies about their harassment in CPS.” All the while, demonstrators held up signs, including one with an image of Ron Huberman with a halo atop his head and the words: “My house is worth more than your education.” This was a direct response to the recent news that Huberman and his partner have bought an 11-room house for $898,000, a move widely noted by many because CPS has been making cutbacks in teacher pay and programs. Chanting “We want Ron” and other slogans, the group called for Huberman to come down and talk to them directly. Instead, Drew Beres, Huberman’s assistant, came down and attempted to talk to the group. However, they shouted him down with, “You ain’t got no power. Go back upstairs!” The protesters eventually dispersed at 5:30.
Asked about the responses to their action, Gender JUST said that most people were largely positive and that even those emerging from CPS at the end of the day seemed overwhelmingly positive. According to Finkelstein, nearly half of them gave the group thumbs-up signs or put their fists in the air in support, others were supportive and wanted to know more while some “didn’t want anything to do with us.” All three said it was a successful action. Kitty felt that “it stepped up the level of power on our side. Doing the protest felt really powerful, as did listening to all these testimonies on why the students think the process should be implemented. There were also a lot of people who came to share their experience.”
As for next steps, Finkelstein said the group would keep building pressure as long as they felt that Huberman was not engaging with them. Mosqueda emphasized, “We are sick and tired of playing their games.” She repeated words from her testimony: “Our lips have been sewn shut by discrimination, but we will not be silent any more. Students are supposed to go to school to learn. What’s the use of going if we only face harassment and discrimination?”