Vanquished mayoral candidate Jesus “Chuy” Garcia on Monday challenged Mayor Rahm Emanuel to prove he really has learned to listen more, talk less and be more collaborative in a second term — by negotiating with Dyett High School hunger strikers pressing for a school specializing in green technology.
“Craft something that all of the parties concerned about Dyett can walk away from feeling good about . . . Engaging neighborhoods in difficult issues like this one is what being an effective and a good leader and a listening leader is all about,” said Garcia, who forced Emanuel into Chicago’s first mayoral runoff.
What if Emanuel refuses to negotiate?
“Then there’s reason to think that the administration hasn’t changed in a second term. . . . Not really listening and not engaging people with an open mind,” Garcia said.
At a news conference outside the mayor’s office, Garcia said he understands the plight of the 15 hunger strikers seated behind him. A dozen claim they haven’t eaten solid food for 29 days. Three more joined the effort last week.
In 2001, community activists engaged in what he called a “similarly drastic,” 19-day hunger strike to win construction of a new high school serving the Little Village and Lawndale communities.
Garcia acknowledged significant progress was made nearly two weeks ago when the Dyett protesters stormed the stage at one of Emanuel’s town hall meetings on the city budget.
After CPS had dropped strong hints the school may never reopen, mayor’s handpicked school team changed gears and announced that Dyett would reopen next fall as an “open enrollment” neighborhood high school with a focus on the arts.
The decision was so hastily made, it required CPS to throw out three proposals it had solicited. Instead, the district took pieces from the proposals of an arts focus suggested by Little Black Pearl and an innovation lab from the Coalition to Revitalize Dyett.
Garcia said what’s wrong with that hybrid proposal — and why it failed to end the hunger strike — is that it was dictated from on high.
“What it lacked and continues to lack is sufficient engagement by the individuals who decided to take this action,” Garcia said.
“Yes, it is significant that what CPS and the mayor agreed to re-do a neighborhood school. That was part of what was requested by the hunger strikers initially. [But] some further engagement and negotiation can produce an outcome that is acceptable to all. . . . Maybe not every single point, but one that all can live with.”
Hunger striker Jitu Brown, who said he has lost at least 34 pounds, reiterated the group’s demands.
They include: green technology and global leadership in the Dyett curriculum; preservation of the name Walter Dyett; at least six seats on the school design team; community selection of the principal; and a community school open until 7 p.m. or 8 p.m. daily with programs serving the community.
The group is further demanding an elected Local School Council by September 2016 and “vertical curriculum alignment” between the high school and feeder schools so students are prepared for coursework at the new Dyett.
Brown refused to say which demands are non-negotiable — only that the group is willing to bargain.
“A compromise happens when two people come together and they work out together something that’s agreeable to both parties. There was no compromise. I was told 15 minutes before the press conference at 2:15 that this was what was going to happen,” Brown said.
“Our community deserves to be treated with respect. We’re not asking to run a charter school. We’re not asking to run some school that we’re going to profit from,” he said. “We just want Chicago Public Schools to value our children just like they value families in other communities.”
Brown acknowledged that the longer the hunger strike drags on, the more it might appear that CPS is being reasonable and the protesters are being unreasonable.
But, he said, “If people take the time to take a good look, we’re not the ones bullying. We’re the ones being bullied. And we’re not the ones being unreasonable.”
Ald. Will Burns (4th), who has been at loggerheads with the Dyett protesters for months, portrayed the hunger strikers as the bullies.
“They accosted me on 49th and Drexel on Thursday last week. They surrounded me, yelling, screaming and cursing at me, telling me I had to give them the school,” said Burns, one of Emanuel’s staunchest African-American supporters.
Burns charged that the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization is continuing the hunger strike to feather its own nest.
“They’re persisting because they want to run the school. This is about the KOCO building an empire by running the school and providing youth development and after-school programming they wouldn’t be providing for free. That’s why they want to control who the principal is. The principal would be in charge of hiring them,” the alderman said.
Chief Education officer Janice Jackson responded to Garcia’s demand with a statement vowing to forge ahead with the district’s revised plan.
“As we announced on September 3rd, Dyett will reopen as a neighborhood, open-enrollment high school in the fall of 2016. The new school concept was celebrated by a broad coalition of community groups, clergy, and elected officials representing Bronzeville and the larger south side community, and it will incorporate key themes identified by the RFP process, such as a technology hub for the larger community, and the need for fine arts programming that are consistent with the legacy of the school’s namesake, Captain Walter H. Dyett,” Jackson was quoted as saying.
“Last week, the District began the search for the school’s principal, who will play a pivotal role in leading the school as it begins its next chapter,” she said in the statement.
Earlier Monday, a group of medical professionals had again gone to City Hall to urge the mayor to find some way to end the hunger strike. Dr. Linda Rae Murray, chief medical officer for the Cook County Department of Public Health of the Cook County Health and Hospital System, joined Erin Raether, a registered nurse and member of Nurses for Social Justice, as well as others, to ask the mayor to negotiate. They also had made an earlier plea to the mayor on the 11th day of the protest.
Contributing: Lauren FitzPatrick
The Dyett hunger strikers assembled Monday at City Hall. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times