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5 years later, Dyett High School hunger strikers recall their fight

For 34 days, parents and activist refrained from eating solid foods. They forced the school district to reopen the neighborhood high school.

(Left to right) Marc Kaplan, Jitu Brown and Irene Robinson reflect on a 34-day hunger strike in 2015 that helped reopen Dyett High School for the Arts at 555 E. 51st St. on Monday. | Manny Ramos
Marc Kaplan (from left), Jitu Brown and Irene Robinson reflect on their 34-day hunger strike in 2015 that helped reopen Dyett High School for the Arts, 555 E. 51st St.
Manny Ramos/Sun-Times

On the fifth anniversary of a hunger strike that saved Dyett High School, the people who led that effort came together Monday to remember their fight — and celebrate the school’s first graduating class.

“They said we could not get our closed schools reopened. They said that we cannot create a world-class education for our students,” said Irene Robinson, member of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization. “Ordinary people came together, and they had vision for their children, and they fought, and that vision is here today because of those individuals.”

Robinson was one of 12 parents and education activist that took part in a hunger strike in 2015 demanding the closed Dyett High School reopen. They even had a detailed plan: make it a school focused on “global leadership and green technology.” For 34 days, the group abstained from solid food and held protests at City Hall, asking then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel to invest in much-needed neighborhood schools.

Some of the protesters, weakened, were hospitalized during the monthlong fight.

 Dyett High School’s hunger strikers demonstrated at City Hall more than once during their 2015 fight. Shown outside the mayor’s office that August are Irene Robinson (seated in wheelchair), Anna Jones (leaning on arm of wheelchair) and Jitu Brown (standing behind Robinson). At right are Cathy Dale and granddaughter Khalaya Coleman.
Dyett High School’s hunger strikers demonstrated at City Hall more than once during their 2015 fight. Shown outside the mayor’s office that August are Irene Robinson (seated in wheelchair), Anna Jones (leaning on arm of wheelchair) and Jitu Brown (standing behind Robinson). At right are Cathy Dale and granddaughter Khalaya Coleman.
Sun-Times file

The strike eventually forced CPS to reopen the building, but the district didn’t follow the rest of the strikers’ plan. Instead, when the school reopened in 2016, it was as Dyett High School for the Arts.

Monday’s celebration included a DJ and food for the graduating seniors. Jitu Brown, lead organizer of the strike and national director of Journey for Justice Alliance, was followed around by a camera crew Monday; a film project about the strike, “Still Hungry for Justice,” is in development.

“The lesson in Dyett, I think, is the microcosm of what the movement for justice around the country needs to look like,” Brown said. “It was a Black-led fight, led by the people directly impacted but supported with honesty, humility and courage by people from around the city.”

The district would end up spending more than $14 million for renovations to the school before it reopened. The building now includes a dance studio, a textile design space and a black-box theater.

Photos commemorating the 5th anniversary of a monthlong hunger strike that helped reopen the doors for a neighborhood high school in Washington Park.
Photos commemorating the 5th anniversary of a monthlong hunger strike that helped reopen the doors for a neighborhood high school in Washington Park.
Manny Ramos/Sun-Times

Brown said that investment into the school could be made only because of the direct action they took by calling out racist policy that initially closed the majority-Black neighborhood school.

“$14 million in new investment so young people don’t have to go to a high school with no technology or asbestos in the building or police that treat them like they are criminals in school,” Brown said. “They can actually go to a world-class neighborhood high school within safe walking distance of their homes.”

Manny Ramos is a corps member in Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of issues affecting Chicago’s South and West sides.