Protesters On Hunger Strike For 17 Days Ask Education Department To Help

"Sometimes you have to put your own health on the line to get the attention of the world."

Two Chicago protesters who have been fasting for 17 days over the future of a local high school traveled to Washington D.C. this week to take their fight to the national stage.

The protesters, joined by civil rights leaders and the presidents of the nation's two largest teachers unions, held a press conference on Wednesday and delivered a letter to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, asking him to take action so city officials will make a decision about Chicago's Dyett High School, which closed in June due to low enrollment rates and test scores.

Twelve protesters have been participating in a hunger strike since Aug. 17 in an attempt to convince the Chicago Board of Education to reopen the school as an open-enrollment public school with a focus on science, which they say will best serve the needs of the community. The board is weighing various plans to reopen the school, but protesters say this process has been slow and inconsistent, and worry that the board will ultimately allow the school to remain closed. 

Since the start of the hunger strike, four protesters have had to receive medical attention, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. Last week, a group of medical professionals asked Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to intervene, calling the situation "a health emergency."

Only two of the protesters made the trip to Washington. The letter they delivered to Duncan on Wednesday asks him to "act swiftly to avert the further harm." An excerpt from the letter states:

"One of the challenges facing African American parents and students in Chicago is the lack of response and accountability from elected and appointed officials. Affluent neighborhoods receive selective enrollment and well-resourced schools. However, communities comprised of predominantly low-income and working families have to contend with under-resourced schools and privatization models that undermine the integrity of the community. We compel you to act on behalf of the residents of Bronzeville who have been rendered voiceless in this process." 

At Wednesday's press conference, protesters Jitu Brown and April Stogner were joined by American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García, Advancement Project Co-Director Judith Browne Dianis, Schott Foundation President John Jackson, Coalition for Community Schools Director Martin Blank, and members of the Alliance for Educational Justice and the Center for Popular Democracy. 

"Sometimes you have to put your own health on the line to get the attention of the world," said García.

The protesters want the Board of Education to choose their proposal for the school's future, which would reopen the school as the Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology High School.

"We’re going to do whatever is necessary to keep this school and have an open enrollment school in our community,” said Stogner, a protester who has three grandchildren. “I’m hungry. But I’m not really hungry for food -- I’m hungry for justice. I’m hungry for justice for my grandbabies, for all the kids in my community."

“We live in a city where we are not valued as black and brown people,” she added.

Earlier this week, protesters met with Emanuel and officials from Chicago Public Schools to discuss the strike, but the meeting did not lead to any resolution.

"The mayor appreciates there are strong feelings about Dyett, and he understands there is a desire for a quick resolution about its future, however what's most important is the right decision," said a statement from the mayor's office. "CPS is engaged in a thorough review of Dyett, and while they are closer to a decision, they continue to weigh all the factors at play in an effort to achieve the best outcome possible -- one that will ensure a strong Bronzeville and a strong future for our children." 

 A spokesperson for Duncan said Department of Education leaders plan to meet with the protesters to hear their concerns.

“We respect the efforts of this group and worked to accommodate their plans to hold a press conference outside our building," said Department of Education press secretary Dorie Nolt in a statement. "Senior leaders at the Department will meet with representatives of the group today to hear more about their concerns. While this is squarely a local issue, we always welcome the opportunity to engage with concerned students, parents, educators and community members.”