In Chicago, neighborhood organizers go on hunger strike — to get their school back

The Takeaway
Dyett hunger strikers

The Dyett hunger strikers led a silent march to President Obama's Chicago home followed by a vigil on September 7, 2015.

Going back to school has become a life and death struggle for some hunger strikers in Chicago, protesting the closure Walter H. Dyett High School. It’s one of 53 schools shut down by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel since 2013.

Walter H. Dyett High School was the last open enrollment high school in the Bronzeville neighborhood located on Chicago’s south side. The protests convinced Chicago school officials to re-open Dyett High — but they say it should be a high school for the arts. Protestors and community activists want Dyett High School to re-open as a specialized school that focuses on global leadership and green technology.

As of now, a compromise hasn’t been reached, which is why a dozen parents and activists have been engaged in a hunger strike — they’re now on their 26th day without food, surviving only on liquids.

April Stogner is one of those protesters. She says her group is willing to sacrifice personal comfort in the name of community activism.

Dyett hunger strikers

The Dyett hunger strikers led a silent march to President Obama's Chicago home followed by a vigil on September 7, 2015.


Courtesy of the Coalition to Revitalize Dyett

“What we’ve been fighting for is to have [Dyett] as the global leadership school,” she says. “What they’re trying to give us is not what the community asked for. They never brought us to the table to make this decision. Many people think that it’s a win for us, but we don’t see it as that — we don’t feel victorious. For that reason, we’re in day 25 of the hunger strike.”

Stonger says this urban public high school is equipped with a garden and is enabled for green technology, a growing and enterprising industry in the United States that Dyett parents want their children to be apart of.  

“We like the arts and all that, it’s all fine and dandy, but our kids can do more than dance, sing and jump around,” she says.

The mayor’s office argues that the school is inefficient, poorly insulated and outdated.

“It's tough," Mayor Emanuel said in 2013 when he announced the school closings. "It's very difficult, but it has to be done so we can achieve the goal that every parent and everybody in this city wants, which is a child to have a quality education.”

Stonger doesn’t agree with the mayor, though. She says the government should be investing in public schools, not taking away funding to be allocated toward charter schools.

“This is not what’s best for our children,” she says. “The community should be involved in these decisions, and we were not involved. We submitted this plan and have been working on this plan for well over five years. It’s funny that [Emanuel] says, ‘I’m doing what’s best for your community.’ He doesn’t know what’s best for our community.”

Like others in her group, Stonger says she’s willing to wait for change.

“I am willing to take this as far as it needs to go. I’ve been hungry for 25 days, and I’m willing to go 25 more if I need to,” she says. “We know what they’re handing us is just crumbs and they want us to feel like it’s cake. We’re not going for that. We know what good schools look like.”

Stonger says Emanuel’s plan has produced the opposite of its intended goal. She says she’s seen this first hand at her own grandson’s school, Mollison Elementary. Stonger says kids there are forced to eat lunch on the floor because Mollison became overcrowded after it merged with another school that had been shuttered.

“When you say that you have the kids’ best interests at heart, what kids are you talking about?” she asks. “It’s not the kids in Bronzeville that you’re talking about. It’s not the black and brown students that I look at every day."

Stonger says that she’s putting up a fight because the children in her neighbor — her grandson included — deserve to have access to a quality education in their own communities.

“I think we have already changed the game,” she says. “I didn’t think this would go this far. I didn’t think that people would watch people starve just for an education for their children. It’s amazing to me that we’re labeled as people who don’t care — as parents who don’t care. I don’t see anybody who doesn’t care going without food for 25 days for the education of their children, or going to jail for the education of their children. This is bigger than just Dyett — this is about human and civil rights at this point.”

This story first aired as an interview on PRI's The Takeaway, a public radio program that invites you to be part of the American conversation.

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