Dyett hunger strikers organize reunion, fight for elected school board

National Director of the Journey for Justice Alliance Jitu Brown introduces himself and other Dyett School hunger strikers (left to right) Mark Kaplan, Irene Robinson, Anna Jones, Pastor Robert Jones, Jeanette Taylor-Azeez and April Stogner, during a reunion barbeque for the hunger strikers that took place in Washington Park near Water H. Dyett High School for the Arts, 555 E. 51st St., Thursday, Aug. 30, a little more than three years after the hunger strike ended. -Marc Monaghan

Contributing Writer

In August 2015, a group of South Side community members went on a hunger strike to preserve Dyett High School, 555 E. 51st St., as an open-enrollment community school after Chicago Public Schools (CPS) decided to close it in 2012, citing low enrollment and poor performance.

The decision for the strike did not come lightly; in June of 2015 only 13 seniors graduated due to CPS’ phasing out of the school – and advocates decided that enough was enough. It was thanks to the perseverance of the 12 hunger strikers, who participated in a liquid-only fast for 34 days, that CPS announced that Dyett would reopen for the 2016 to 17 year as an open enrollment neighborhood school.

Three years later, Dyett has come a long way. Earlier this month, Dyett was announced to be a part of a $10 million combined Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and CPS investment to implement the Sustainable Community Schools Initiative to better support children and families. The school, focused on three art programs (visual arts, dance and digital media) has an accelerated math program that covers five math classes in four years and offers and advanced and honors curriculum for youth in the community.

On Thursday, Aug. 30, the Dyett hunger strikers reunited for a reunion picnic at Dyett to celebrate their victory, reminisce about their experience and talk about their campaign to endorse an elected Chicago School Board.

“Being here today is a reminder to us that anything is possible if you fight for it,” said Jaribu Lee, assistant education organizer for the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO). “When CPS decided to phase out the school it was as if they were starving our school from moving forward. This was not just about saving a school but rescuing the presence of African Americans in our own community. It was a fight against gentrification.”

During the picnic, the 12 Dyett hunger strikers shared their stories about their participation in the movement to save the school. They all agreed that it wasn’t easy but that they would do it all over again.

Irene Robinson, one of the activists that was hospitalized during the strike said, “It takes a village to raise these children, it was hard but worth it.”

State Rep. Robert Martwick (D-19) was also present during the picnic and shared his promise to keep fighting for an elected Chicago Board of Education.

“No one should have to reach the point of desperation to have to starve themselves to keep a school open for our children,” said Martwick, who participated in the strike for one day. “With an elected Chicago Board of Education our communities will have the power to make our education system how they want.”

Last year, Martwick introduced a bill to provide the election of the Chicago Board of Education starting with a proposed 2019 consolidated election. The bill was passed by Senate on May 2017 and is in the process of being reviewed by the House of Representatives.

KOCO activist and lead hunger striker Jitu Brown thanked everyone for their support throughout the years and reminded everyone that “the fight is not done” and that he will continue advocating for schools in the community.