The ride to Chicago, Illinois on August 29th was filled with anticipation; we were on the road to attend the Chicago Teachers Union’s (CTU) Solidarity Campaign Town Hall. Rush hour traffic made for many great conversations with my MTI sisters and a lot of time to ponder the road ahead of us. Two years ago, I would not have been focused on the strifes of teachers in Illinois. The night before our first day back would have been full of lesson plans and seating charts, not picket signs and strikes. But, we all felt Chicago beckoning that night. Our fellow teachers were in trouble. Memories of Chicago joining us down at the Capitol in February of 2011 played through my mind.
We walked up West Washington Avenue with MTI signs held proudly before us. Some asked questions and others gave us big grins or thumbs up. Our welcome to the windy city was perfect. We knew we were in the right place. The Chicago Teachers Union Town Hall was being held at the Chicago Temple. This venue was as perfect as our reception. Stained glass and warm smiles surrounded us. We filed into the pews and settled in for the speakers.
Dennis Kosuth, an emergency room nurse and our town hall moderator, welcomed us with these words, “The Methodist Church stands in solidarity with Chicago teachers.” It was a simple statement, but it set the tone for the evening. People filled the temple from all walks of life, parents, citizens and community members. The energy in the room was contagious. We were all gathered due to injustice, but our strength in numbers was empowering.
Next, Jitu Brown took the podium. Brown has been an organizer at Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO) for 21 years. He told us about the “intentionally underserved” communities in Chicago’s Public Schools and reminded us that a society should “base our struggles on those who have the least.” He pointed out the conflict between the degrading public schools and the school board led by billionaire Penny Pritzker, co-founder of the Hyatt Hotel. “They say there’s no money for our schools, but they have money for their hotels,” Brown declared. It was clear through his passion and his words that he was putting up a good fight. “There are no divine people, but there is divine work,” Brown said to an eager crowd. He called on this crowd to be “vessels of change” and reminded us that “we have a moral duty to do what is right or get out of the way.”
The next speakers were equally passionate. We heard from parents and from Father Jose Landaverde, from Our Lady of Guadalupe. Lupe coined teachers as “the second parents of our children.” A strong activist for immigrants, Lupe humbly reminded us of the mission of Martin Luther King Jr. Lupe asserted, “we have a dream that every child will have a right to free, quality, public education.” Angelica Cordoba, a parent, told her tale of being involved with the occupation of an area elementary school in an effort to save the community center. The 43 day Whittier school occupation was a standoff between the school district and the community. The only demand of the activists was that the decision makers showed them enough dignity to set up a meeting and talk. While this demand was eventually met, it was not enough to save the community center.
The town hall meeting made it evident that Chicago is not without hope and not without allies. Erika Clark spoke representing the group, “Parents For Teachers.” She fired up with the crowd with her passion and spoke of the connection between the treatment of teachers and the learning condition of students. “When you are badmouthing and belittling the teachers, you are disrespecting my kids,” Clark asserted. “A good contract for teachers is a good contract for our kids.” She asked the crowd to flood the Chicago Public Schools superintendent with phone calls asking for a fair contract and better schools for our kids. She boldly put her own message out to the mayor and the superintendent, “You are the ones who can prevent a strike. If it happens, it is on your hands.”
The testimony of two recently fired teachers from Social Justice High School (SoJo) was moving and cause for alarm. Katie Hogan, one of the founders of SoJo, was one of the two english teachers who was told in August that her position had been closed due to “economic reasons.” This happened after the best test scores ever at the school and her 20 years of experience was replaced with “day to day subs.” She reminded the teachers present of the need for a Union. “We wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for the Union who continues to fight for us,” she declared. Chicago Public Schools and their mayoral appointed board was not there for the teachers of SoJo. “They don’t worry about how to keep us. They worry about how to replace us and save money,” Hogan said. We could all learn something from the SoJo students, 200 of whom sat in when their two teachers were fired and AP classes were closed. In the words of Michael Brunson, secretary of CTU Local 1, “Imagine schools that can keep our children so busy that they have no time for gang activity.”
Speaker after speaker taught me about the struggles of public education and the injustices that were being served up to our underserved students and schools. So, it was with humility and trepidation that I took the microphone with my fellow MTI sisters. I was given the gift of one minute to speak. There was little that could be said in the wake of all of this destruction and fear, but with our presence we offered our support.
“We are Madison Teachers, Incorporated (MTI). We have traveled here tonight in the spirit of Solidarity. You have been there for us through our struggles, now we are here for you.
Everything I learned, I learned from a picket sign back in February of 2011. At our state Capitol one day during our “sick out” a fellow teacher held this sign, “The Capitol is My Classroom.” We are always teaching. We are teaching here tonight. As CTU fights for a just contract, MTI is preparing for our last year under a collectively bargained teaching contract. We are all fighting the same fight; it is a fight for our students and our schools and their right to a quality Public Education! It is clear that public education is under attack across the country. What our opponents have not accounted for is the strength we have when we stand united. Together, we shall overcome!”
This should be obvious, but we didn’t become teachers for the money. We didn’t do it so that we could join a Union. We became teachers to serve our students, a job the current climate is making increasingly difficult. We are all teachers. We will continue to fight alongside you in Solidarity!”
During this short speech, the crowd stood several times, clapping and cheering. They were applauding not just the spoken words, but MTI’s presence in Chicago. Before filing out of the temple, MTI teachers gathered and sang a few verses of Solidarity Forever. What this night made obvious was that we are all in this together. This lesson was validated as we exited the temple to the street. A Chicago teacher introduced herself and made a touching offer, “You know, if you ever need us to come to Madison, just say the word.”
Updates Since the Meeting: