Wednesday, August 22, 2007

What Anti Military-in-Public Schools Activists Look Like

Sheena Gibbs (American Friends Service Committee), Neal Resnikoff (Save Senn) and Jesus Palafox (grad of Curie High School), from left, talking to a reporter after the August 22, 2007 Chicago Board of Education public meeting.

Keeping it Real at the Board of Education

Something about working for the Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) “Central Office” must bring out the worst in people. First, the beefy guys checking IDs were rude—“Yeah, well, I wasn’t here when you checked in” one said when I explained that I had already shown my ID to another guy, who recorded it, “Right there”…(he pretended not to see)—when I had to come back downstairs to get the “hall pass” they forgot to give me after they wrote down my driver’s license number. Then, the guards were rude when a group of us came downstairs from the holding pen on the 19th floor to back up our speakers in the 5th floor meeting room—“I didn’t call upstairs, so why did you come down here?” one crabby woman said, as we tried to explain that our group was up next. “They don’t always go in order,” she interrupted, even though this time they did. We missed the first part of Sheena Gibb’s (American Friends Service Committee) two minutes, haggling for admittance.

Really, everyone in Chicago should take this trip at least once. Head down to 125 S. Clark, CPS headquarters, to attend the monthly public Board meeting (every fourth Wednesday, 10:30 to about 12:30). This was only my 2nd time and afterwards I resolved to be at as many of these meetings as I can—they are packed and pungent, by which I mean sharp and strong and spicy. Folks at this month’s meeting raised issues from African values and better software, to military recruitment in schools and derelict CPS buildings. Fascinating.

A flock of yellow-shirted Chicagoans were clustered around the building’s entrance as I raced to the meeting. I saw a friend, Diom Miller Perez, and his family, Susan Mullen and Diego Miller (see them in the picture above), and stopped to talk about the group and its issue. Dion told me that residents of Little Village were calling on CPS to take care of two empty buildings—former schools, present fire hazards, at best—in the ward.

Everyone entering the building gets the full CPS treatment—metal detectors! and the aforementioned mean guards—before making their way to the public meeting. Get there earlier than the meeting start time of 10:30, if you want to speak. And only two people can speak about the same issue, and everyone gets a tight two minutes to sum it all up. I arrived ten minutes late and the schedules were already completed and copied. Of course, you won’t find this info on the CPS website—you’d almost suspect they really don’t want any dialogue with us, “the public.”

The main area was packed, I guess, so I was sent to what could be called the nether realm of the building, except that it was up—19th floor!—not down. But in another way, the whole thing was down, a back-door simulation of democracy. The room was smallish, filled with hard chairs and two (why two? twice the pretence of participation?) big monitors on which Rufus Williams, Board President, opened the meeting with a warning that everyone better be polite. Next up were two of the Little Village residents, who testified in Spanish. They described the decaying buildings and their attempts to get CPS to deal with the ruins. They asked for action, “Ahora!” My room hooted when their translator changed the call for action, “Now!” to “As soon as possible...” Duncan and Williams fluffed about how the issue was complicated, as it involved several agencies, but resolved to look at the issue again. Again, the room hooted—“They said the same thing last year!”

This is about when I followed Neal Resnikoff to the 5th floor to stand in support of our speakers. Both he and I were at the meeting as representatives of a citywide coalition (including Academics for Civilian Education, Southsiders for Peace, Save Senn, Gay Liberation Network, American Friends Service Committee and more) working to remove the military presence from our city’s public schools. This is when the guard showed her cranky stuff and we got delayed before getting in to hear Sheena Gibbs, who was on point.

Sheena spoke for the coalition, calling for three things—an end to the open access that military recruiters currently seem to have (illegally) to students in CPS—following them around the halls and even calling them out of class to “pitch their product”; equal access by counter-recruiters to the schools when military recruiters were present; and the distribution of opt out forms (NCLB requires that names of students be given to the military (these forms would allow students to remove their names from those lists) to all high school students during the first week of school, those names registered and removed during that week, and accurate records kept.

After Sheena spoke a recent graduate of Curie High School, Jesus Palafox, gave a short personal account of recruiters run amuck. They (we) got a blah blah response from the Board’s legal counsel and Prez Williams (they’d comply, they thought they were complying, nobody said there were problems with their compliance, they want to meet with reps of the group to discuss, blah blah). Arne Duncan said nothing. When Sheena and later, Jackson Potter, a teacher at Englewood High for five years, tried to ask clarifying questions the Board folks clipped them off—“Can I finish?" snapped the Board's legal guy.

A weird subtext—authenticity. Williams asked our speakers where they went to school. I kind of get it—experience counts. But it’s not everything; imagination, empathy, and yes—education—count for a lot, too. Still, Williams’ focus on realness made me wonder—what’s more real to him—Northside College Prep or Englewood? Robeson or Payton? Does he apply his standard across-the-board (so to speak)? Where did CPS CEO Duncan go to school? [the University of Chicago Laboratory School, it turns out]

Media reps from Ch. 7, Sun-times, and Chicago Tribune clustered around Sheena and Jesus as our group left the room, catching points and asking follow-ups. They seemed to listen. Will the Board?