When a then 9-year-old Asean Johnson took the microphone to challenge the Chicago Board of Education on school closings around the city, his voice never wavered. In fact, with each declaration of why education should be a right, not a privilege for all children, his voice boomed with an ignited clarity. Cities around the United States have continued to close primarily minority schools, and Chicago is no exception. Just last year, 54 public schools were closed in the city. Johnson, a student at Marcus Garvey Elementary, knew that he and his classmates could also see their school doors closed, so he did what most of us wouldn’t dream of doing at age 9, he began campaigning and calling out local politicians, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
“You should be investing in these schools, not closing them. You should be supporting these schools, not closing them,” Johnson said in his fiery speech that made the crowd roar with approval. “We shall not be moved today. We’re going to city hall; we are informing Rahm Emanuel [that] we are not toys. We are not going down without a fight.” Today, Johnson is still fighting. Ebony chatted with the fourth grader (yes, fourth grader) about the passion behind his speech, why he will continue to fight for education reform in this country and what all children can do to get involved.
EBONY: What inspired you to give you your speech? You were so passionate and it was inspirational to so many people. Where does that fire come from?
Asean Johnson: Many inspired me to give my speech at the 3-day March for Education Justice in May 2013. After speaking at meetings and hearings to save Marcus Garvey School, and listening to the cry of the community, I knew that I had to speak for all those who couldn't. My great-granddad inspired me because he always told me to fight for what I believe in and never give up. I feel I got the courage to be outspoken from my mother. She always tells me to speak my mind and use words to express my feelings. My dad took public speaking classes and he gives me advice.
EBONY: What do you do to prepare for a speech? Do you ever get nervous?
AJ: To prepare for a speech, I first read information on the topic. I knew a lot about the school closings from going to board meetings, hearings and articles in the newspaper. For the CPS (Chicago Public Schools) meetings, we only had 2 minutes to speak, so I had to practice so that I could get my message out in time. At the rally, I spoke from my heart and said what was on my mind. Sometimes I have notes or points to help me stay on the issues. I never get nervous when speaking. Actually, I get excited when I have to give a speech. I feel very powerful when speaking.
EBONY: How have politicians responded to you? Has Rahm Emanuel or any other politicians responded to you?
AJ: I have met a lot of politicians. Congressman John Lewis at the March on Washington encouraged me to continue to speak out and be a voice. I met a lot of alderman and State Representatives in Chicago, who encouraged me too. I have never met Mayor Rahm Emanuel and he did not respond to any of my letters.
EBONY: Why is education so important to you?
AJ: Without an education, how will you survive? My great-granddad and granddad are from Mississippi. They both were born in the 1930’s and they only had a 3rd grade education. They were sharecroppers and couldn’t go to school because they had to work in the field. They both taught themselves how to read and write. Now, children don’t have to work; we can go to school. Education prepares you for the future. We need those fundamentals to be successful.
EBONY: What is the biggest issue that you and your friends face in school?
AJ: The biggest issues my friends and I are facing are too many standardize test. We take so many tests that my teacher cannot teach her lessons. We miss out on art, Spanish and other classwork so we can prepare for tests. The test does not go with the lesson plan and some of my friends don’t do well on them. Some test really well and some don’t. When the scores are posted on the wall it makes my friends feel bad. We don’t like the ISAT and most of my friends are opting out of the test. If we didn’t have so many tests, we could do science projects and more learning.
EBONY: What things in Chicago would you like to see change? Many people who watch the news only hear bad things about Chicago. What do you want people to know about your city?
AJ: I would like to see the murder rate change in Chicago, more public neighborhood schools, equal funding in all schools and more activities for students. Chicago is a nice city but in Black communities we do not have what other communities have. I want people to know that many people in Chicago care about our city and we will keep fighting to take back Chicago.
EBONY: In what ways can students get involved in their schools?
AJ: One way students can get more involved in their schools is by attending school and board meetings. Students see what is going on in the school but are afraid to speak out. It is our education and we have to get involved. If their school doesn’t have the resources that they need, they should go to CPS and request them. Ask their parents to attend meetings and get them involved. If they want to fight for resources, they can let the community know and the community will help them fight. Every child deserves the right to a quality education.
EBONY: What do you like to do in your spare time?
AJ: In my spare time I like to play football and basketball. Football season is over now and basketball doesn’t start at my school until 5th grade. I enjoy gardening club at my school, I go on Thursday’s after school. I like to go to student union meetings and play with my friends. I can’t play video games during the week so if I have time on the weekend I play Madden and NBA 2K14.
EBONY: Is a career in politics in your future?
AJ: Right now I’m not sure of politics when I grow up. I would like to be a scientist or football player. I have thought about running for president or being an elected official. If I do run for office, I will handle the real issues that affect everyday people.