“What do you mean when you say I’m rebellious/’Cause I don’t accept everything that you’re telling us?”– “You Must Learn,” Boogie Down Productions
2013 saw the largest closing of public schools in U.S. history—50 in Chicago. As organizers and activists, the decision to close schools for many of us was a ‘Hiroshima moment.’ It also positioned Mayor Rahm Emanuel as Public Enemy #1 in the eyes of community activists working on education reform, most of whom took issue with the strategy of closing ‘failing’ schools and relocating students to better performing ones in proximity as a means to improve student outcomes. That the mayor will now have to fight for his seat in a run-off election should come as no surprise.
However, this issue of closed schools, wasn’t just about the institutions or students themselves, but rather, the lack of accountability, the incongruity in instruction and the structural inequity in the actual communities they serve. Many of us felt that the decision to close these schools was yet another move in the long economic war that is being waged against Black neighborhoods across the country.
The closings of these institutions represent the final divestment in communities that are shells of what they once were; another vacant building to contribute to the hopelessness that is so stifling in these neighborhoods. For example: Englewood, once a vibrant working class community on Chicago’s South Side, has played host to so many failed attempts at revitalization and seen so many resources squandered over the past 20 years. In the last 10 years, Englewood had already undergone 9 school closings, turnarounds or phase-outs before losing an additional six in the 2013 school closings.
As servants in our communities, we know that it has been left up to us to create an innovative solution. Our response was the Village Builder Collective, a planning agency that will examine how these spaces could be repurposed. We refuse to wait for the powers that be to talk about what’s next for these spaces. Standing on the foundation of self-determination, we want to figure out how this community can use human capital, social activism, community engagement and revitalization strategies to spur economic development by repurposing vacant school buildings.
We began with a series of community meetings with key stakeholders, from City Hall to 63rd Street. What we found is that the government has to make a larger commitment to neighborhoods, and not piecemeal or silo our innovations. We also discovered it is the vision and ideas from within that will allow these communities to rise to rise again.
Economic support from residents and from our government will be the catalyst to transform our spaces. Private and public partnerships can’t just exist as buzzwords and good PR; they have to be meaningful and sustainable. We will continue to push, occupy and demand that our communities will not waste away like many of the deteriorating structures that we used to call schools. We are going to demonstrate that this economic war happening in Englewood and in the City of Chicago needs to come to an end and our communities shall be victorious.
Asiaha Butler & Anton Seals, Jr.