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Chicago Public Schools Tue Aug 25 2015

Explaining a Hunger Strike to My 3-Year-Old

By Dave Stieber

A few days ago my son and I took juice to the 12 parents and community members who are performing a hunger strike. They are protesting Chicago Public Schools' decision to close one of the last public schools in their neighborhood. Frustrations are intense towards CPS, who has not been listening to their proposal to open a new public school, which they created with real community input.

Now for those of you with children, especially 3-year-olds, anytime you do something that is out of their "normal" realm of being, you know you're about to get the third degree. After explaining what they are going to do one must be prepared to answer a bevy of questions from them, most often the ever present, "Why?"

Let me demonstrate:

Me: Buddy (referring to my son), we are going to the store to buy juice to bring to Dyett High School for parents who are there protesting.

My son: Daddy, why do they need juice?

Me: Because they aren't eating and need juice to drink.

My Son: Why are they not eating?

Me: Because they are protesting the closure of Dyett High School.

My Son: Why someone close a school?

Me: The city wants to close it.

My son: Why?

At this point, what I want to tell my son is that the way that Chicago Public Schools are run is not a democracy. That CPS and the Mayor do not care what the people actually want. That the fact that people feel forced to go on a hunger strike is ridiculous for a developed country, in this day and age.

A hunger strike is a measure of last resort in terms of a protest, because if things do not work out it can ultimately lead to death.

When Gandhi was trying to help the people of India get rid of the British colonizers, who refused to leave India, he would use the hunger strike as a means of protest to force the British to negotiate with him, when they would refuse to meet.

In California, in the 1960s, Mexican Americans were being forced to work on grape farms for very little pay, were sprayed with dangerous chemicals, and were provided inhumane work conditions. They decided to organize and form a union. The grape farm owners did not want the workers to organize. The owners would harass and intimidate the organizers. The workers tried many different tactics, such as pickets, strikes, marches, and boycotts. Eventually Caesar Chavez, who was one of the leaders, decided insufficient progress was being made. He decided to go on a hunger strike.

In both of these historical examples of hunger strikes, making the public aware of the hunger strike was the most important goal.

In India, when Gandhi would go on a hunger strike the Indian workers would often refuse to work until negotiations began again. Gandhi had such a following and the entire basis for British control relied on the Indian workers. In the case of Chavez and the grape workers, he and his fellow organizers were able to gain powerful allies in California, like Bobby Kennedy and others, who helped bring their struggle to more national stage.

The media was one of the biggest things that helped Gandhi and Chavez. The newspapers and reporters covered both of these events. The general public became more aware.

Parent led hunger strikes are not new to Chicago. In 2001, parents on the South West Side demanded a new high school. CPS ignored them even though they had built 3 new high schools on the North side. So parents staged a 19-day hunger strike that eventually led to the opening of Little Village High School.

Here in Chicago, as I write this, the 12 Dyett hunger strikers are approaching their 9th day without eating.

What are their demands?

  • They want Dyett to be re-opened as a public high school with a plan developed by the actual community.

  • They want meetings with Alderman Will Burns of the 4th Ward, who represents Dyett High School. Burns often ignores the community and is closely linked to Rahm. In the past, people have had to camp out on his lawn to just get a meeting with him.

  • They want to meet with the new CEO of CPS Forrest Claypool. A meeting is unlikely, since CEOs are at the beck and call of the Mayor. The key is to get the media covering this event. Once the hunger strike is pervasive and repeated on every news channel in the city, the people in "power" will be forced to begin talking with the Dyett 12.

But what happens if Rahm, Forrest, and Will continue to ignore the hunger strikers? Are these politicians just hoping the hunger strikers get sick and too weak from not eating that they end up in the hospital? Do these politicians just want the hunger strikers to die?

Since my son is only 3 years old, I don't say all of these things. I simply answer his last "Why?" with: "There are a few not nice people in this world. Most people who run this city are not nice people. Your mom and I want you to always be nice to people. We want you to listen to people. We want you to ask questions and be curious. We want you to be brave and do what feels right."

I tried to explain to him that, "Sometimes we are faced with things that make you feel a pull or a feeling in your heart or stomach. It is easy to walk away and close your eyes. It is not always easy to make a choice to be brave. Being brave means sacrificing your comfort to do the right thing. The parents at Dyett high school are doing just that; they are brave. "

He may not really understand what is going on, but it made him really excited to pick out what kind of juice that we were going to buy to give to the Dyett parents.

If you are interested in helping or getting involved, here is more info.

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