In the wake of the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in February, where 17 people were killed, students around the country have organized around school safety.
For some students, primarily those in white and upper-class neighborhoods, school safety seems to mean adding police to schools or calls for gun reforms. And though their efforts have not enjoyed the same national spotlight, students of color have also been organizing around solutions that work best for their schools and neighborhoods.
Black and brown students in Parkland say they face marginalization in the student movement against gun violence. Students of color at the school held a press conference in March, where they said they felt their voices were going unheard. They also noted that the Black Lives Matter movement had addressed gun violence since 2012.
Good Kids Mad City (GKMC) is one student group, formed in the aftermath of Parkland, that advocates for the needs of youth of color. The coalition organizes against violence and for investment in their communities.
Specifically, GKMC wants to see more youth employment opportunities, mental health resources in schools, and equal school funding.
Khadijah Benson, a senior at Prosser Career Academy in Chicago’s Belmont Cragin neighborhood, told Shadowproof these needs are directly related to neighborhood safety. “If every neighborhood had the resources based on their specific needs,” she said, “then it would make it so we have safer communities, healthier communities.”
In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been a primary target of youth organizing on the south and west sides of Chicago.
Emanuel campaigned as an education-friendly candidate, but he is now notorious for closing public schools in working class black and Latino neighborhoods. In 2013, he closed nearly 50 public schools, displacing some 12,000 students, the majority in low-income neighborhoods of color.
Chicago spends about $1.46 billion on policing annually, about one-eighth of the entire city budget; this figure does not include misconduct settlements, or $95 million slated for a new police academy. Too often, this focus on policing at the expense of resources like schools, mental health clinics, affordable housing, and other programs and services for communities results in the death of people of color at the hands of police.
The latest investment in policing in neighborhoods of color over spending on other resources in Chicago comes in the form of a new $95 million police academy in the city’s Austin neighborhood. Emanuel announced the construction of the “public safety training” campus in July 2017, on 30.4 acres of vacant, privately-owned land in Chicago’s Garfield Park neighborhood. It will consist of two buildings with conference rooms, labs, simulators, a dive training pool, shooting range, and space for “active scenario training.”
Community activists immediately organized against the academy in the months following, arguing money would be better spent on resources for underfunded neighborhoods of color.
“Chicago already spends $1.5 billion on police every year—that’s $4 million every single day,” reads the mission statement from the No Cop Academy coalition, a group of more than 50 neighborhood and community organizations that have been working since its announcement to oppose and ultimately shut down the academy before its built.”
“This plan is being praised as a development opportunity to help local residents around the proposed site, but when Rahm closed 50 schools in 2013, six were in this neighborhood. The message is clear: Rahm supports schools and resources for cops, not for Black and Brown kids.”
GKMC helped carry that message at the Chicago ‘March for Our Lives’ event, part of a series of national demonstrations against gun violence, as well as took part in the day-long occupation of City Hall in Chicago that activists with No Cop Academy staged in March.
The young people that drive this coalition, who live in the neighborhoods most affected by these issues, often have a better understanding of them than their alleged representatives in City Hall.
“[Chicago and Baltimore students] are both at a disadvantage in terms of how we’re perceived in the public eye,” declared Alycia Maoton, a 17 year-old junior at Kenwood Academy in Hyde Park and member of GKMC. “Especially in regards to those of the black and brown population, particularly the youth.”
“We’re not given the resources in our inner cities and neighborhoods in both Chicago and Baltimore. For example, multiple schools have been closing in Chicago in areas populated by black youth, and no money is being invested into the places where it is happening the most, so the lack of accessibility to youth centers, mental health clinics, etc.—most of us have no access to it,” Maoton added.
Baltimore has many similar inequities when it comes to resources in black and brown communities and favoring over-policing. Destiny DeShields, a 17-year-old student at Baltimore City College and an organizer with GKMC, explained that the biggest problem she sees is poverty and underfunding of resources from local government.
“The United States has a history of disenfranchising black and brown bodies, and in order to break that trend, they need to give black and brown youth the resources they have yet to see,” DeShields contended. “When it comes to violence in inner cities, they turn to violence interventions where we see a larger police presence. Which not only feeds the negative relationship between police and black and brown people but ends in another case of police brutality.”
Inadequate funding in Baltimore Public Schools has resulted in serious consequences for students.
In December, the school board voted to close five schools. Additionally, over the winter, many of the city’s schools closed, let students out early, or took other measures due to a lack of heat in them. Students were forced to wear hats, coats, and gloves in class due to low temperatures on on some occasions.
“Trying to provide a stable learning environment in these extreme conditions is unfair and inhumane, to say the least,” wrote Marietta English, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union in a January letter addressed to the CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools.
DeShields said students need to be able see themselves in a positive light and be given more opportunities to create sustainability.
“I think community and school safety looks like having the government having a racial equitable lense in order to provide capacity support for community grassroots organizations, culturally relevant trauma centers and mental health facilities for students of color,” DeShields maintained. “I believe that community leaders who have the needed funding from the government will allow there to be community building and allow the community to rehabilitate themselves against some of the injustices they face, as well as allowing students to feel the same type of safety in their school when they are walking down the street from their houses.”
In Chicago, GKMC has joined forces many times with other activist groups, particularly ones made up of youth of color, like BYP100, Assata’s Daughters, and SOMOS Logan Square.
These groups have held countless street demonstrations, press conferences, occupations of City Hall, and more to try to push their message to both the public and to a City Council that too often stays silent and ignores youth of color, when it comes to issues that affect them the most.
GKMC in Baltimore has also collaborated with other student activists. DeShields said they have protested with Baltimore Algebra Project, an organization that pays and trains youth to teach math and cultivates leadership skills.
“We have frightening similarities that are rooted in our communities from the lack of support from our we receive from our government,” DeShields added. She mentioned she was connected to Chicago students via SOMOS, a Baltimore based organization “focused on the liberation of the Latinx community,” according to her. “Both of our cities have low school funding and have a lot of school closing in majority black and brown communities. Baltimore and Chicago also have extremely high poverty and murder rates in it’s inner cities.”
Stakeholders in public education consistently decry the negative impact the closures have on students, families, teachers, and communities. They are concerned about a series of issues that arise when schools are closed in working class neighborhoods of color.
One is the displacement of students. When neighborhood schools close, students must attend school elsewhere, and in some cases are forced to cross gang lines to get to class. When students must cross gang lines in order to get to school, their immediate physical safety is in danger.
Additionally, a study from the University of Chicago that reviewed students, who were displaced in the 2013 round of closures, found students were not necessarily receiving a better education. Study co-author Marisa de la Torre told the Chicago Tribune that “nearly all the displaced students attended schools that were higher performing than the closed ones. But those schools were not substantially better than the ones that closed.”
Moreover, school closures tend to happen overwhelmingly and disproportionately in neighborhoods of color shows a pattern of structural racism and helps pave the way for gentrification, say activists.
“A clear pattern of documented racial and economic discrimination has demonstrated that while there have been advances in the nation, as shown by the election of the nation’s first black president, the federal administration’s policies have embodied education strategies that continue to perpetuate racial and class bias in the access to quality education,” said Jitu Brown, education coordinator of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, in a statement in 2013 when Chicago faced the largest wave of public school closings in U.S. history.
After the 2013 closures, the city announced a 5 year moratorium on school closings, but the district wasted no time closing more schools as soon as the moratorium expired. Chicago Public Schools announced in 2017 that it plans to close four high schools in the Englewood neighborhood, as well as the National Teachers Academy K-6 school in Little Village.
“Emanuel has orchestrated devastating school policies, from imposing lethal budget cuts while expanding charters and co-locations to slashing support for special education services for low-income Black and Brown children,” the Chicago Teachers Union said in a February statement. Emanuel was even criticized in the Illinois gubernatorial primary, when candidate Chris Kennedy said Emanuel was guilty of a “strategic gentrification plan,” which targeted African American communities.
“I believe that black people are being pushed out of Chicago intentionally by a strategy that involves disinvestment in communities being implemented by the city administration, and I believe Rahm Emanuel is the head of the city administration and therefore needs to be held responsible for those outcomes,” Kennedy said in January.
Before presiding over the 2013 school closings, Emanuel closed half the city’s mental health clinics—also located mostly in neighborhoods of color—in 2012.
Investments in neighborhood development have generally favored already wealthy areas of the city, like the Loop or other rapidly gentrifying areas. Because of this, housing prices in some neighborhoods have skyrocketed, pushing out longtime residents, while simultaneously leaving nearby low income residents with fewer community resources to rely on.
GKMC’s activists face significant obstacles, but they are encouraged by the momentum they’ve built so far.
According to Benson, she’s encouraged by the number of people who have turned out to support students as they advocate for themselves and their communities. “The fact that we have so many supporters, and we’re growing so fast as a collaborative, and we just got started.”
“I’m feeling really hopeful that we’re going to have a lot of good events and a lot of good change coming our way.”