Orwell Award Announcement SusanOhanian.Org Home


Education, Politics, and a Hunger Strike: A Social Movement's Struggle for Education in Chicago's' Little Village Community

Posted: 2008-10-17

This is from a dissertation submitted in partial
fulfillment of the requirements
for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in
Educational Policy Studies
in the Graduate College of the
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2008

Here are a few excerpts from this dissertation
showing the efforts by the Little Village
community to challenge Chicago Public School
policy that minimizes the voice of local
communities. It is low-income communities of
color, like Little Village, that have become
expendable to the new policies and goals of urban
public education. The dissertation shows how we
all have a stake in this struggle if we care at
all about democracy.


This research is an historical analysis of a

social movement that took place in 2001 at

Chicagoâs Little Village community. The movement

was inspired when the Chicago Public Schools

(CPS) failed to construct a new high school

promised three years earlier to alleviate

overcrowding in a predominantly-Mexican

communityâs only public high school at the time.

The movement reached a climax when a group of

residents held a hunger strike to bring attention

to CPSâ negligence on the issue. The methods used

for gathering data is a combination of counter-

narratives by five hunger strikers, archival

research, periodicals, internal document

analysis, journal entries, internet sources, and

peer feedback. The researcher searched for common

themes that connect the varied sources and

provides an interpretation on how key

individuals, organizations, events, and decisions

influenced democratic principles during the

movement. This includes an emphasis on how

globalization and urban policy has

disenfranchised low-income communities of color

in Chicago since the 1970s. The social movementâs

persistence to pressure public officials received

an insurmountable amount of public support and

garnered them enough political leverage to

negotiate with the CPS and commit to the

construction of the high school.

This dance of knowledge is dedicated to those who

lost their rhythm.

"My [art] are acts encapsulated in time,

âenactedâ every time they are spoken aloud or

read silently. I like to think of them as

performances and not as inert and âdeadâ objects

(as the aesthetics of Western culture think of

art works). Instead, the work has an identity; it

is a âwhoâ or a âwhatâ and contains the presences

of persons, that is, incarnations of gods or

ancestors or natural and cosmic powers. The work

manifests the same needs as a person, it needs to

be âfed,â I need to bathe and dress it."

--Gloria Anzaldua

Author of Borderlands: The New Mestiza

"There are no great men or women in this world.

Only great challenges ordinary people must take


--Rudy Lozano, Sr.


The new Board of Education reform goals

made studentsâ academic experience expendable.

With strict corporate methods, the CPS ignited an

accountability reform that dismissed the concerns

of local communities. Their priority to attract

middle- and upper-class families with better

schools and programs has neglected the immediate

concerns of the majority of CPS students who

happen to be Latino, black, and from low-income

backgrounds. Penalizing actions have reduced the

amount of funding and replaced the administration

of low performing schools. The central board has

given itself the powers to decide the faith of

schools while parentsâ and community membersâ

concerns from Local School Councils are pushed to

the side.

The Chicago Public Schools decision to

not commit to their plans of constructing a new

high school in Little Village did so without any

communication to Little Village community leaders

and residents. The social movement for the high

school was not supported by the CPS leadership

and had their backs against the wall when they

initiated a hunger strike that called attention

to the situation. The efforts by the Little

Village community successfully challenged CPS

policy that minimizes the voice of local

communities. It is low-income communities of

color, like Little Village, that have become

expendable to the new policies and goals of urban

public education. With the leverage restrictions

of LSCs, communities do not have a channel to

display their concerns to the CPS Board. The

Little Village social movement took measures into

their hands and organized a series of direct

actions that eventually garnered them negotiation

leverage with CPS officials.



In recent years, public schools have distant

themselves from democratic principles and have

aligned themselves with corporate initiatives and

goals that are detrimental to the livelihood of

low-income communities of color. According to

Chris Lubienski, author of âRedefining âPublicâ

Education,â this shift of policy âencourages a

pattern of privatization of the purpose of public

education away from one of a public good . . .â

James Porter, author of Reschooling and the

Global Future,
takes it a step further and

recognizes the threat to ârob societies of a

vital resource for sustaining democracyâ stems

from âthe growing pressure to control and limit

education . . .â in an uncertain future comprised

of a hyper-competitive global market. He goes on

to say that contemporary national and global

economies have dismissed any significant efforts

that embrace democratic principles. He recognizes

that industrial and third-world nations, who are

connected by the global economy, host an elite

class sector that benefits from current policies

and trap impoverished communities from economic


The disenfranchisement of Latino and

black low-income communities by the reform

demonstrates the corporate plans to make the CPS

system a source to breed low-wage workers on one

end of the political-economic spectrum and

college-prep professional schools that serve a

significant white and affluent student body at

the other end. It seems like the ends are to

justify the means in this effort to prepare

Chicago for the 21st century â a future that sees

the continuance of the social hierarchy imagined

by the elite. The powers that be are fully aware

of what it is going to take in order to preserve

these social conditions and that is to be in

control of the institution that grooms the minds

of our next generation.

Little Villageâs social movement proved

that a disenfranchised community is capable of

challenging the cityâs political machine and its

public policy goals that threaten the livelihood

of low-income communities. The four questions

that led the investigation of the thesis research

have resulted in the understanding of certain

components that played significant roles during

the social movement. They are:

1. The CPS Boardâs decision to not follow

through on a commitment to construct a high

school in Little Village created a political

crisis and prompted the community to organize a

social movement that pressured the CPS and the

city officials to fulfill its commitment.

2. The social movement was supported by a

community block club organization in

collaboration with a local political network that

has a long history of advocating empowerment for

disenfranchised communities through city-wide

coalitions and political representation.

3. The social movement was faced with a

dilemma that challenge grass-roots community

organizations to address democratic principles in

their struggle to gain political leverage, one

political network chose to object the high school

plans for self interests while another network

struggled to maintain democratic principles and

meet decision-making standards imposed by

external forces.

4. The social movement was met with much

resistance by a CPS system that has launched

recent initiatives to improve schools for more

affluent communities and has decentralized the

livelihood of many low-income communities of


Hunger Strikers and Democratic Principles

The hunger strikersâ effort is an example on how

ordinary individuals go to such extremes in order

to confront a political crisis in the community.

Their actions represent the ideals of a social

movement that lacked the motives of personal

gains by individuals or groups. The woman

leadership strongly advocated for community

participation and challenged the male-dominated

LVCDC when democratic practices were abandoned.

Their contribution to the research provides an

inside look into the obstacles faced by a group

led by ordinary women and how their actions and

ideals came into conflict with an allied

political network with a respected history in the

community. Their contribution to the research is

undeniably a critical component that presents the

challenges and intangibles experienced by

ordinary people who confronted a political

crisis. Their commentary shows us the dialogue

between ordinary community members and their

struggle to maintain democratic principles during

a grass-roots social movement.

The following is a series of excerpts from the

group interview. It displays key moments during

the movement and how concerns of democratic

principles, community representation, and

resistance to censorship measures were

experienced on the grass-roots level.

According to one of the hunger strikers, the

decision to go on with the strike was solely

pushed by the strikers. At first, LVCDC did not

affiliate itself with the demonstration, but then

took advantage of the strikeâs success by

associating itself with the movement. It was a

safe political tactic that would have prevented

the LVCDC from being associated with a failed

public demonstration. According to the hunger


I think that was the thing, because if it had

failed LVCDC didnât want to be

responsible/litigated with that. I think no one

saw the potential on what was going to happen.

But when they saw it was growing that is when

they started to demonstrate leadership and claim

they are a part of this. But before, the first

three days it was like, âthis is not it, itâs not

our doing, it is groups from the community.â

Soundbites for the media as well. How to spin it.

âItâs a group of individuals that got together.â

But then, real fast, âthat group was organized by

a man who worked for the organization. So, this

all happened due to the leadership of LVCDC.â

When everything was already in the local and

national media. That is when everyone came out

with their chests out claiming, âlook at what we

have done with our leadership.â But that was not

the case.

Another hunger striker explained that the LVCDC

was an ally and supporter of the movement. At

first, the strikers had no problem with having

the LVCDC represent the movement after the strike

came to a halt. However, they felt betrayed by

the LVCDC once they began to see that decisions

were bring made exclusively. In this excerpt, the

striker talks about her relationship with one of

the leading staff members in the LVCDC. She


Because I thought that [he] was going to know how

to defend the group because he contributed, he

lived it, he supported, he recognized, the base

of each one of our thoughts because he was the

only person outside our group who was permitted

to sit in during our discussions. He took notes.

For me, when I found out [he] was going to be

working there, I said, âperfect.â We have a great

person who will defend us and you will see, put

us in motion and negotiate our, ideally, the

demands of the group. Thatâs when I said we donât

need to worry. But when I began to see it wasnât

working like it was supposed to, afterwards, me

with [him], (nods head in disapproval).

Once the social movement reached a commitment

with the CPS, some of the hunger strikers felt

they were in new grounds in terms of

negotiations. Decisions on educational policy

were foreign to the group in general. They placed

trust on the LVCDC to represent the communityâs

interests and to continue to adhere to the

democratic principles that were encouraged in the

movement. According to one of the strikers,

What we felt we needed was an organization that

represented us, or we ourselves, to negotiate

because, well, I donât know, to me, the

particularities I have never recognized, I have

my ideas, but me to go over there and talk in

terms of education and all that was more

difficult, so I considered it was necessary to

have someone, but that was the point when we

slept in thinking he was capable of doing it.

Why? Because since the beginning, I thought LVCDC

was a community organization. I didnât have any

notion of what was education. With that we looked

for an organization that was dedicated in

fighting for educational rights. An organization

that knows how all of that goes. I said, âwell,

itâs an organization from the community.â Theyâre

going to be able to defend us because he and they

know the needs that exist in our community and

what was one of the ideas of the group â that the

high school was to be built by the community,

covering the needs of the community, and that we

are the ones who live it and know it, who else

knows what oneâs child needs to be educated? The

parents. And the high school is for the kids in

the community. For me, that was what we all saw

and searched for from the support of an

organization â to continue the fight like we did

initially, to fight and respect the community.

But, no.

The strikers also mentioned the struggles for

control of the strike that took place between

members of the LVCDC and the strikers. The

attempts by the LVCDC were met with resistance

from the strikers and at times would conflict

their agenda. The strikers remained persistent to

maintain a critical voice on the democratic

practices that were neglected during the

movement. According to one of the strikers,

During the strike, the strikers always met. But

we always allowed Chuy, Ricardo, and Jaime to

enter. They were the three that always were in

the meetings. In moments, Chuy wanted to control

on how things were to get done and there was one

time he told [one of the strikers], âYou go and

tell them this, to the people, or something like

this.â [The striker] sternly responded, âif you

want to tell them something, you go in front of

the people and say it! Iâm going to say whatever

comes to mind.â There were moments where he would

get frustrated because he didnât have control.

Although the strikers and the social movement

treaded on new waters, they understood very well

that it was vital for them to contest decisions

that were made without the publicâs input. LVCDC

members and staff were more familiar with policy

protocol that has to be met in order to follow

through with the development of the high school

and so forth, but it was the concerted efforts of

the strikers that kept democratic ideals at the

forefront of the high schoolâs development. The

following excerpt captures the thorny

relationship that the hunger strikers had with

the LVCDC. According to the hunger striker,

This is what I would tell them, âI am very

ignorant. I donât know anything.â But I think, I

think, I did not go to school, I did not go far

in education, but I think and I have my proper

ideas. I always told that to Chuy. I am that

little rock in your shoe. I saw many times when I

began to talk Chuy would nod his head, knowing

that I was taking from what he wanted to put in

the group. Sometimes we felt that if we spoke, it

wasnât right to speak. But at the same time, we

could not keep quiet. In reality, we did not want

to keep quiet even if it was silly stuff. But we

said what we thought and that was something they

could never control, never, in that respect, no.

Methodological Review

The several forms of resources used for

the thesis research helped the author gain a

dynamic understanding of the social movement that

took place in Little Village in 2001. By

gathering data from archival research,

periodicals, internal document analyses,

interviews, journal entries, internet sources,

and peer feedback, the author highlighted

important dates, events, and statements that

contributed to the thesis.

Narratives by the five hunger strikers who

participated in the community effort provided an

insiderâs perspective that was not available

through other sources. Their narratives helped

the author understand the aspirations of

democratic ideals that took place during the

movement. These ordinary community members spoke

on the challenge to garner political leverage in

a political arena that is run by the cityâs

democratic machine and its affiliates. Their

discussion on the Independent Political

Organizationâs (IPO) actions that went against

democratic principles helped the author view a

dilemma that is often faced by community

organizations that are dependent on the funding

of external forces. The struggle to build the

high school with an alternative curriculum that

embraced the values of social justice and

democratic principles cannot happen if the

developing process dismisses these values. Their

commitment for a better education in their

community has led to the schoolâs construction.

Their participation in this research has led to a

better understanding of the challenges faced by

ordinary citizens from a disenfranchised

community that values education.

The Little Village Community Development

Corporation (LVCDC) supported the research by

making internal documents available to the

author. The documents helped the author learn

about the organizing tactics that supported the

social movement. LVCDC executive director also

provided his masterâs thesis that captured the

social movement from his perspective as an

experienced politician from the IPO political

network. His contribution helped the author

understand the strategies and challenges that the

LVCDC organization faced during the movement. It

also helped the author organize a timeline of

events that took place during the movement. The

LVCDC self-analysis report made available to the

author demonstrated that the organization is

aware of a dilemma in democratic principles when

the leadership focuses on efficient modes of

practice and the accountability of community

volunteers become uncertain.

Local Chicago periodicals and magazines helped

the author with important events that are

relevant to the research. Their coverage of the

social movement and CPS administration helped the

author understand the lack of concern displayed

by Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas and his

refusal to negotiate with Little Village

activists. Their contributions also include over

fifty years of coverage on the cityâs politics,

the Chicago Public Schools, and the growth of the

UNO and IPO organizations.

Scholarly publications contributed to the

research by offering a wider perspective on key

issues that pertain to public school reform.

Special reports that focus on the Chicago Public

Schools were used to provide a closer look on

issues that challenge the school system.

The researcher collaborated ideas with

interviewees and other community members who have

participated in and/or benefited from the school

opening. These participants engaged in the

interpretation of the case study and provided

feedback. The researcher understands that

different perspectives were provided by different

individuals and those are the dynamics that were

identified through the interpretation. The hunger

strikers provided insight on the challenges that

ordinary citizens face during political crises

while the LVCDC offered an inside perspective on

the challenges faced by a community organization

associated with an outsider from the cityâs

political machine. After a thorough analysis of

the varied resources, the researcher identified

four themes that connected the distinct interests

of community organizers, LVCDC, UNO, and the CPS.

Those are: community participation in public

school policy, democratic principles in community

organizing, decision-making powers in public

school policy, and the interests of policymakers.

This was the basis of the four main questions

that led to the results of the research.

Closing Remarks

The results of the thesis research

demonstrate that it is crucial for marginalized

communities to organize their residents and

demand to participate in local public school

policy that affects the education of their youth.

Empathetic educators and policymakers need to

understand that the democratic principle of

community participation is essential for

disenfranchised communities to develop a social

network and invest in their childrenâs education.

There are layers of obstacles that prevent

community concerns from intervening with current

policy that is designed by corporate interests.

The Little Village social movement showed us how

the expanding goals of corporate globalization

threaten the livelihood of marginalized urban

communities. The city administrationâs goals to

make Chicago an international city have attacked

low-income communities of color and their

attempts to revitalize poor educational

conditions in their local schools. The effort to

organize must be persistent and able to face

adversity in terms of sustaining support and

being attacked with political ploys. Little

Villageâs movement was attacked by the UNO

organization and then faced a democratic

principle dilemma with the LVCDC. These are

challenging moments that have the power to defeat

a communityâs endurance to advocate for

participation in school policy. Only a

strengthened social movement has the ability to

garner enough leverage to contest challenges that

threaten the ideals of democratic principles and

community participation in school policy.

It is important for communities to

understand how and why public school policy is

implemented. Implemented policy is not

coincidental and there are plenty of layered

motives that are engrained in recent school

policies that have basically dismantled the

public school structure. New policies have

decentralized poor communities and will continue

to do so until they are met with a strong

resistance. These affected communities can no

longer wait for Board reps to consider their

educational concerns and make it clear that the

democratic principles of community participation

in public school policy is under attack. These

communities have been beaten down by the rise of

living costs and the lack of economic

opportunities. The ability to organize a social

movement is extremely difficult under these

circumstances. It is the essence of hope for

change than can bare such conditions and reach

out to fellow communities and organizations who

believe in the principles of democratic

participation. The CPS plans to continue its

Renaissance 2010 initiative which includes more

school closings. Disenfranchised communities need

to learn the lessons of the 1980âs citywide

movement that led to the Local School Councils

reform. The power of a cross-ethnic coalition

must not be underestimated.

The city-wide coalition movement that led to the

establishment of the LSCs demonstrates that

alternatives are possible. It took a grand effort

by so many individuals and organizations to push

an educational agenda that included a significant

amount of community participation in local school

policy. The effort was also supported by a city

administration familiar with the importance of

coalitions and community concerns. The LSC was no

coincidence and was the result of a cross-ethnic

political coalition that emerged from the 1970âs

and led to Harold Washingtonâs tenure as mayor of

the city of Chicago. After Washingtonâs death,

the new Daley administration reversed the forms

of support for the LSC and watched the CPS system

deteriorate. This paved the way for the

Commercial Club of Chicago to draw plans for a

new CPS reform that limited LSC powers and served

corporate interests. Amid protests from community

activists and educators, there was never enough

pressure to challenge the new corporate-induced


New Circumstances

The 21st century presents us a domain of public

school policy that draws an illusion of

democratic schooling by introducing the concept

of charter schools and school choice. The central

powers of the CPS have dominated policy over

decentralized communities which are predominantly

Latino and African-American. The accountability

banner and the call for charter schools threaten

the status of traditional public schools in these

communities. The movement is part of a national

campaign to diminish public schools into a

private entity. Former CEO Paul Vallas has taken

this experience with him to the public school

districts of Philadelphia and post-Katrina New

Orleans. The No Child Left Behind movement has

penalized failing schools and stripped policy

powers from local community leaders in the most

vulnerable urban communities â New Orleans is an

extreme case where a new charter school system is

overlooked by new Superintendent of the Recovery

School District, Paul Vallas.

While Little Village Lawndale High School

will continue to meet challenges in the future

such as student performance, teen violence, and

teacher quality, public schools, in general, are

also faced with an uncertainty that is threatened

by the national movement to privatize education.

Urban communities, overwhelmingly comprised of

low-income Latinos and African-Americans, are

faced with public school systems that are

neglecting their immediate concerns, installing

curricula with minimal critical thinking skills,

and preparing their youth to a lower working

force. These efforts by public schools

accommodate a new political economy that is

influenced by globalization. Chicagoâs

administration has gone out of its way to prepare

itself as an international city at the expense of

low-income communities which are predominantly

Latino and Black.

Little Villageâs social movement is an historical

moment due to the circumstances faced by ordinary

citizens. Democratic ideals of community

participation and the investment in a sound

education for local youth garnered enough support

to rattle a CPS that clearly dismissed the

communityâs concern. The victory was earned due

to the support given by community activists,

LVCDC, and educators. Also, the movement is a

consequence of the growing number of Latinos in

Chicago and the state of Illinois in the last two

decades. As matter of fact, one of the hunger

strikers also participated in a Latino student

demonstration at the University of Illinois at

Urbana-Champaign in 1992. This student movement

symbolized the growth of Latinos in the state of

Illinois and the rising demand for improved

recruitment and retention of Latino students,

staff, and faculty. Over a 150 students from

different ethnic backgrounds held a sit-in at the

universityâs administration building in order to

bring attention to the institutionâs negligence

of Latino concerns.

The Little Village movement struggled with

internal clashes that emerged from political

practices and democratic ideals. The movement

proved the pains and struggle that individuals

undergo to attain democratic principles in times

of social crises. While there should be no

justification for averting democratic principles,

there needs to be a channel of communication

between allies who share common goals and common


Regardless of their past, political networks are

limited to reaching high aspiring democratic

ideals. It is in their interests to protect their

network by streamlining decisions and

opportunities to groups and individuals who they

consider loyal to their efforts. However,

community activistsâ efforts to defend democratic

principles should not be dismissed. Political

networks, such as LVCDC and UNO, must come to

terms with their democratic dilemma and maintain

relations with their critics. It does not make

any sense for organizations and individuals to

completely cut off relations due to differences.

Disenfranchised communities are vulnerable to

divide-and-conquer tactics by external forces.

They cannot afford to let globalization and its

corporate agenda destroy their communities even


Healing and Hope

Little Villageâs effort to build a community high

school in the middle of a CPS charter school

movement is an inspiration of hope for

communities who face similar conditions. Although

the high school will always be met with new

challenges, due to the everyday challenges faced

by the local youth and penalizing and negligent

policies of the CPS, it stands as a symbol of

community and empowerment because of its history

and the democratic principles it stressed. This

movement should be a call for all communities of

color whose livelihoods are threatened by

gentrification and poor public education. The CPS

has already drawn out their plans and will

continue to close down schools and open charter

schools - which do not include Local School

Councils for community participation.

Chicago has not seen a coalition movement across

ethnic lines since the 1980âs. Community

organizations throughout the city face similar

challenges in terms of depending on external

interest groups for funding and maintaining

democratic principles. Community participation

and input through Local School Councils is what

is at stake. On a grander scale, communities must

organize in order to confront gentrification

efforts that will decentralize their communities.

Communities need to build a city wide coalition

among different ethnic groups and pressure CPS

officials to address immediate concerns. Many

times, community organizations compete for

funding and services and may not collaborate with

each other. These organizations need to regroup

and find a way to heal broken relationships with

fellow community organizations who invest in

community empowerment.

It is in these healing efforts that open dialogue

can take place and commit towards a campaign for

more community participation in public schools.

Also, it is important for community organizations

to establish relationships with community members

and include them in making decisions. For now,

CPS will rollover each community one-by-one until

there is a serious confrontation. Only a

coalition of neighborhoods can gain enough

leverage to contest current educational policy. A

healing experience between conflicting community

organizations is necessary so communities can

collaborate resources and prepare residents to

resist decentralization. The struggle in Little

Village is a light of hope for disenfranchised

communities in the midst of a corporate takeover

in the CPS. The effort to attain more community

participation in school policy must be urgent. It

starts with embracing democratic principles in

community meetings, in political networks, and in

the classroom.

The strike didnât bring the people. For 2 years,

there was a lot of talk and when this happened,

people said, âlook, thereâs action!â The people

knew what it was about.â

------ Hunger striker

More Commentaries

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of education issues vital to a democracy. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information click here. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.