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

Publication Date: 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

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