Interview with Organizers from the Chicago Student Union

The Chicago Student Union (CSU), the first high school student–organized union in the history of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) system, formed over the months following the controversial closing of 49 elementary, middle, and high schools by the city of Chicago Board of Education in spring 2013. Initiated, led, and represented by students from high schools across the city of Chicago, the mission of the Chicago Student Union (CSU) is to support and unite the student voice. Two AREA Chicago editors, Jacob Klippenstein and Sarah Mendelsohn, met with three leaders of CSU on a Sunday afternoon at Harold Washington Library: Ross Floyd, a junior at Jones College Prep, Avelardo (Ave) Rivera, a sophomore at Whitney Young High School, and Oswaldo Gómez, a senior at Lincoln Park High School. As the union’s first full semester draws to a close, we asked them to reflect on their experiences with the organization. The following interview has been edited for publication.

AREA: Please tell us how you first got involved with CSU.

Ross Floyd: I first became involved with CSU when, on May 20 of my sophomore year, there was a school boycott that I didn’t even know about…It was part of a teachers’ protest about the 49 school closings, and I organized a group of students from Jones, about 30 students, to meet in our lunchroom after school and march down to Daley Plaza to join the rally. And there I met Oswaldo and a senior who just graduated named Israel Munoz. We began talking and they introduced me to their organization that they had . . . and I became a member, and ever since then we’ve been organizing as the Chicago Students Union.”

Ave Rivera: I became involved—I don’t know the exact date, sorry [laughs]—it was one of the days that there was a big rally for the 50 school closings in Chicago. And actually, before Ross had invited me to join a meeting, I had organized some students to join a rally downtown, and there I met Israel. We didn’t talk that much then, but I met him…and basically fate took its path, and Ross messaged me on Facebook, “Come to this organizing meeting, it’s for students in Chicago.”

Oswaldo Gómez: I became involved around the same time as Ross, for the same reasons: There was a lot of organizing happening in my school, especially around the issue of teachers being fired, and a lot of secrecy happening within my school. There was an unexpected walk-out that my school was a part of . . . And one day, my friend and I—Cian, who’s also one of the main organizers of the CSU—decided, Why not, you know, why not try something, why not do something for our teachers. And it happened, and it ended up blowing up on the news. And we realized that there were other students doing this. We started networking with other students, and I met Israel at an afterschool conference, or some kind of club, and we started talking and then we became friends, and he . . . invited us to one of the meetings for the organization that is now Chicago Students Organizing to Save our Schools (CSOSOS). So we just decided that we were going to become involved, we decided to form the union.

AREA: The connection between CSOSOS and CSU still feels a bit unclear—can you say a bit more about the formation of CSU, in relation to CSOSOS?

RF: “When the 49 schools were being closed, there was a lot of anger in Chicago. How could they do this to all of these elementary school kids, and no one knew what to do with this anger. Teachers were represented, CPS was represented, but there was really no student voice. I think a lot of students were really frustrated by that. And so Israel, and a bunch of other students around the city, started meeting with teachers about how to start a union. And they all met, and reached out to friends who they knew would be interested, and, as Oswaldo said, that created CSOSOS, which I was a member of, and they were all members of. Since CSOSOS was founded by Israel, one of its goals was to turn it into a union—to give that stability, to have a long-term organization that could hold a greater number of students. Over the summer we saw that we had time to turn it into a union, so we started holding meetings about that, getting into a lot of talk on that, how to make it work, and we just turned into the union.

AR: Over the summer it was kind of just a big decision that we had to make, about whether CSOSOS was just going to continue, or whether to let CSOSOS fade out, as CSU comes in . . . It was a big collective of students and we decided as a collective, that we actually wanted this, we wanted our voices to be represented, as the Chicago Students Union. So we decided to let CSOSOS fade out.

RF: Several students decided to continue on to organize as CSOSOS, because they wanted to continue to work on with the Albany Park Neighborhood Council, so there’s still a Chicago Students Organizing to Save our Schools, which works mainly in the Albany Park Neighborhood, and we support them and have good feelings for them, but they’re two separate organizations now.

AREA: What was it that seemed more powerful about the idea of a union? And, what have been some of the challenges of forming a union?

OG: The connotation that comes with a union is powerful. It’s very stable, as Ross mentioned, and it’s a long-term thing, which is exactly what we wanted. We wanted to unify the students’ voice, and be represented as one.

RF: What we tried to do also was to try to provide a structure for us to reach out into schools with the union.

OG: I think it was also a matter of bringing together more issues that broaden the spectrum of things we wanted to do. I think Ave touched on this, when CSOSOS came about, it was a very specific issue that they were all fighting for and advocating for. But we realized that, after coming together, after having meetings, after just being part of an organization, there were other issues that students wanted to talk about, and wanted to have a voice on. So I think that was one of the main reasons, if not the main reason, why we moved towards creating a union. Because we wanted every student to be a part . . .

OG: We wanted a form where we could all express our thoughts and everyone can have a voice. On paper it all seemed perfect, but it’s not always that efficient . . . Each school does things differently—I think one of the reasons why we decided to have a structure where we would have out reach to individual schools . . . comes from that idea that all schools are different, and they want to handle things differently. So when we were coming up with an organization, we decided to create the individual chapters, and I think that was one of the biggest steps forward we took . . . Did we model it after anything? Not really—it was just thought of.

RF: It’s been really hard to garner interest from students. Because, I think a major thing that’s not understood a lot of the time by the public is how busy students lives are—between taking AP classes, trying to maintain a social life, getting all their homework done, trying to get ready for college, students are really busy. So coming and asking them, “Hey, care about an issue that may or may not pertain to you, “hey, come organize”—it’s not the most appealing thing. So it takes a lot of hard work to get that interest. But as hard as it is I think it’s even more rewarding when it works. When you see a group of students who are as diverse as Oswaldo said come together and agree on something, work towards it, have an action . . . some of my best memories have come from our actions where we’ve shown real power.

AR: I think something else that makes the union a rewarding experience is that every student’s so diverse, and, like Oswaldo said, Chicago’s such a diverse city . . . Different kids have such different perspectives on what CPS should be like, and what the city should be like. So if we have students from the West Side, North Side, South Side, Northwest Side, all coming together, and every community has different issues, this is also a scope, per se, of the different issues that students have.

OG: This creates a very beautiful political scene inside the school. From being with these kids for so long, and we spend a lot of time together, they’re sort of a perfect political scene out there, because every school is different and every school wants to do things differently . . . And every individual who goes to that school has his own thoughts on the ways that things should be. But at the end of the day we all have this one goal, like Ave said, which is improvement, and development, and creating a better tomorrow for our schools . . . because this is for us, for our own betterment, everyone is willing to work together, even if there are a few disagreements along the way.

RF: We see a lot of systematic issues going on right now—systematic racism, funding that’s not going where it needs to be diverted—so it’s a lot of things that are harder to fight as issues. When you’re trying to get a kid interested in a bigger funding idea of the CPS budget, it’s a lot harder to get kids’ support for that than it is to tell them that 50 schools are being closed . . . And so if there’s an issue with high interest, we’ll get high turn out, if there’s an issue with low interest, we’ll get low turnout.

AREA: And so at this point you’re meeting weekly? A core group is meeting weekly and sometimes it’s bigger and sometimes it’s smaller?

RF: Exactly.

AREA: How does the relative privilege of one school or another affect the way that you’re doing outreach, and the way that you think about bringing different voices into the union?

RF: It’s been a lot of different schools that have been affected by this, schools on the South Side, on the Southwest side that have faced the harshest budget cuts, as well as the Northwest side . . . These are the schools that are most affected and we want to outreach there—they’re the schools where kids who go there are often poverty stricken, where they can’t eat a good meal for breakfast, and they don’t have good books to use, they don’t have air conditioning . . . And the other side of that is that it’s really hard to outreach to these kids, because a lot of them have given up hope on CPS. They’ve almost accepted defeat, like, “This is the school I go to, it’s not a good school, there’s nothing I can change about it.” Because this is what they’ve had to deal with for their whole lives. I’m not saying that all kids who go to these schools are like this. The best organizers have come from these schools, for example, Israel who I think really got this off its feet, went to Kelly, which suffered some of the biggest budget cuts. They lost their entire band. Over four million . . . So, when you’re able to get into these schools this is where the best organizers come from.

OG: A lot of apathy comes from these schools, and like Ross said, it’s really difficult to get into these schools . . .

AREA: What makes it difficult?

OG:Sometimes it’s really hard to tell a student, “This thing is going to be productive, you’re actually going to be rewarded by this, and your school is going to change from this.” Sometimes you don’t see direct changes right away, especially with things like social justice, or funding for education. You know, just because you march somewhere, just because you deliver a letter to the mayor, doesn’t mean your school is going to get the classrooms or the teachers it deserves. It’s a long process, and it’s a long-term solution that we’re looking for. But at the same time, you need to give students an image that things are going to change and that’s sort of difficult to do. I think it’s interesting that a lot of students who do become organizers actually come from the other spectrum, the other side of the coin, which is the better schools. Those schools, whether it’s Jones or Whitney Young, those schools are privileged in certain ways, but [there are students who] still want to engage with these other schools, still want to be part of the discussion, even if it means saying, you know, why is my school getting this much funding, it’s not fair. But, sometimes that’s not the case, and if you’re being funded, you don’t care.

AR:Another thing that’s been difficult from a more basic perspective is that we have our meetings downtown, and the schools that are being most affected are on the South Side, Southwest Side, and . . . it’s difficult for those kids to come up north, or even to downtown. I guess transportation, being out late at night, those little things, they all add up to the difficulty of a student being able to come to a meeting downtown. I mean it’s hard, I live on the Northwest Side and it’s difficult to come down.”

AREA: Do you guys have a budget at all?

RF: No, we have no budget, the only way to garner a budget based on student organizing would be to give dues, if you want to be part of the organization here’s what you have to pay. And we had a conversation on that, and the organization was split, but when it came down to a vote, the organization went against it, because we wanted to be appealing to all students.

AREA: It’d be another barrier . . .

RF: Yeah, it’d just be another barrier . . . So if we have an action and we need a bus to get us there, or we need to make flyers, that’s when we’ll reach out to adult allies, and we’ll say, “We really need your support here. Can you make 100 copies of this flyer for us at your office?” And they’ll say yes, and they’ll say, “We’ll pay for your buses” . . . CTU has been instrumental in providing that outside support that students just aren’t capable of having, whether it be monetary funds or greater connections.

AREA: What are the models of grassroots organizing that you’re looking to? There have been various ongoing efforts to organize to fight some of the systemic issues you’re describing . . . How much are you engaging with other organizations, or the history of grassroots organizing in Chicago?

RF: So, how can we organize to solve the problems that are making it hard for us to organize?

OG: I think that’s a really tough question, and definitely something we deal with at every meeting, but I think the individuality of each school sort of brings up those individual grassroots solutions . . . I know when the closings were hitting last year a lot of schools were making their own individual student movements, regardless of a Chicago student organization or whatever, they were standing up for their own rights, and voicing their own opinion as a school . . . and as students, as individuals

RF: One thing I think we’ve learned, reflecting on it, is that the best way to fight an issue is to have numbers. So it’s a process of how can we gain numbers to fight an issue. . . .But in order to get numbers you have to solve this problem, and in order to solve this problem you have to have numbers . . . And I think, as Oswaldo was saying, we have to first get into these schools and spread the issues around, and then we can get the numbers. The way to tackle these problems is to find winnable issues, or fightable issues, where we can get students to show that they have power. And from there we can get bigger and fight a bigger issue and win that, and then find a bigger issue and keep going. Until we’re a very powerful force. And I think that’s the path we’re on, it’s just finding the issues we can win . . . If there’s an issue, and every meeting is jam-packed, and we’re like, “OK, we need five more minutes. Can everyone stay for five more minutes?” And people are like. “YES,” and they want to and they want to come back the next day and work on it . . . If we have an issue, that shows how high interest is going to be and we can overcome more barriers.

AR: When I think of CSU and its power, I think of that phone game of that little worm that runs around—“Snake”—trying to get its body pieces and it gets bigger and bigger and bigger. That’s what I think about it [laughs] because there are different obstacles that you have to go through and then you get a bigger piece of your body, and another piece of body, and you get bigger. And then you keep doing that until you win the game, I guess? I’ve never won the game [laughs], but I think that there are going to be barriers that take pieces of your body away, but at the end of the day, there’s always going to be that wanting to get bigger, and with CSU the issues are actually what help us get bigger . . . If we go back to Chicago history, there’s kind of never been a peaceful time . . . whether it be the student boycott of ’63, or the CTU boycotts in the last [40 years], what brings people together . . . is the will to collaborate with other organizations . . . We work alongside CTU, just as we work alongside VOYCE [Voices of Youth in Chicago Education], and we would like to work alongside FLY [Fearless Leading by the Youth], and we would like to work alongside CSOSOS.

RF: I think that’s definitely more of a long-term aspiration for the Chicago Students Union, is going out there and working with community organizations and grassroots organizations, but a fear in the short term is that if we reach out to these already established grassroots organizations and try to work together while we’re still trying to make sure that we have our feet on the ground, it’d be very easy to be taken over or to lose sovereignty as an organization. So we really want to make sure that we have a good set up and a good base, to make sure that that forum for students is organized, and then we can reach out to adult organizations, or other organizations led by adults, but I think for right now, our main concern has still been to provide that safe place for students to come and share their voice.

OG: I think we’re all very conscientious about the connotations when it comes to the history of Chicago, when it comes to movements and uprisings and everything. I think we all understand that we have a legacy to continue, and we all keep that in the back of our minds, whether it’s the boycott of ’63, or whether it’s 2012 and the teachers finally standing up against something. I think we all understand that, but we can’t model our organization in anyone’s image . . . And we definitely acknowledge other organizations, we definitely understand that their support is something we will want in the future, but I think our biggest issue right now is coming together and fixing the problems within the union, just so we can keep moving forward.

AREA: Have you been doing readings as a group? How has CSU affected the way you understand education?

OG: Being part of the movement really changes your perspective on education. You really start to see education as something more than just a desk, a pencil, and a classroom . . . I know I’ve seen this with me, but I know a lot of students start to take their education more seriously and as a personal thing, where it’s for your own benefit. But it has a lot to do with you being the individual who’s going to make it better for yourself. You can’t expect a teacher to tell you, “This is what you’re gonna learn and that’s it.” You need to take it outside of the classroom.

RF: I think part of your question was about, “how do we take education into our own hands?” And I think the idea of hearing student voice is taking education into our own hands. In my personal experience—I’ve only been in Chicago since the beginning of high school—when I was a freshman and sophomore, and sophomore year it really hit home, when the teachers went on strike . . . Where was the student voice during the teacher strike? When you watched the five o’clock news you had Rahm Emanuel giving his prepared statement, there’s Karen Lewis and there’s two seconds of a student saying, “I support my teacher, teachers need to get back into school,” but there was no real sense of a student voice that mattered . . . Over the summer and into this school year, if you were at a protest you saw a large student body there. If you saw a Board of Education meeting, you saw 30 students there in the front two rows. That’s something we’ve been instrumental in organizing. Because even though we stand in line with the teachers on many issues, sometimes we’ll disagree on an issue . . . And very rarely does the CPS administration represent what the students believe. So we really need an organization of students there so that we can get our beliefs, so that a student watching TV can be like, “Yeah, that’s what I think.“ There’s never been that before, it’s been, “That’s what the teachers think,“ not, “that’s what we think as students.”

AREA: We’ve seen a couple of the YouTube videos, it’s pretty exciting . . . There was one where it looks like one of the security guards is taking away someone’s phone, whoever was filming—

RF: He was saying, “I’m only here for the students, I’m only here for the students . . .” I was in the far corner in that one—he didn’t film me in that one, it was so sad!

AR: He hugged one of the security officers who was dragging him away.

OG: That brings up a good point, something I think Ross touched on earlier. Especially last year before this whole student movement blew up, before when you watched the news and you would see all of these issues but you wouldn’t know that things were really happening. You would just hear little sound bites of students saying things that didn’t really matter. It was just there for show—for the media—to say they cared about the student voice, to say, “OK here you go, kid, that’s good . . .” Sometimes you reach out to the media but the media doesn’t want to hear from you because they don’t want to hear from an angry student saying, “This is what we want.” They want to hear from a student who’s saying, “This is my life, this is sad.” That’s what makes you turn on your TV—not, “Hey, I’m here to make a change . . .” and I think it’s too bad that we live in a society that in order to get on TV you need a bad issue, but that’s something we’re really trying to work on, to show that we’re really engaged and willing to make the right steps.