Above Photo: Chicago Teachers Union press conference held before the Chicago Board of Education meeting on July 27, 2022. Chicago Teachers Union AFT-IFT Local #1.
Chicago Public Schools Targeted Two Teachers Involved In A Campaign To Stop The Relocation Of A Dirty General Iron Metal Shredder To Chicago’s Southeast Side.
The Union And The Community Fought Back.
Chicago, Illinois – In late July, Lauren Bianchi and Chuck Stark, two teachers at George Washington High School on the Southeast Side of Chicago, were on the verge of losing their jobs. In what Chicago Teachers Union officers suspect was an act of retaliation from Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Chicago Public Schools recommended that Bianchi and Stark be fired for their involvement in the student-, teacher-, and community-led effort to stop the relocation of the General Iron metal shredder from the wealthy Northside neighborhood of Lincoln Park to a site half a mile from their school. With the union and their community behind them, though, the Chicago Board of Education issued a stunning rejection of Chicago Public Schools officials’ recommendation to fire the two teachers. In this mini-cast, we talk to Bianchi and Stark about the struggle to stop General Iron and the importance of teachers serving the needs of their communities.
Pre-Production/Studio: Maximillian Alvarez
Post-Production: Jules Taylor
Lauren Bianchi: Hi. So my name is Lauren Bianchi. I use she/her pronouns. I am still a social studies teacher at Washington High School. I’m also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union. I’m a member of my union’s Climate Justice Committee. And before I was a teacher, I was a community activist around issues of gender justice and racial justice.
Chuck Stark: And my name is Chuck Stark. I teach biology at George Washington High School in the Southeast Side of Chicago. I’m about to begin my fifth year teaching. And I changed careers, so the only place I’ve ever taught as a school teacher has been at Washington High School in the Southeast Side. I’m a teacher representative on our school’s local school council.
Maximillian Alvarez: All right. Well, welcome everyone to another episode of Working People, a podcast about the lives, jobs, dreams, and struggles of the working class today. Brought to you in partnership with In These Times magazine and The Real News Network, produced by Jules Taylor, and made possible by the support of listeners like you.
So as y’all heard, we’ve got a special, important, and urgent mini cast for y’all today. We’ve got Lauren and Chuck from Chicago, both members of the CTU. You guys know we got lots of love for the CTU. And I feel bad because I feel like every time we have folks from CTU on it’s to talk about some bullshit going on in the city. The last time that we had some CTU folks on, it was to talk about the teacher and staff protest over safety protocols during the Omicron spike. Yeah, it feels like we never run out of opportunities to talk about the bullshit going on with Lori Lightfoot. As Bernie Sanders would say, our good friend, Lori Lightfoot, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, she keeps the hits coming.
To be perfectly honest, we originally scheduled this interview with Lauren and Chuck because things were looking pretty dire earlier this week. We’re recording this on Friday, July 29, and at the beginning of this week – In what I imagine had to have been a horrifying 24-hour stretch – Lauren and Chuck were notified that Mayor Lightfoot and the Chicago Public Schools’ board had recommended that they be terminated for their involvement in community protests over this horrible facility, General Iron’s, that we’re going to talk about in a second.
And Lauren and Chuck, as I said, members of their community, but also members of their school community. Their students, their coworkers have been involved in fighting against this environmentally destructive facility. And they were targeted for it. This feels like a very clear act of retaliation by Chicago Public Schools and Mayor Lori Lightfoot. But thankfully, Chuck and Lauren and the union and their community stood up and fought back, and we got the good news as of yesterday that they are not going to be terminated and are instead getting kind of little talking to and have to do some BS training or what have you. But this went from a very bad occasion to have a conversation about to a slightly better one. And I just wanted to say up front, shout out to CTU. Shout out to Lauren and Chuck. Shout out to everyone who stood together and fought back against this.
And we’re going to talk to them about this all in a second, but just to make sure that everyone listening knows what we’re talking about here, this is kind of a special episode because we’re talking about working people, working teachers described as star teachers at their schools. Chuck and Lauren really put into practice that philosophy that has made CTU such a model of community-focused engagement and pedagogy, where they fight for the needs of their communities. The famous adage of CTU, our students’ living conditions are our teaching conditions.
And this very much applies, because when you and your students are living in a part of the city that has potentially a life expectancy that is 30 years less than neighborhoods on the North Side because of the historic racism and environmental pollution, you’ve got a real big problem. How are you supposed to teach in those circumstances? And that’s really what we’re talking about.
I’m going to read for you guys – We’re going to link to this in the show notes – But I’m going to read a couple passages from a 2021 article in The Washington Post called “To stop a scrapyard, some protesters in a Latino community risked everything”. And this is written by Darryl Fears and Robin Amer in The Washington Post on October 22, 2021. So here’s what they say, wrote then:
“20 days into her hunger strike, Yesenia Chavez took a long look in the mirror. Her skin was pale. Her brown eyes seemed blank. Her weight had dropped by 17 pounds and she thought she could see her bones. ‘I looked pretty sick,’ she said. Chavez and other activists were trying to stop a large metal scrapyard with a poor environmental record from starting up in their Mexican American community on Chicago’s Southeast Side. They feared noxious gases and toxic fiber gas fluff from the car-crushing facility would increase Hegewisch’s already significant air pollution.
“What made the situation especially audacious, in their view, was that the business had relocated from a wealthy white community on the North Side, where residents pushed for years to get rid of it. The scrapyard’s departure from Lincoln Park is paving the way for a $6 billion development of new shops, restaurants, office buildings, luxury condominiums, playgrounds, and scenic views of the Chicago River. Though Reserve Management Group,” – The group behind the facility – “is ready to switch on its new $80 million Southside Recycling facility – Built within close proximity to high school, elementary school, and a sprawling playground – residents’ opposition has helped to delay its final permits.”
And again, this was written in October 2021, so just a heads up that things did develop from the time that this was written. But the authors continue, “Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who must decide whether to approve or refuse those permits, is caught in a maelstrom of politics, lawsuits, and federal investigations. The Department of Housing and Urban Development launched a civil rights probe last fall into the city’s preliminary approval of construction permits for the scrapyard. And this spring, the Environmental Protection Agency asked local officials to do a comprehensive study of its aggregate potential health effects. Both are still pending. And this is all taking place in an area known as the Calumet Industrial Corridor, which includes at least 80 heavy manufacturing sites, chemical factories, plastic manufacturers, paint companies, landfills, recycling and waste management plants, and railways.”
So that’s kind of where things pick up here with Lauren and Chuck. So with that context here, I want to turn it over to them, and start by first getting to know a little more about you all, the work that you do as teachers, your involvement with the union, and also how you yourselves got involved in this struggle, and I guess any other context that I did not give in that introduction. So Lauren, why don’t we start with you?
Lauren Bianchi: Yeah. Thank you for that introduction. That was really taking me back a little bit, because at this point it’s been more than two years that myself, Chuck, and many other people have been focusing on this. So yeah, I’ll just say a little bit about how teachers at my school first got involved. So about two and a half years ago, really during the beginning of the COVID pandemic, myself, my coworkers, we had just shifted to teaching remotely. We were not in the classroom with our students. And we started hearing about… I had heard that science teachers like Chuck, who you’re going to hear from in a second, had started engaging students in learning about this controversy around whether or not General Iron’s industrial metal shredder would be permitted to move just blocks away from our school building.
So I heard about this and I started to read the newspaper articles about it, educate myself. And it became clear to me that this was not something that would be acceptable to move to the school community. I learned that General Iron had a long track record of community complaints in their North Side location in Lincoln Park. I learned that they had been fined for fires and explosions. And so it became very clear to me that this was something that myself and others needed to take an active role in opposing. So we talked to each other within my workplace and we started reaching out to some of the community leaders in various environmental justice organizations.
So there’s a deep history of environmental justice organizing in this community. Of course, we’re kitty-corner to Altgeld Gardens, where Hazel Johnson, who’s considered the mother of the environmental justice movement, organized. So there’s a deep history of Black and Hispanic activism for environmental justice. So this was a campaign that built on that. I think in the context of the 2020 Black Lives Matter uprisings, people were finally in a place to hear what folks had been saying for decades, that we are no longer willing to accept being a dumping ground for the garbage and the hazardous materials and facilities that residents and the majority of white areas no longer have to deal with.
Maximillian Alvarez: If you don’t mind my asking, Lauren, what kind of teaching do you do?
Lauren Bianchi: Yeah. So I’m a social studies teacher. I’ve taught US history at Washington High School. It’s kind of a funny story, or coincidence. Chuck and I both went to UIC, the University of Illinois at Chicago, though he was in a science program and I was in a history program. But I’ve also only ever taught at Washington High School. This will be both of our… We’re going to be starting our fifth year together. I currently teach sociology and gender studies. So race, class, and gender is at the center of both of the classes that I teach. And so we talk about inequality. Inequality in terms of health and environment is something that is very much connected to what both of us teach.
Chuck Stark: Yeah. If I may, I want to go back to something that you said way back at the beginning. You said this must have been a horrifying 24 hours. And I think this is really relevant because we’re speaking to workers. The last 24 hours have not been the worst of it. The very worst moment was… It was either in January or February I received an email at 5:00 PM on a Friday. I was at home decompressing from the week, and I got an email that said I was under investigation for misconduct. This could result in termination. And that’s it.
There was no context. I had no idea what this was about. I felt horribly alone. And that was the most horrifying moment. The past 24 hours have resulted in influencing the… A community coming together that includes a union and community organizations like the Southeast Environmental Task Force and the Stop General Iron campaign came together. I felt so supported, and it was not horrifying. In the past few days, I felt like whatever comes of this, we will be fine, because we have so much support here.
And that’s so important, because, going back to your question about what got us into this, I never would’ve been involved if I was on my own with this. I have always felt like I fit into a position of supporting work that needs to be done. There are some amazing, beautiful leaders, Lauren one of them, who really leads a lot of stuff. And I feel like I always have to say, how can I support this? This is important work, and we’re in it together.
So us being here, being able to talk to you and not say that we’ve lost our job, what is our next step, but say that we are starting work in actually a couple weeks is because that we have that support. And that support did something that was incredibly monumental that still people are like, this is impossible. The Board of Education has never unanimously gone against something that we believe the mayor to have instigated. So I just want to say the past 24 hours have been incredibly supportive. I feel like I’m in a great place, and that’s because of all of these people coming together.
For my part, what got me involved is, as Lauren pointed out, we come out of a certain tradition at UIC, University of Illinois, Chicago College of Ed. They were inspired by a researcher, Gloria Ladson-Billings, who coined the frame of culturally relevant pedagogy. And it’s been built, and a lot of people use it in the wrong way, including CPS, but we were trained and taught in that lineage that the work we should be doing should be responsive to the needs of the communities we serve.
So as we had just gone into remote learning, everyone was trying to figure out how to engage students. And one of the things that happened to come at that time was a permit request from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to build this shredder across the street from our school. So I looked into that and I found out about particulate matter, different sizes of particulate matter and what that does to the human body, and really connected that to our students and said, this is what is in the air around us and this is what it can do to us. And from there, I didn’t have to force anything. There were colleagues of mine and students that were like, hold up a second. That’s not right. And the movement really… It was already moving, but once these students and youth activists got involved – On their own accord, by the way – The movement took even a next step. And there I was, continuing to support it, continuing to teach something that was important to the community.
Maximillian Alvarez: Which is really incredible. And it’s also very telling. Because this is not a new phenomenon. This is one of the reasons why schools always become such a lightning rod of political and cultural anger, resentments, and battles, and so on and so forth, but also why teachers in particular end up being in the firing line on so many different occasions. It’s like, we must protect the schools. We must protect our children. And there’s a sort of infantilizing presumption that students couldn’t possibly get interested let alone invested in something like this on their own. It has to be some conniving Marxist cabal who’s directing them. I remember this when I was teaching at the University of Michigan. Right-wingers were just like, oh, these Marxists are indoctrinating – I was like, have you met my students? How much respect for me do you think they have? Do you think they’re going to listen to me? I’m the uncool, old, bald guy standing in front of class. I’m not directing anybody.
Chuck Stark: I just want to say something – And I don’t know if it was Lauren that pointed this out, so please, I’m sorry if I’m stealing this from you, Lauren – Some other fellow teacher said, anyone who has ever worked with teenagers will understand if you ask them to go out on a cold rainy day and stand out there in that rain for a few hours on a Friday night, no one takes you up on that. There’s no amount of extra credit or anything that can convince them to go out unless they want to be there.
Lauren Bianchi: Right. Anybody that’s worked with teenagers, anyone who has a teenager in their life knows that they do not really care what adults have to say. They’re way more interested in… I mean, this is the developmental phase of adolescence. You care way more about what your peers think and say and are doing. And if anything at our school, adults are often following the students. We care about our students. We spend hours, the majority of our day, most of the time, around our students. And so when they get fired up about something or they get really invested in something, adults are convinced that they want to support and uplift our students’ needs. So, yeah, I mean, CTU put out what I thought was a really strong statement supporting us and calling Lightfoot out from borrowing from the Republican Party and the far right’s playbook. There is an active hysteria around supposedly left-wing teachers brainwashing students and teaching critical race theory.
It’s really great that Board President Miguel del Valle came out, in this case, and defended teachers saying, no, in this school district, we want teachers to be teaching culturally responsive, culturally relevant curriculum, because we know in many states it’s currently illegal to teach about institutional racism now. So I’m so glad that this sets a positive precedent, because us being fired in this climate would’ve been open season to go after teachers.
Maximillian Alvarez: Right. In many parts of the country it feels like it is already open season. Like you said, people in positions of power, be they in the media or in politics, are directing constituent’s ire towards teachers, banning books. I mean, there’s the anti-LGBTQ hysteria, there’s the critical race theory hysteria. As we talked about last time we talked to CTU folks, it was over them standing up for better COVID safety policies. And y’all became the target of a whole lot of venom from certain parts of the population. So I think you’re absolutely right that it’s really, really important that all of us be involved in standing together and fighting against this.
My brother Tevita ‘Uhatafe of the Transport Workers Union down in Texas had a really great point at the Labor Notes Conference in Chicago where he said, look, union members, you need to show up to school board meetings and say you support your teachers, your kids’ teachers, even if you don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s like the NRA. The loudest people come to these board meetings and shout the loudest. If we have community members, fellow workers in those meetings also having a presence, that’s really important.
But it’s a real testament, again I think, to how amazing y’all are as educators, because I can see what you were saying. Like how horrifying/perfect of an example this is to teach what you want to get across to your students. Because there is such a structural racist component here.
I used to live, for a brief time, in Lincoln Park. I know where this development is being built. I was working at Reza’s restaurant right off the park. I think that location got shut down because the manager was a shithead. Pardon my French. But yeah, it’s a more affluent area. It’s right on the park. It’s right by the zoo. It’s right next to the lake. So they’re moving that and plopping it down into the Southeast Side, which already has tons of environmental polluting facilities there. And as I said, one study showed that Chicago, more than any other city, has the widest disparity in life expectancies between these neighborhoods, up to 30 years difference depending on whether or not you live, if you’re Black, Brown, poor, live on the South Side, or if you live on the North Side. That is incredible.
So I just wanted to ask you both, as teachers, how you and your students in your communities got involved in this, what you learned, and what that coming together led to both on the organizing front and on the learning front?
Lauren Bianchi: Yeah. Within my classroom, like I said, teaching sociology, it is a textbook example of inequality and disparity. One of my personal heroes is former CTU president Karen Lewis. When I was a young college student in 2012, I watched her leadership during the 2012 teachers strike. I heard her talking about how CPS is an apartheid school district. And so our school is almost 90% Hispanic, 5% Black, and this is a hyper segregated school district just like Chicago is a hyper segregated city. The Southeast Side is a transportation desert. There’s like one bus that goes through this neighborhood. Many of our students have rarely, if ever, rarely leave the neighborhood, and so they don’t necessarily see segregation. They don’t necessarily see the segregation. It’s like the air that we’re breathing. It just seems normal and natural.
So engaging students in learning about the history of segregation and how segregation of schools and housing allows for environmental racism, it allows us to isolate the most dangerous and unwanted facilities in poor communities of color. So I think it’s very eye opening for a lot of students.
But then of course we have lots of students who have heard the stories about people in their family developing cancer, or the fact that so many of their peers in elementary school suffered from chronic asthma attacks. So our students have these experiences that they’re building on.
I think it’s our role as teachers to encourage our students to question their experiences, question what we accept to be normal. Because we got a huge amount of support. People were very interested and very sympathetic towards the cause of denying the permit for General Iron’s move. But a lot of people said, you’re totally right. This is bogus. This is racist, but you’re not going to win. This is a done deal. In Chicago, these decisions are made and there’s not much you can do about it. Look, they already built this facility. It’s over. I think there’s no way we’re going to win this.
And at various points, I can be pretty cynical. I can be kind of a glass half empty, prepare for the worst type of person. We didn’t really expect to win this, but the community wouldn’t take no for an answer. People did not want to give up. People did not want to accept a defeat on this. And we wound up… I mean, it ultimately wasn’t Lightfoot or the city of Chicago that had a change of heart to do the right thing. We had to get the federal government involved. It was Michael Regan, EPA chief, that stepped in and put Lightfoot on notice that, we’re watching you guys. You need to consider whether or not this permit is something that you want to issue.
And so if the federal government didn’t step in… This last week, the Department of Housing and Urban Development published their letter to Lightfoot basically stating that, hey, these complaints that we received are valid. We agree that there is a record of institutional historic discrimination. We can see that there’s a pattern over time of polluters being moved to communities of color in Chicago. And so that is why we were being retaliated against, because nobody makes Lightfoot do something she doesn’t want to do without paying for it.
Chuck Stark: Lauren mentioned that we are in a transportation desert in the Southeast Side. And it, essentially, almost literally, is an island from the city of Chicago because you have to cross over a river. If you’re traveling from any other part of the city of Chicago, you have to travel over a river and you have to cross at least one railroad track. And so there are numerous times that I will have to wait for a bridge to be lifted or a train to go by when I’m driving into the neighborhood or driving out of the neighborhood. So that does create this sense of separation where sometimes our students don’t realize what the rest of the city is like. But some examples of where they do see it are athletic teams. They will be traveling on buses to other parts of the cities to play other schools and they start to see these things for themselves. They start to realize like, oh, why does this neighborhood look like this and ours look different than that?
So we aren’t necessarily introducing them to anything that they aren’t aware of. We’re just helping provide context, like, why is this? And also, there is something that can be done about this. One of our athletic teams is very well known. Our soccer team, our boy’s soccer team is excellent. For the past couple decades they have just dominated the city. This past year they got third in state. They still have to travel three miles to use a Chicago park district facility for practice every single day. We do not have any athletic facilities as part of our school grounds.
So back to your question of how did we start doing this work, is again, this is what we were hired to do. Our school has a social justice framework that tells us we should be engaging students in developing a critical consciousness around why is the world the way it is right now, and then what can you do to change that? And so we just happen to use a lot of the examples that are right there around our school, unfortunately, to teach this stuff. And connecting it back also to our athletic facilities, not having athletic facilities, on our last day of school, a large conduit on our second floor fell down and injured a member of our community. It could have been students, but they were still in class. So literally our building is falling apart.
You mentioned earlier how one of your brothers in organization mentioned the importance of people showing up to board meetings. Well, to sign up to speak at the Board of Ed for Chicago is very difficult. They open up 30 spots, and they open it up on the Monday when the board meeting is on a Wednesday. It had already been organized to have three members of the community sign up to speak at the board demanding new buildings for George Washington Elementary School and George Washington High School. They were already on the slot when Lauren and I found out on that Tuesday that CPS wanted to fire us. So we had three members of the community actually already planned to speak at the board meeting, but they were going to speak about the need for new schools. And they were able to shift to our defense, but they were robbed of the opportunity to ask the board for new buildings.
So it’s incredibly important to be present at these meetings for so many reasons. You never know what you’re going to have to talk about. And clearly them being present made a big difference. I think you’re asking us what’s the importance of the union? On the Southeast Side, one of the biggest attack points on the work that we’re doing, particularly when we are trying to prevent General Iron from moving to the neighborhood, is people will frequently say, okay, you environmentalists are anti-jobs. You would be happy if there’d be no jobs. And they pit a clean environment versus jobs. And it’s a total bogus response. Establishment has been doing that forever. Like they say, oh, you’re anti-job. You’re anti-job. So there’s a big push to create a BlueGreen Alliance to make the point that this isn’t us versus you. These aren’t two priorities. These priorities coexist. Because just like the teachers union says, our working environment is our students’ learning environment.
Workers, air environment is their health. And it’s not preventing General Iron from moving here and preventing jobs. It’s saying we need jobs here that are healthy for the community and actually are for the community. So the BlueGreen Alliance is really important. There is a need for the blue working class unions to be on the same side as environmental justice movements, because it is the same side. It’s the same team. And finally, particularly for the Southeast Side, speaking from the perspective of unions. So many union jobs, if you go into the trades, are not available to many of the Black and Brown students in our community. And unions really do need to be reaching out more to these communities.
Maximillian Alvarez: Man, and just to quickly follow up on one of those points – And I can’t thank you guys enough for talking us through this because I think it’s, again, really, really important stuff and such an incredible struggle for you and your students and your communities to be involved in together – But just given that you are a science teacher, Chuck, I wanted to ask if you could say a little more about the environmental impacts of this metal shredder. I mean, because we’re seeing in some of the articles that we’ll link to in the show notes for this, including that Washington Post article, there’s black shit in the water on lake Michigan. There’s obviously stuff in the air, there are old buildings with lead paints. So I guess I just wanted to ask if you could say a little bit more about the environmental impact of this metal shredding facility.
Chuck Stark: What’s interesting, to provide some context, I come from a place where my idea of environmental activism was only like, okay, I was thinking of people that were trying to prevent large-scale logging. That was the kind of environmentalism I always had in my mind: protecting large green spaces, natural spaces. And with my time here in Chicago, and in particular the Southeast Side of Chicago, my understanding of what we mean by environment has become much more broad. The environment is the space we live, work, operate in.
And so when you look at General Iron – And this is where I started from the very beginning when I first started teaching about this, I went through their permit and I saw what our own environmental protection agency was going to allow them to do. And legally in their permit, they were going to be allowed to release… I believe it was around 14 tons of particulate matter per year. It’s 14 tons. This is particulate matter that is all PM10. PM stands for particulate matter and the number stands for the size, and we’re talking about micrometers. A common reference point is people will compare a hair. So you take a regular piece of hair. The width of that is typically around 70 micrometers in diameter. So think of the width of your hair, that’s 70 micrometers and take that down to 10 micrometers. And that is considered a coarse particulate matter. Those kinds of particles will get inside of our lungs and will… Or I’m sorry, the inside of our nose agitates our upper respiratory tract.
And then there is PM2.5. 2.5 micrometers in diameter can get further down into our lungs. And then there are even ultrafine particulate matter that can get into our bronchioles and can actually cross the barrier into our bloodstream. Imagine an auto shredding facility that is releasing dust from these shredded batteries, from these shredded vehicles, whatever else they take in there and just shred up. 10 tons of that. I’m sorry, 14 tons of that every year, going up into the air and blowing over. Most of it’s going to be blown towards the school. And we are breathing that, our students are breathing that. Some of that can actually get into our bloodstream and get delivered to our brain. So this is the environmental impact. This is the health impact that we were working to prevent.
Maximillian Alvarez: Man, again I know that the knee-jerk, more conservative leaning response to that is like, oh, well, teachers aren’t activists. Teachers should just be teachers and just focus on this. But if your school and your students and yourself are getting 14 tons of hazardous metal dust dumped on you every year, how can you not say something about that? It’s just bonkers. And again, it’s really amazing that you both, and as I said, your students, your coworkers, your community have been fighting this fight. I hope that anyone listening to this feels a little more emboldened to get involved in fighting where you are, fighting the good fight, banding together with your community members, building those sorts of alliances that Chuck was talking about. Getting ourselves out of those boxes that they try to put us in and pit us against one another.