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The Chicago Teachers Union Won Big; What Comes Next?

Above Photo: Chicago Teachers Union president Stacy Davis Gates at the union’s headquarters. Jim Daley.

Chicago Teachers Union president Stacy Davis Gates on the Johnson administration, school privatization, and fighting for immigrant families.

On the last Friday of summer break, Stacy Davis Gates was in high spirits. At a back-to-school party in the parking lot of Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) headquarters, she bounced from one group to another, smiling as she posed for photos with alderpersons, union activists, parents and children.

Davis Gates, who has been the president of the CTU for a little over a year, has good reason to be happy. In April, Brandon Johnson, a former middle school teacher and CTU organizer, was elected mayor. And Chicago Public Schools (CPS) CEO Pedro Martinez, who often mentions that he’s a product of CPS, was also at the party, beaming and shaking hands.

For once, it seems the teachers union, CPS’s C-suite, and the fifth floor of City Hall are in some kind of alignment. In Chicago — where past mayors have warred openly with teachers and the union has gone on strike more times than the Bulls have won a championship — that’s no small miracle.

After the event, Davis Gates sat down with the Weekly for an interview that touched on the new political atmosphere, the challenges the school district still faces, and her hopes for the city and the new administration. What follows has been edited for clarity and length.

South Side Weekly: Can you discuss the current moment and how you got here?

Davis Gates: We’ve been trying to influence the implementation of good policies in the Chicago Public Schools since Karen Lewis [was CTU president]. So in 2012, you see this big, spectacular resistance and show of force [a week-long strike by CTU, its first since 1987]. It was wonderful. And Rahm Emanuel closed fifty schools the next year. I never felt so powerless in my life.

So Karen Lewis said [that] we have to change the trajectory of the city. And then our fight extended and amplified the city all Chicagoans deserve. And that’s because our members live in Chicago — proudly, I might add. We are not just workers in the city; we are neighbors in the city, we are invested in every facet of the success of the city. Our members have taken on the responsibility of pushing for equity and fairness. They’ve done it in their classrooms and their school communities and their neighborhoods.

In 2023, we have Brandon Johnson, a middle school teacher, a labor organizer, who is now the mayor of Chicago. It opens up this space for us to partner with the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools and the President of the Board of Education in ways that I’m not sure many people in our movement believed would ever come.

I’m under no illusions, though. The inequity and injustice in this city is not a four-year endeavor. It is a multi-year endeavor that’s going to require more than a mayor. It’s going to require labor and community. It’s going to require regular neighbors to name the thing that they want, and I think that what they voted for was hope and opportunity. We’re going to do our part as the union in coalition with our movement to make sure we manifest that.

One hundred days into the new administration, how has it been different from previous administrations?

We have a mayor who is committed to listening. When I tell you that he believes in the ethic and the practice of coalition, that’s not an understatement. That is his value. And educationally, he understands pedagogy and what’s necessary in a school community.

In as much as he’s an organizer, he spent the first one hundred days organizing Chicago around a vision that our young people, especially the Black ones, have value. And that’s going to be tough to organize in the city, because we don’t have a muscle to value Black children. When Rahm Emanuel closed down fifty schools, he closed them on Black children, and he devalued their humanity in that effort. We have to shift from that particular perspective, and that is going to take more than a hundred days.

Mayor Johnson’s ability to provide language for the humanity of our children with a particular lens on Black children is going to be significant for the public schools, because people don’t invest in things that they don’t value. The success of the city depends on us believing in the value of our young people. And the value of our young people will only be realized if you have someone in Mayor Johnson’s position leading that effort.

For the first time since the early 1990s Local School Council movement, organizers are on the Board of Education again. What does that feel like?

It’s almost like a magical dream world where we are actually living the life that we have fought for for so long. I’m hopeful that people who understand the deficit and the opportunity can actually work to create a sequence that sustains transformation. Any sustainable act of transformation is going to require multidimensional ownership from the mayor, to the CEO, to the Board of Education, to the workers, and to the people who represent the workers. We’re all going to have to roll up our sleeves to make this work. Now, I’m not saying that there won’t be disagreement because human nature is embedded in conflict sometimes. I’m confident that whatever the conflict is, we will have a pathway and a respect for one another to resolve it for the benefit of the individuals and the families that need the Chicago Public Schools.

What should an equitable map of districts for the elected school board look like? 

First, it has to be lawful. There is a Voting Rights Act which was codified here in Illinois through an amendment to our constitution some years ago. The map should also make sure that it prioritizes those who need the Chicago Public Schools. For far too long, the agency of Black mothers on the South Side and the West Side of Chicago has been reduced. It’s going to not be reduced anymore. [The map is also] going to be anchored in the justice that migrant children who come here for asylum, who come here for the promise of our American dream, it’s going to be anchored in their needs. These are things that have to be leveled up.

And so those who need the most have to have a priority in the creation of that map, within the parameters of the law. We’re committed to advocating for that in coalition with all of the community groups that brought that into reality.

Do you have concerns about school-choice and privatization supporters running for the school board, and a strategy to oppose that? 

Yes, we are concerned about the encroachment of fascists in Chicago. We are concerned about the marginalization of public education through the eyes of those who’ve never intended for Black people to be educated. So we’re going to fight tooth and nail to make sure that type of fascism and racism does not exist on our Board of Education. This is an effort to prioritize the voices of the many, and especially those who have felt the most pain in the city, the people closest to the pain, as [education advocate] Jitu Brown will say, deserve an opportunity to ameliorate their own pain. We’re going to work with those people to ensure that they get that voice in the same way that we worked with them to ensure the election of Mayor Johnson.

We’re going to look for families, mothers, that have been excluded [to run]. I want mothers who have become citizens of this country after crossing the border for a better life to sit on that board. I want women whose voices are often marginalized, women who are working two jobs to have an opportunity to help realize the promise of a public education. Those are the people who deserve a voice. Those are the people who deserve priority. And this union is going to make sure a coalition with them and with their communities that they have an opportunity.

CPS just allocated $5 million for COVID-19 rapid tests. If there’s another surge in the winter, will the union push for remote learning? 

I’m confident that we have a responsible, accountable leadership in this city that will do what’s necessary to keep us safe and protected. And I don’t worry about the gamesmanship of the past for our future. I don’t worry about that. I am confident that I have a partner on the fifth floor [of City Hall].

What do you think about the busing shortage?

It’s an abomination. Our young people have to be in our schools in order to receive the education that they deserve. That is a responsibility of our district, and we’re going to push our district to do better, and we’re going to work with them to figure it out. We’ve been encouraging our district to figure out how they begin to take control of the busing system themselves. Outsourcing and privatization of a public good always falls short in the lives of brown children and Black children. It is up to us now to say to the district, ​“Perhaps we should bring those services in house.” We should be responsible for making sure that the district makes sure our special education students have a short ride to school versus a very long ride to school and home. So that’s priority number one.

Priority two is, how can we innovate? I would like to see a start by getting a designated fleet of buses to make sure that our children have access to field trips as well, that our sports teams can travel, that we are setting ourselves up for success. I’m confident that we’re gonna get there. I’m pretty confident that with good partners and coalition work, we can get anywhere.

How can asylum seekers best be integrated into the city and the public school system?

What our migrant families are exposing in this moment is that the social safety net was torn to shreds by people like [former mayor] Rahm Emanuel and his ilk, [former CPS CEO] Arne Duncan. Affordable housing doesn’t exist for anyone in the city, so those who come seeking asylum are left at a disadvantage because it doesn’t exist for any of us. And the scarcity of it presents, you know, a picture of conflict. A ​“welcoming city” cannot just be a press release or a tagline of the former administrations; it has to be realized under this administration.

So the migrant families are going to need more. They’re not going to just need a place to lay their head; they’re going to need multilingual educators and support staff inside of the Chicago Public Schools. We’re going to have to create a pathway for that; we’re going to have to encourage that, which also means we’re going to have to make Chicago affordable.

Chicago has a long migrant history. And you can’t help but draw the parallel between the migrants from Mississippi [in the Great Migration] and the migrants from the border right now. They all want an affordable place to live. They want their children to have an opportunity to live a better life than they have currently. And then they want to exercise the full rights and citizenship that our American democracy is supposed to offer.

If we can figure out how these two stories, the stories of migrants like my family — both sides of my family tree left the South, one branch from Arkansas and the other branch from Mississippi, and they each came to Chicago for the promise of a freer, safer life from lynchings and white supremacy — in the same way that our siblings from south of the border are coming here, Chicago can do this. And I would challenge Chicago to do it better than they did it for my people.

What are your hopes for the coming school year?

I’m looking forward to hearing the words ​“Let’s see, let’s work it out together.” Those phrases are going to be important for us going forward. Many of our brainstorms and our ideas were often met immediately with the word ​“no.” So I’m looking forward to the space to imagine and reimagine our public school system here in Chicago.

I’m looking forward to our members being in school communities where it’s not terrible every day for them, where resources are allocated and principals are provided with the directives of working with their staff instead of working against them. For too long we’ve had mayors that made the very people who do the work the enemy of the system. We don’t have that anymore. So that should open up a lot of room for building-level principals to work in collaboration with building-level workers. That’s going to be important.

And I’m looking forward to young people having a larger voice in the policy-making of our school district as well. Over time, you’ve seen a burgeoning group of young leaders who are saying, ​“I need, and this is what I need, and I need to be heard.” When they’re young, teenagers test boundaries. How about we do an experiment [where] we ask them what they need, and we work to provide their needs with them. And perhaps the agency and the investment will dovetail into something that looks more equitable, that looks fair.

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