How Chicago Teachers Stopped a Toxic Polluter From Poisoning Their Students

For 2 years, academics and workers in my office, George Washington Excessive Faculty, helped lead a group marketing campaign to cease a hazardous industrial steel shredder, Common Iron, from transferring a number of blocks from our college.

Repeating a historic sample, metropolis officers facilitated Common Iron’s deliberate transfer from the rich and white Lincoln Park neighborhood the place it had operated for many years to the working-class, majority Latino Southeast Facet.

Our marketing campaign received a serious victory once we pressured Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the Chicago Division of Public Well being into denying the ultimate working allow for Common Iron. It took years of mobilizing, road protest, and a month-long hunger strike to drive the mayor to do the suitable factor.

The expertise of Chicago Academics Union (CTU) members within the #StopGeneralIron marketing campaign highlights the facility of union members once we stand shoulder to shoulder with environmental justice activists to demand secure residing and dealing circumstances.

But One other Polluter

Resulting from a long time of disinvestment and neglect, public faculty college students across the nation attend courses in buildings filled with lead, asbestos, and mold. In Chicago, these unsafe faculty circumstances are intently linked to the residing circumstances of our college students and their households, who’ve been harmed by industrial air pollution and racist zoning policy.

Historical past trainer Donald Davis recollects first listening to about the specter of yet one more polluter coming to the neighborhood in 2020, simply as COVID-19 was taking maintain. Neighborhood teams have been spreading the phrase; he joined a lot of digital conferences.

The risk would hit Davis each at work and at residence. “Since I reside lower than a mile from the proposed location of the steel shredder,” he mentioned, “that motivated me to additionally struggle for the well being of me and my household.”

Science trainer Chuck Stark, who ended up becoming a member of others on the starvation strike, began by signing a petition. Then he spoke up at an Environmental Safety Company (EPA) listening to, the place he realized that 14 tons of particulate matter could be blowing in direction of the elementary and excessive colleges annually if the allow went via.

Incensed by this disturbing truth, he obtained concerned in organizing to struggle again. So did many different faculty workers.

Academics introduced the problem of Common Iron into our school rooms, participating college students in studying in regards to the dangerous impacts of environmental racism. Many college students related the thought of environmental racism to their private experiences rising up within the Southeast Facet, the place youth bronchial asthma charges and charges of bronchial asthma hospitalization are a few of the highest within the metropolis.

When courses resumed within the fall of 2021, college students led a protest the place they chalked a slogan on the sidewalk exterior the college’s entrance entrance: “We are able to’t be taught if we will’t breathe.”

Starvation Strike

As extra CTU members at GWHS realized about Common Iron and their allow software we grew to become satisfied that permitting the corporate to maneuver close to our college was a direct risk to the security of our college students and our office.

Academics joined a coalition of native environmental justice organizations, group teams, dad and mom, college students, members of the CTU Local weather Justice Committee, public well being staff, and mutual assist activists who united behind one demand: Deny the allow.

When it grew to become clear that our neighborhood marketing campaign couldn’t cease the allow with out citywide assist, we organized a protest close to the mayor’s residence; Southeast Facet activists have been joined by a whole bunch of supporters from throughout town.

When Lightfoot nonetheless didn’t budge, our marketing campaign leaders went on a month-long starvation strike. This generated nationwide consideration and prompted EPA Chief Michael Regan to induce Lightfoot to pause the allow course of.

Roughly one yr after the starvation strike, March 2022, our marketing campaign declared victory when Lightfoot’s workplace, embarrassed by the scenario, introduced the denial of Common Iron’s allow.

Then in July two Chicago Public Colleges academics, me and Chuck Stark, have been notified that the college district was recommending our termination. The risk to our jobs was an act of retaliation from the mayor.

The following day — following an enormous outpouring of assist from our union and group allies — the mayor’s hand-picked Board of Schooling rejected this transfer and voted unanimously 6-0 to not fireplace us. They issued a warning as a substitute.

Inexperienced Colleges

Subsequent up is the struggle for inexperienced colleges. With only a few years left to keep away from the worst impacts of the worldwide local weather disaster, union members should work to type alliances with environmental justice and local weather activists to struggle collectively for a livable future. In Chicago, CTU members hope to start this course of by launching a marketing campaign for Green Schools that may prioritize the wants of Black and Brown communities affected by environmental racism.

Off the heels of our victory, academics at GWHS have begun assembly with dad and mom and group allies to plan a marketing campaign to win clear, inexperienced, and absolutely funded colleges to switch our crumbling, overcrowded highschool constructing and adjoining elementary faculty.

We’ve circulated a web-based petition and held press conferences. We’re working to point out how inexperienced colleges are a key demand for environmental and racial justice.

The mayor tried to silence this working-class group. As a substitute, she has inadvertently woke up a brand new era of city environmental justice leaders.