Feature photo by Gapers Block
The Whittier sit-in has again been called off, this time (both sides hope) for good. The 11-month stand-off between parents and school officials over the proposed demolition of a field house, “La Casita,” at the Pilsen middle school appears to have been resolved as CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard renews his pledge to honor the contract by his predecessor, Ron Huberman, to lease the building for $1 a year to the Whittier Parents Committee, who will renovate it with funds allocated to the project by Senator Munoz, Representative Acevedo and Alderman Danny Solis. The WPC plans to use the building as a library.
The sit-in began in September of 2010. Whittier mothers burst into Juarez High School where then CEO Ron Huberman and Mayor Daley were dedicating a new annex, chanting “Renovar, No Demolar!” Led by a group of mothers who were joined by fathers, activists and community organizers Evelin Santos and Carolina Gaete, the newly formed WPC demanded that la Casita be transformed into a library.
CPS officials, acting on independent engineering firm reports, felt that it was necessary to demolish the field house in order to rebuild it.
But the parents had a soft spot for the building which they had used as a community meeting place and for hosting activities like tutoring and sewing classes. Lisa Angonese, a Whittier parent twice over who participated in the sit-in, told me that it was the children who had run back into the building in the first place, beginning the sit-in. I am not sure how true that is, but you can certainly see children and youth participating in the many videos that began to appear on Youtube and other sites, showing instances of defiance of police and a sometimes festive atmosphere — singing and dancing, barbecues, a “Theatre of the Oppressed.” The occupation apparently caused some concern for CPS officials who worried the building was unsafe.
Demonstrators took turns sleeping on air mattresses in the building. School officials temporarily turned off the gas to the fieldhouse in October to try and freeze them out, and they were twice threatened with arrest. As the sit-in resumed in the summer, the mothers put up canvasses to cool the un-airconditioned building.
Community members came out to support the protesters, donating books by the thousands, fans in the summer, blankets in the fall, water and other necessities. The mothers organized marches and meetings.
“There were a lot of meetings. It was getting a little tiresome,” Angonese confides*.
The WPC came up with a green building design that won $750 in the “Air We Breath” contest. They secured $564,000 in funds.
In October, Solis apparently pledged TIF funds to La Casita which, as (take a wild guess who) the Reader’s Ben Joravsky dutifully reminds us, is not what those TIFs were allocated for.
Eventually, CPS agreed to let the parents’ group renovate the building, at which point the sit-in was temporarily halted. It was recommenced June 23rd when CPS backed out on the deal and attempted to build the library within the school over protests from the activists, as Kelsey Duckett reported on Gaper’s Block.
On June 24th, demonstrators were threatened with arrest. Angonese responded by confronting Brizard at a Walmart-sponsored function, asking him to come and call off the cops. Some mothers, fearful of what their arrest might mean to their kids (particularly for the undocumented), left. Others remained. In the end, none were arrested.
That day, Brizard sent a letter to the Whittier Parent Committee stating, “CPS has demonstrated a strong commitment to making capital improvements at Whittier” — $2 million dollars worth — including 24 new security cameras, 134 lockers, a lunch room, parent room, computer room, and a new science room (the school has notably high science performance scores).
The letter stated that CPS had agreed to honor the commitments made by Huberman, Solis and others, including leasing the field house to the Whittier Parents Committee for $1 per year (noting that the paperwork had not yet been filed) and to build a library within the school. Construction of the latter was blocked by the WPC, who did not want the library inside the school, saying there is not enough space and that special education students would be displaced.
CPS contested this claim. I spoke with representative Jose Alverez, who told me that the small school is not at full enrollment, which is declining. He said the cash-strapped agency has other priorities and highlighted that “the northwest schools are bursting at the seams.” Alverez went on to mention that many other schools also lack needed facilities like libraries. From this perspective, investment in Whittier has been relatively generous, albeit in a system wherein many schools are underserved.
Angonese tells me that the Whittier struggle has ignited an activist streak in her that wasn’t there before. When I caught up with her at Pilsen’s Jumping Bean, she’d been working the booth for Clean Power Ordinance at Fiesta del Sol. She says of the WPC, “We’re not all activists. we actually became activists. We became lobbiests. A lot of changes occurred. We became things we never thought we would become.” To hear Angonese tell it, she and her comrades feel confused and manipulated by political “games” and that “they know we’re vulnerable” and inexperienced in these matters. She doesn’t feel that the demonstrators were being listened to, saying among other things that they were informed of meetings and actions at the last minute. She still does not believe that CPS will honor the agreement, a sentiment echoed by other activists on the groups Facebook page.
A lack of communication seem to have troubled the sit-in throughout, and there seems to have been misunderstandings on both sides. CPS claims that they are still waiting for the WPC to submit paperwork for the lease. In September, shortly after beginning their sit-in, the demonstrators discovered that state representative Luis Gutierrez had sent in a request in January to consider a proposal to use the lot as a soccer field to be shared with neighboring private Jesuit school Cristo Rey. The request apparently had not been seriously considered, in part because Whittier officials opposed it, but the discovery and misreading of the request online “fanned the flames”, as Joravsky put it in his report.
Part of the problem was the changing of the guard. Just as Whittier parents and CPS were getting somewhere in negotiations under Huberman, along comes a new guy from Rochester, NY, with a lousy reputation in terms of communication. Guess he wasn’t expecting Pilsen mamas to be so darn stubborn. He should have. On Mother’s day 2001, parents staged a 19-day hunger strike to convince CPS to build Lawndale High School. Apparently these are the kinds of actions it takes on the Lower West Side.
There’s no denying that the mothers (and fathers) of Whittier are to be commended for their passion and determination, regardless of whether you see them as foolish and misguided or right-on and righteous in their demands. It is also not to be denied that CPS, whatever the reason, does not have the resources to meet all the needs and desires of students across the city and that they had legitimate reason to be concerned about the occupation of an unsafe structure by parents and children and to be frustrated by the blocking of the building of a library in the school that they say cost them $150,000 before it had to be halted. CPS felt that the parents’ demands were unreasonable; the parents felt that they were not being heard. Seems to me like both sides could have benefited from hearing each other out. It’s good to hear they’ve returned to the negotiating table, but it shouldn’t take months of demonstration to have that happen. As Angonese tells me, “I think the best thing that [CPS Officials] could do is just meet with us. Just be open to us.” Here’s hoping they do.
*CORRECTION: I misspelled Lisa Angonese’s name several times throughout the original draft of the article, which has been corrected. She also clarified that ” all meetings are tiresome. It’s something that we all have got to do, however.”