Photos by Zach Kremian
Left: Evelyn Santos on-post at the Whittier Field House on day 27 of the 24 hour sit-in and occupation. Above: A kaleidoscope of colored T-shirts made by community activists on display outside the Whittier Field House, “Whittier Defends Your Politics,” they read.
Whittier’s La Casita: More Than a Library
How a Disadvantaged Community Fights for Their Children’s Future
Huberman, Huberman, can’t you see? All we want is a library!” chanted 25 community
activists and mothers outside of CPS headquarters on Oct. 18. The protestors had taken part in a month-long sit-in to prevent CPS from demolishing a 100 year-old field house turned grassroots library located in the parking lot of Whittier Elementary in Chicago’s low-income Pilsen neighborhood. Rico Gutstein, teacher and activist for Teachers for Social Justice, spoke to the press and called upon CPS to release the literacy scores and demographic data about the more than 160 public schools in Chicago that do not have their own libraries. “We will analyze for ourselves the historic patterns of disinvestment and selective investment in Chicago schools and neighborhoods,” Gutstein said to a cheering crowd of Whittier supporters who had assembled outside of CPS
“We will analyze for ourselves the historic patterns of disinvestment and selective investment in Chicago schools and neighborhoods,” —Rico Gutstein, Teachers for Social Justice
Photos & Story by Zach Kremian
headquarters. “[CPS’s] lack of providing sufficient resources to lowincome communities of color like Whittier, then dismantling, privatizing and taking over their schools when they fail to meet the standards is like tying someone’s legs together for a race, and then penalizing them when they lose,” Gutstein said.
TheChicagoGrid.com October/November 2010
The Little House
Photos: The Whittier Field House, and the makeshift library created thorugh donations from across the nation.
10 • TheChicagoGrid.com
There was only one set of bathrooms; the children were eating in a basement that was full of asbestos and lead; sewage was coming up from the ground; they had no warming kitchen, and were eating cold sandwiches for lunch. -Evelyn Santos
Like of the other more than 160 schools without libraries, Whittier Elementary has faced the realities of inadequate funding since the school was created. “The parents have been fighting for seven years,” said Evelyn Santos, 23, a mother, student and organizer in the Pilsen community. “There was only one set of bathrooms; the children were eating in a basement that was full of asbestos and lead; sewage was coming up from the ground; they had no warming kitchen, and were eating cold sandwiches for lunch,” said Santos. At height of tension, police taped off a perimeter around the field house, and started making plans to remove the mothers. After Whittier students and community members joined in the occupation, CPS and the police chose to refrain from the eviction. Then on Oct. 4, CPS turned off the gas-heat to the field house, claiming the building was structurally unsafe and a liability. Following local and national outcry, the Chicago City Council responded, and ordered CPS to immediately restore the heat. After 43 days of the 24/7 sit-in, La Casita and CPS have reached a compromise. Following CPS CEO Ron Huberman’s affirmation, CPS will
“I’m going to be with these moms as long as they’re going to be there, and they’re not leaving,” said Farmer, a Caucasian attorney from the North Side who has joined the sit-in at La Casita on an almost nightly basis. The occupation movement on the ground is made of mostly immigrant mothers of the elementary students at Whittier. With local and national support, they embarked upon themselves the process of turning the long-held community center into a library—a resource Whittier has never had. In four weeks, La Casita accumulated more than 1,200 books. La Casita—or the little house—is not just a DIY library created in a schoool never fortunate to have one. It has served as a central point for the parents of the community to learn, interact, and work together to improve their lives, and subsequently their children’s. In addition to a library, La Casita serves as a center for a myriad of community-led workshops and programs for parents and students, Santos said. The mothers at La Casita have learned to sew, to speak better English, have created yoga classes, and now read donated books with their children, Murals and signs adorn the more than 100-year old walls of the field house Santos said. This movement to save the building. Then CPS planned to community center from demolishment The movement is CPS’ plans to raze demolish the building for and into a library is bringing the comteaching the chilLa Casita using an Astroturf soccer field munity closer together, and is apart of dren to speak up for $356,000 of public to be shared with nearby larger message not traditionaly learned themselves... money—without schools, Santos said. Even in Chicago’s public schools, Santos said. —Evelyn Santos the inclusion of a after organizers gathered “The movement is teaching the more than 900 signatures children to speak up in a petition to stop the for themselves,” said demolishing of the field Santos, “and giving house, CPS had still not the parents a victory taken it off the table. to be proud of.” “This was something The sit-in for the that the parents had to do community center as last resort,” Santos said. and the creation of Competing with other this library are just schools and dealing with recent developments CPS bureaucracy has in a series of struggles been a problem, parents by the community say. They have pointed of Pilsen to stand up to the Renaissance 2010 and provide fundapolicy—which seeks to mental educational privatize failing schools— needs for their chilas a destructive force dren, Santos said. Parents, students and activists volunteer for the 24/7 sit in. against those schools that After receiving are already facing lack of $1.4 million in TIF new library and community center— resources and support. appropriations, Whittier elemenmotivated the parents to organize and tary was able to make renovations to occupy the building beginning Sept. 15. improve the basic structure of its main TheChicagoGrid.com October/November 2010 • 11
lease the building to the mothers for $1 a year once they incorporate as a nonprofit. The mothers and activists will continue to work with the School Board to make sure La Casita is safe, and Whittier is equipped with a library.
The creation of the library is another moment in a history of struggle for the Pilsen community to provide a comparable education for their kids said Santos. Now amidst a local and national spotlight, the sit in at the field house has drawn solidarity in that struggle for education equality from parents, students and activists outside of the Pilsen community. Local School Council member Mathew Farmer said his two daughters have attended four different public schools on the North Side, all of which had libraries. He spoke at the press conference about CPS’s lower standards for low-income neighborhoods, and the correlating lack of resources for the schools that need them most.
La Ca s i ta
But it isn’t just bureaucracy and the lack of money in the community. TIF monies and other public funds are given to private interests in development plans rather than going to public schools, Santos said. “Instead of helping the children we give money to Target,” Santos said, recalling how $5.3 million in TIF funds were paid to Target to build a store in Mckinley Park, less than two miles from Whittier Elementary. “We love Target, but we already have one in Archer Heights,” Santos said. “Public money for public schools.” The environment being created from the bottom-up at Whittier is fundamental to building a quality education, Santos said. Dual-language teachers, steadfast involvement by the community and parents, and more resources are the main factors that make a great school, she said. Like many schools in low-income communities, Whittier spends more money on keeping up with health and safety concerns for an old building than on improving the quality and make up of the education. Kids get asbestos instead of books. “We have everything else in place, all we need is the resources,” Santos said. CPS declined to provide any detailed comments about education 12 • TheChicagoGrid.com
inequality in communities similar to Pilsen, and only said an agreement between CPS and the parents had already been reached.
We have everything else in place, all we need is the resources.
Mothers, students and allies gather outside of CPS demanding the field house be saved, anda library created.
Chants of protest can be heard from inside CPS as Mothers demand to speak to CPS CEO Ron Huberman
TheChicagoGrid.com October/November 2010