Artists are constantly told in one way or another that our realm is not in “politics.” So often it’s insisted that we simply leave the issues up the politicians, that it isn’t our job to change the world around us.
This is never really a valid argument. But that’s especially true now, when Chicago’s teachers are taking to the picket line against the millionaire Mayor Rahm Emanuel. As artists, all of us can think of a teacher — be they in school, private lessons or simply an older friend or relative — who had an impact on our desire and ability to create. If Emanuel has his way, there will be a lot fewer of these teachers around. And that is something we simply can’t abide.
Emanuel, along with Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard, view education as a commodity. This much is obvious. It’s revealed in the references to students’ learning as “value added,” and the practice of standardized testing. The push toward charter schools — the placing of public resources in private hands — is essentially another attempt to privatize everything in sight.
In this context, it’s no surprise that the arts are seen as disposable. Prior to this current school year, 140 of Chicago’s 600-plus public schools lacked an arts or music teacher. As if this weren’t outrageous enough, 120 of those are on the predominantly African-American and Latino South Side! These are the very same neighborhoods that have had community arts and recreation centers shut down in the wake of the recession, whose schools are also lacking in basic amenities, whose classes are the most overcrowded.
The Chicago Teachers Union on the other hand have consistently acknowledged the need for the arts in their own fight. Their document “The Schools Chicago’s Children Deserve” makes reference several times to the benefits of arts education (promoting critical thinking, encouraging tolerance and appreciation of diversity, fostering confidence).
We also recognize the role of struggle in pushing open the room to more and better arts education. This past July, in an attempt to defuse the heat from the CTU, Emanuel and Brizard unexpectedly dropped their demand for a longer school day without extra pay. Instead, to make up for the extra hour and a half, they hired almost 500 teachers, most of them in arts, music and physical education. To say that this would have happened without the pressure from the CTU’s members and supporters is simply wrong.
But of course, the fight is only just beginning. Chicago’s teachers are going on strike for the most basic demands: decent pay, a sufficient pension, job security. If these are lost to Emanuel and Brizard’s chopping block then class sizes, privatization, or the hiring of more arts teachers will not be up for debate either. At least not on the terms of the teachers themselves, let alone the terms of the students, parents, or the communities.
And, importantly, what happens to Chicago schools is a bellwether for what happens in the rest of the US’ schools. This fight has taken on national importance as city councils across the country have attacked teachers, gutted their unions and brought in charter schools. While the teachers have certainly suffered, those who have suffered the most are the kids themselves. This is why we’ve seen actions and meetings in solidarity with the CTU from Detroit to Austin.
This is a fight for all of us. There is no doubt that the health of any society can be judged — among other elements — by its citizens’ access to culture and the arts. Schools are an integral part of this access. That’s why we, as artists, as people who have given our lives to human creative potential, are proud to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Chicago’s teachers as they say “no more!”
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Rebel Diaz, Bronx, New York
Prayers for Atheists, Providence, Rhode Island
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David Randall, musician and composer, London, England
FM Supreme, Chicago, Illinois
Mike Alewitz, muralist, artistic director for Labor Art & Mural Project, New Britain, Connecticut
BBU, Chicago, Illinois
Rebel Arts Collective, Chicago, Illinois
Jared Paul, poet and musician, Providence, Rhode Island
Red Wedge magazine, Chicago, Illinois
Teresa Veramendi, visual and performance artist, Chicago, Illinois
New Tongues, Columbia, Missouri
Tomboy, Amherst, Massachusetts
Adam Turl, artist, Carbondale, Illinois
Tyranny Is Tyranny, Madison, Wisconsin
Stavroula Harissis, poet and activist, Chicago, Illinois
Angela Aguayo, video artist, documentarian and assistant professor of cinema and photography at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale
Ecstramedium and Artists for Radical Change (Katreena Dyrek, Jalpa Pandya, Erin White, Daniel Williams, Manny Cortes, Cordarice Thomas), Chicago, Illinois
Alexander Billet, music journalist, Chicago, Illinois
J. Matthew Camp, musician and writer, Chicago, Illinois
Brit Schulte, writer, burlesque and vaudeville performer, Chicago, Illinois
Craig Ross, art student and printmaker, Southern Illinois University-Carbondale
Jessica Allee, visual artist, Carbondale, Illinois
Amy C. Buckler, theatre artist, Chicago, Illinois
Matthew Pillischer, filmmaker (BrokenOnAllSides.com), Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
70 Day Weekend music blog, Austin, Texas
Grant Mandarino, critic and art historian, Ann Arbor, Michigan
Raven Mad Theatre Company, Boston, Massachusetts
Marissa Janczewska, artist, designer and creative strategist, Hartford, Connecticut
Margaret Scott, Illustrator, Washington, DC
Aaron Lakoff, disc jockey, Montreal, Quebec
HV Cramond, poet and activist, Chicago, Illinois
Hopp Pilgrim (reel – 9), hip-hop artist and journalist, Chicago, Illinois
Jared Grabb, musician, Chicago, Illinois
Angry Gods, Chicago, Illinois
Matt Turner, music producer, Kansas City, Missouri
Fork the Man Productions, Chicago, Illinois