September 16, 2015
Open Letter to Alderman Will Burns on the Dyett Hunger Strike
from Julie Woestehoff, former Executive Director of Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE)
We first met many years ago when you were State Senator Emil Jones’s education aide. Many of us in the Chicago school reform community were impressed with you then, and felt that you understood what we cared about – that is, a strong parent and community voice in school governance, and strong public schools. We found you to be approachable, smart, and helpful – one of the good guys.
I was pleased when you decided to run for office and was happy to vote for you to be my state representative and my alderman. We’ve had a very cordial relationship for many years.
In 2013, the year after the school district voted to phase out Dyett, I wrote a blog post (http://pureparents.org/?p=20323) on the web site for PURE, a group I directed until my move out of state last year. The blog praised you and other aldermen for signing on to a resolution calling for a moratorium on charter school expansion. That 2013 resolution included the point that expansion of charter schools was undermining neighborhood school enrollment, and that traditional schools should not be closed for budgetary reasons while new charter schools were being opened.
Considering this history, it is especially disappointing now to hear about your rejection of what many educators and others consider a very strong community proposal to revitalize Dyett High School, and your argument that Jitu Brown and the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO) are staging a hunger strike for Dyett merely to gain power and money.
Most of us who toil in the trenches of community organizing and parent advocacy would find this argument hysterically funny if we had time to laugh. Compare, for example, the most recent reported salary of KOCO’s executive director –$63,000 — with that of, say, Robin Steans, executive director of the charter school-promoting corporate reform group Advance Illinois. Robin already has vast family wealth, and she still pulled down an annual salary of $178,000 in 2013. My point here is not to gratuitously poke at Robin, who has been a friend in the past, but to highlight what should be obvious — that wealthy, powerful people in this country have more handed to them on a plate than low-income, marginalized people could ever dream of. They need groups like KOCO to help raise their voices and concerns to policy makers.
As PURE’s executive director from 1995-2014, I had a front row seat to KOCO’s outstanding work supporting public education, and have been pleased to see KOCO’s Jitu Brown become one of the nation’s most charismatic and courageous leaders in the fight to save democratic public education and to demand high-quality schools for all children. Their challenges to you over the years have arisen from what I believe is a reasonable analysis that there is a disconnect between your actions and the critical needs of some of your constituents. KOCO’s decision to sponsor a hunger strike is a reflection of their extreme frustration with you and other education policy makers. The fact that several members of your community have been willing to put their lives on the line to join them, and that others are actively supporting them, suggests that many share this frustration.
I write to you now out of grave concern for my friends who are becoming ill after 30 days of this hunger strike, and for all of those children who need the adults around them to be the best leaders possible. I urge you to step back from past perceived grievances and take the first step to open up a sincere, meaningful dialogue with these members of your community who deserve your attention.
Thank you and best wishes,