Special thanks to Niketa Brar for sharing her story
In 2017 and 2018, Chicago United for Equity played an instrumental role in helping a public elementary school to successfully overturn a planned school closure. This is the first time in American history that a school closure has been stopped on the grounds of racial discrimination.
Investing in cross-sector relationships to build racial equity in Chicago
Chicago United for Equity (CUE), a non-profit organization, is dedicated to ending racial inequity in Chicago and fighting to prevent a person’s life outcomes from being predicted by race. CUE believes that bringing together community and government around a strong set of models for ethical and effective racial equity leadership will strengthen public accountability and help build toward a common vision for their city. Through this shared space, community and government alike are given the opportunity to learn from one another to partner and discuss racial equity as well as to improve their community and environment.
History of Chicago United for Equity
In April 2017, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) announced plans to close the National Teachers Academy, a high-performing elementary school in Chicago’s Near South Side. This decision to close a thriving school which served a predominantly African-American, low-income neighborhood in order to convert the campus into a new high school sparked intense local and national debate about the deep-seated racial inequities in Chicago still shaping modern-day school segregation today. CUE, founded as a response to this conversation, saw the opportunity to combine the strengths of organizers on the ground with government officials who had institutional knowledge in order to work toward a collective solution to save their children’s school. This effort resulted in the creation of a space that enabled parents and community members to realize that this inside-outside strategy could move their mission much further.
National Teachers Academy
CUE helped connect pro-bono attorneys with NTA students, parents, teachers, and other members of the school community to bolster their efforts to fight the school closure. CUE also encouraged the NTA community to employ a racial equity impact assessment (REIA), a tool for preventing institutional racism through the examination of how different racial groups will be affected by proposed decisions. After conducting this assessment, the group decided to craft a narrative that centered and identified racial equity as the central reason to stop the school closure.
In October 2018, CPS released school rankings which showed that NTA had received the highest school rating for academic performance and maintained a strong student body attendance. If the criteria for school closures are poor performance and under-enrollment, then on what grounds could CPS justify closing NTA? If the race of the students was the sole condition for which CPS thought they could act on, then this represented a violation of the Illinois Civil Rights Act. The NTA community took these findings to the court.
On December 3, 2018, Judge Franklin Valderrama ordered an immediate injunction to halt the closure of National Teachers Academy. Shortly thereafter, CPS announced its plans not to close NTA. This is the first time in U.S. history that an injunction has been granted on a civil rights claim to stop a school closure. In past cases, attorneys have used school code or other race-neutral reasons to fight school closures, even when it was obvious that race was the primary driver for the school district’s decision to close the school. CUE supported the NTA community by introducing diverse perspectives, driving community-based strategy, conducting local research, and centering racial equity in every step of the way. And because of these community-led efforts, NTA remains open today.
Lessons Learned/Key Takeaways
This model of cross-collaboration is replicable in every city. There are countless people in each city that only need a space to deepen their skillsets and a supportive community that holds shared values and goals in order to become leaders. People from every sector can come together to collaborate across lines and to bring their strengths, their lived experiences, and their perspectives to build a better future for their communities. As long as these groups are grounded in a shared vision and goals and focus on investing time in their relationships, it then becomes possible to work toward racial equity in a holistic, sustainable way.