On January 14, 2022, students at several public schools organized a walkout and march on CPS headquarters to demand safe learning, funding for full student resources, and meaningful representation in the CPS decisions that directly affect their lives. Many of the key youth organizers behind this action formed Chi-RADS, Chicago Public School’s radical youth alliance. This week, Tyler Zimmer from Rampant spoke with four members of the group about their experience and plans for the future.
Can you tell us a little bit about what Chi-RADS is and how you all came together? Did you kind of have a background doing other organizing around the city?
Ashley: Chi-RADS is a radical group made up of Black and brown queer youth. The people who started it did have a background in organizing, especially with the Chicago Freedom School, Black Lives Matter protests and other local protests. But the majority of us came through the internet, which is crazy to think about because a lot of us met on Twitter when we were posting stuff about activism. It’s just people who have the drive and people who want to do something about it, just clicking a link and just being here. And that’s what we are. We are a community. We started a community because we wanted to find a community within ourselves.
Angel: Yeah, I love what Ashley said and it’s all true. A lot of us had organizing experience in places like Chicago Freedom School. Personally, I was at a rally downtown by Federal Plaza when I first got involved. It was in response to the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict and I met a lot of people there from Chicago Freedom School. A friend I went with got me in contact with Catlyn [Savado]. We love Catlyn so much. We all got in touch over the internet and it’s crazy how social media really changed the playing field and how people network and get in contact with each other. You know, it really opened up new doors.
Awesome, thank you. So you all organized an amazing walkout from the schools on the 14th. What has the mood been like among students in the schools after the walkout? What’s your take on where things stand right now?
Christian: In my school after the walkout the students were a little more encouraged. The teachers were very, very supportive. They were very encouraging of us because we’re becoming such young youth activists and things like that. So the mood in my school was very happy and encouraging to keep growing and don’t stop and to make sure our voices are heard.
Cassandra: Yeah, so the students who go to Jones are a lot more privileged than students from a lot of schools in the city. So at first they really didn’t understand why we were doing the walkout and a lot of them were really misinformed on their end. They didn’t understand that a lot of the schools in the city don’t have the same privileges that we do. But once we did do the walkout, you could tell that they started to understand and they started to become more interested. A lot of people wanted to be involved and they wanted to educate themselves and they wanted to have their own voices.
Ashley: When we came back to the schools after winter break, I know a lot of people felt feelings of stagnation, to the point of like, “why are we here? We are not safe.” But after the walkout, they realized that we just don’t have to sit there and complain, that we can do something about it. Because we’re students most people don’t think that our voices do matter. It’s just “let the adults take care of it, let CTU or CPS take care of it.” But now, we are like pioneers, we are our future. I think it’s really important to realize that shift, the mentality, that we can do something about it. And I think that’s very important to highlight.
Angel: I love what Ashley said. I just wanted to add onto that: I feel like this walkout is something that a lot of students needed. You know, they needed to see that form of direct action, they needed to see people out there. Personally at my school, I know a lot of people got radicalized after the walkout happened. They wanted to get more involved and were like “wow, this is amazing, people are really fighting for this.” Being down there in front of CPS headquarters really felt like community, and it felt like family and the energy was amazing. It just reminds me of that quote that goes, the most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any in the first place.
Yeah, absolutely—you feel so much less alone when you’re out there doing something with other people. My next question is: What do you think real student representation and power in CPS decisions would look like to you?
Ashley: So, I think what’s important is not what the structure looks like because it could manifest itself in different ways—we have a bunch of blueprints to look at. But we sometimes get ignored just because we are students and are “younger” and we don’t “understand” these things because we are “younger.” We first need to be recognized as an entity that does know, because obviously we are the people in the building the most. We are trying to get that recognition and change how we’re perceived by the people in these positions of power, because there is a hierarchical system within that they don’t tend to listen to us. I think that’s what we’re working on, being recognized as the entity, because right now we’re just students who walked out and we want to be and are more than that.
The January 14th walkout and the safe learning proposals that you all organized was an inspiration for students in many other cities. Have you established connections beyond Chicago? And how do you see what you’re doing as being relevant to students outside the city?
Cassandra: Actually some people from other cities have reached out to us for advice on how to lead in their own demonstrations. I think it’s really nice to see that we’re encouraging other students that are just like us to take control of their own education.
Ashley: Okay, so, in the beginning we mentioned how we all met on the internet and how the internet is such a great networking site, and I think that’s really prevalent in this situation. We have people coming into our lives like “hey, I’m from Quebec,” or “I’m from New York,” “I’m from California.” So shout out to all the other schools that are doing this or that are in contact with us and shout out to our social media team as well. They’re amazing at reaching out back to them. I think we are more focused on our local problems right now, but once we do get that, we know that we can build each other up from our local standpoints to a nationwide thing. I feel like that’s a power we can build on.
Angel: 100 percent. Just to name a couple more, we had people from Seattle, Washington reach out and there was also somewhere else—was it in Minnesota?—a lot of students there took inspiration from what we did and also organized a district-wide walkout. I think it’s one of the largest school districts there. We actually had someone on our livestream that was from Quebec, Canada and that blew my mind.
That’s so cool. Solidarity is a really powerful thing. Here’s another question: COVID-19 and Lightfoot’s arrogance and incompetence don’t seem to be going away, at least not this year. What plans does Chi-RADS have for the future? What’s next?
Ashley: So, we [in Chi-RADS] started with COVID safety but that’s not where it ends. If you really think about the safety of students and what other factors contribute to that, it’s physiological and actual, physical safety and then also mental health safety, and these issues are intersectional. They’re all built on each other, so we’re not gonna stop just at COVID safety because we have other factors that influence that. We’re gonna keep going into our neighborhoods. How do our neighborhoods affect us—it’s not necessarily just our schools. We all come from different sections of the city and we all see different issues and we’re all affected by different things, so we just are not gonna stop at COVID safety in school. These aren’t just school issues, these are city issues. Our lives are on the line.
Cassandra: I think that we want to remain relevant, and not just as Chi-RADS but like Ashley said, as a community and the city and as a whole. We want to be actively making a difference. I feel like future students, in many years to come, should feel like they’re safe in their schools, and if they’re not they should be able to say something about it. So this isn’t just for right now.
Right on. Speaking of bringing people together: What kinds of support would you all like to see from teachers, and from other Chicago organizers that want to help or be in solidarity with the work you’re doing?
Christian: The support we would like to see is making sure that our voices are heard and also, making sure that they are there for us—and not just for the walkout or whatever, but in general. Like, in school generally, to make sure that our safety matters, to make sure that our safety is the priority, and things like that. Also: sharing the word. Sharing the word to other teachers, admins, activists—making sure that we can all come together to bring the system down, to ensure that our safety is CPS’s number one priority.
Ashley: So we have shared ways people can donate on social media, because obviously we are in a capitalist system. We can’t just get that money to organize ourselves, so if you are in the position to and are willing, you can donate to our page—it’s found on all our social media accounts.
We also need support specifically from teachers, but don’t encourage your students to radicalize if they are not in the position or in that moment don’t feel safe to. Just know that it’s like something we are doing and just don’t stop [supporting us]. Just let us be and if you wanna give us your support, give us your support, but also don’t be that brick or don’t be that wall in between us and getting our voices out there.
Another thing I wanted to emphasize is that if you are an organization that talks to us—and I know our social media team has been working on reaching out to other organizations—but if we say “no” to an agreement or to working with you, then please respect that. We’ve had some problems where we say no to working with a group and they come back and sort of act like we’re working with them, like we said “yes” to them, which is not the message we were trying to send. Once we say “no,” it just means no.
We have our boundaries and we hope that people are going to respect that.
Yeah that’s great that you all are setting those boundaries. I’m glad you all are standing up and saying “this is what we’ve decided” and trying to protect your autonomy. Sorry to hear that some people haven’t respected those boundaries.
Angel: Yeah, I wanted to add on that: as a youth organization, we do have a lot of adults messaging us, asking how they can help and I wanted to throw it out there that one way they can is by joining us during direct actions and looking after our safety. For example, during the walkout, we had a group of adults wearing vests that were making sure that none of the students were harmed—that’s one way adults can help. You know, they can get in contact with us, we can build community and they can become marshals.
That’s really useful. That’s awesome. Is there anything else you think people ought to know about Chi-RADS and the work you’re doing?
Ashley: I just want to clear up the whole sentiment that we are just “students who want to ditch” or we are just “puppets for the CTU” because that is certainly not true. We have our own drive, we make our own actions. And if kids wanted to ditch, I can assure you they will find a way to ditch. They’re not walking out in the Chicago winter just for nothing and waiting there in the snow just for nothing.
And we’re not being controlled by anyone. We’re only being controlled by our drives and our passion and our community and I think that a lot of people are missing that and are very misinformed. But all of our information is out there—all it takes is a simple click. You can read the stuff we put out there. But if you are not in a position to be informed about that, I just don’t think that you are in a position to speak about us.
Cassandra: Yeah, I agree with what Ashley said. It’s not about ditching school because the way we conducted the walkout was that each representative for each school planned how that specific school was going to participate, depending on how their admin would react and the environment of their school. At Jones, it was convenient enough that [the day walkout happened] was a day that we got to have early dismissal and we only had three classes that day—so, our main problem was that we already missed five days of school and a lot of people reached out to us and told us they didn’t want to miss any more of their education time, so we set it up so we didn’t have to, which worked out for us.
So yeah, it’s never been about ditching school because the whole thing is about getting a safe and effective education.
Angel: Yeah, I found it hilarious that people thought we were ditching. We had people coming from all parts of the city, people all the way down on the south side driving over here to take part in the rally. If I wanted to ditch, I would just go home. I wouldn’t drive all the way, [laughs] all the way up north for the rally. And, it was amazing and I love that this happened because, after all, Black and brown youth make up the vast majority of students in CPS and we need a space. We need a space for us to feel comfortable, to organize for community, to love one another and to care for one another and keep one another safe.
Cassandra: We all know that we’re taking a risk when we’re leaving school. It’s not like we just want to leave so we don’t have to go to school. We know that we can potentially be penalized for leaving.
Ashley: I wanted to mention something Angel touched on, which is that we are Black and brown youth. It’s that these kids, specifically Black and brown youth have been put in survival mode for too long. When we talk about these issues, we’re educated because we lived through it—and I just feel that people need to acknowledge that even if you don’t see it directly, it’s not like an out-of-sight, out-of-mind thing. It’s our lives. So if you’re choosing to actively not care about these issues, these are people’s lives you’re playing with. I just feel like a little bit of compassion is what people need and that’s what we want from others as well.
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