Community Organizing Groups in Chicago Demand Reductions in CPS Suspensions

At 10:30 am this morning, community activists, Southside residents and a handful of local politicians gathered at the Southlawn United Methodist Church for a public meeting devoted to the issue of suspension in Chicago Public Schools. The meeting was organized by the Community Renewal Society in collaboration with a number of other community organizing groups including Enlace Chicago, Family Focus Lawndale, and POWER-PAC.

I attended partly out of curiosity and partly out of support. (My own work as an organizing intern with the Gamaliel Foundation is also focused on suspension.)

For those of you unfamiliar to power-based organizing, public action meetings are essentially public theater. They are intended to portray the community as powerful, organized and unflinching. Typically, organizers select an “ask” (in this case “will you commit to reduce CPS suspensions by 40%?”), and invite “targets” (usually local politicians). The goal is to pack as many bodies into a room as possible, and to pressure the targets into conceding to the demands of the community.

When I arrived at the church a few minutes after 10:30, the drama was already underway. A pastor with a thunderous voice was leading the audience in an old gospel song “Victory is Mine”. The people were swaying and clapping; there was a palpable sense of urgency in the room. (The gospel songs, including a refrain of “We Shall Overcome”, struck me as a deliberate strategy to evoke memories of the Civil Rights Movement. Probably a smart way to appeal to the emotions of the audience, and to connect the issue at hand with the on-going struggle for racial equality.)

Once the meeting got underway, a variety of speakers (including two High School students) described the problematic aspects of suspension. The information they provided was rooted in solid data collected from the Consortium on Chicago School Research, and Catalyst. Some statistics that were particularly powerful:

* In 2008-2009 40,000 students were suspended from CPS, and 600 were expelled. That’s one suspension for every 10 kids

* African-American males make up 23% of CPS students, but accounted for 48% of suspensions, and 57% of expulsions

* A student who is suspended just once is three times as likely to drop out of school.

* Attendance is the most crucial determinant of passing courses and graduation.

These findings mean that current suspension policies undoubtedly contribute to the high dropout rates in Chicago. Personally, I’m not surprised. These statistics correlate with my own experiences as a teacher. Almost every student who failed my class did so because he/she was absent for long periods of time and failed to make up the work. Suspended students often returned to my classroom feeling confused and overwhelmed. Sending work home is no substitute for classroom instruction.

The meeting appeared to be a partial success. The “High Hopes Campaign” (the name for the coalition of groups who organized the public action) received written endorsements of support from mayoral candidates Carol Mosely Braun and Miguel del Valle. Two local politicians, state representative Marlo Coleman and Alderwoman of the 8th ward Michelle Harris were also present and pledged their support.

If you’re interested in learning more about the “High Hopes Campaign” and its efforts to reduce suspensions–you can visit their facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/HighHOPESCampaign

Conditional Cash Transfer Programs: Could They Work in the U.S.?

Today I thought I’d share a fascinating article included in the “Fixes” series of the New York Times. The article is titled “To Beat Back Poverty, Pay the Poor”. Essentially, the article describes a government-sponsored social welfare program in Brazil called Bolsa Familia (Family Grant). The nationwide program provides conditional cash transfers to mothers if they meet specific requirements such as keeping their children in school, seeing a primary care doctor, and attending workshops on issues like parenting.

Brazil is well-known as a nation of contrasts. It is famous for the glamour of Carnival, but also for the deep poverty of its slums and the formidable power of its prison gangs. However, the conditions of extreme economic inequality in Brazil are changing rapidly–largely in thanks to Bolsa Familia. In recent years, Brazil has narrowed its wealth gap faster than any other country (according to the NYT times, the percentage of Brazilians living in poverty has dropped from 22% to 7%).

Forty other countries have now launched nationwide programs similar to the Bolsa Familia. Unfortunately, the United States is not one of the them (although a privately funded pilot program called Opportunity NYC did run for a short time before terminating at the end of August, 2010). It’s no secret that inequality is a growing problem in the United States–so why aren’t we experimenting with our own version of the Family Grant?

Unfortunately, social welfare programs for the poor (especially cash-transfer programs like TANF) have a long record of unpopularity in the United States. Historically, we adore programs that support middle class workers (like Social Security or Medicare) but worry that programs designed to support the poor will serve as disincentives for work. (I’m oversimplifying about 100 years of social welfare history for the sake of brevity here). Given our cultural preoccupations with self-sufficiency and our distaste for paying new taxes, it seems unlikely that conditional cash-transfer programs will surface as a politically palatable option anytime soon.

However, I still think there are some ways the Latin American model might apply to anti-poverty work in the United States. Personally, I think conditional cash transfer programs could make a great model for non-profits working in low-income neighborhoods. I’d love to see pilot programs tried out in the Englewood or Woodlawn neighborhoods in Chicago.

Second, while politicians are hesitant to spend money on programs for the non-working poor, improving our educational system has become a clear national priority. I think if someone could tie the conditional cash transfer concept to education–there would be plenty of interested funders (both foundations and government grants). City governments have already displayed a willingness to experiment with the concept (Mayor Bloomberg sponsored projects that paid students for good grades in the NYC public schools system).

Bolsa Familia has improved school attendance among poor kids dramatically (children must attend school regularly in order for their mothers to receive monthly payments). I think a similar conditional payment program in our urban public school systems might boost attendance and lower dropout rates. (In my experience, poor attendance in inner-city schools is the number one cause of failures–and ultimately dropout). Furthermore, if kids were paid a small monthly stipend to attend after-school tutoring programs or ACT prep courses–they might be able to regularly attend such programs rather than working an after-school job.

Of course, these are just a few personal reflections–bringing conditional cash transfer programs to the U.S. in an effective way will likely require a lot of research. All of the countries to form such government programs are developing countries, most located in Latin America (Nicaragua, Ecuador and Mexico are other examples). The conditions and causes of inequality in these places are likely to differ from the United States. Still, the success of conditional cash transfer programs (most notably in Brazil) should not be dismissed. If we are serious about addressing inequality in the United States, these programs might provide us with some valuable lessons.

Support Increased Education Funding in Illinois: Visit www.noto37.org

This week, Illinois legislators will likely vote on a tax increase. Should the tax increase pass, the parent advocacy group Raise Your Hand is demanding that 5% of the increase be allotted towards the state’s public schools. Specifically, Raise Your Hand is suggesting that new monies be used to decrease teacher-student ratios and increase spending for early childhood education programs, vocational schools and High School selective enrollment programs.

If you would like to support Raise Your Hand’s campaign, simply click on this link: www.noto37.org . The site will automatically generate a letter that you can send to your state representatives–encouraging them to vote for a tax increase in public education funds. I just emailed a letter using the site, and it took less than a minute.

Raise Your Hand is a wonderful, grass-roots organization that formed on the Northside of Chicago last spring. The group is compromised of Chicago Public Schools parents who advocate for education funding. Last spring, Raise Your Hand rallied against Prop 37 (which proposed budget cuts to the public school system)– and the proposition was overturned. This year, RYH also successfully applied pressure  to return TIF surplus money to the public school system, and organized a panel discussion for Mayoral candidates to discuss their views on education (you can view a video of the event on their website: http://www.ilraiseyourhand.org/).

Making Mindful New Year’s Resolutions

We never did much to celebrate New Year’s Eve in my family. “Time is arbitrary”, my father said every year, before going to bed at 10’clock. Nonetheless, like many Americans I always made a New Year’s resolution. While I seldom stuck to these goals, year after year I declared them in my diaries in capital letters. In years past, my resolutions have included eating healthier, meditating daily, and learning to cook. I imagine such resolutions sound fairly typical. Like many Americans who vow every year to hit the gym, quit smoking, or land a better job–my goals have always focused on self-improvement.

American culture is obsessed with the notion of self-improvement (hit TV shows like “The Biggest Loser” , cult classics such as “Rudy”,  and the endless publication of self-help books are all a testament to this fact). It’s not surprising that our New Year’s resolutions often reflect our preoccupations with becoming wealthier, happier, slimmer or more accomplished. Perhaps this is the natural consequence of living in a culture so firmly rooted in individualism.

Certainly there is nothing wrong with self-improvement. But we ought to balance our desires to improve ourselves with an equal commitment to improving the world around us.

Just imagine–what if a million Americans this year resolved to reduce their carbon footprint rather than losing ten pounds or saving up for a new car?

In this spirit, I propose the “Compassionate New Year’s Resolution”. The idea is simple, pick a resolution that focuses on the making the world a better place rather than making yourself a better person. For a change, community trumps individualism. If you like, share your resolutions in the “comments section” of this blog.

Here are just a few ideas for Compassionate Resolutions…

1) Reduce your carbon footprint any way you choose. You can give up eating meat, use public transportation or bicycle to work, or make a commitment to use less energy or water.

2)  Consider making a small monthly donation to a favorite organization or charity. (Nicholas Kristof’s column “The Humanitarian Gift Guide” provides a list of wonderful organizations to help get you started).

3) Make a commitment to volunteer on a weekly or monthly basis.

4) Commit to spending more time with family or friends.

5) Make a commitment to abide by an ethical practice. For example, you might decide to stop talking about others behind their backs.

6) Engage in advocacy or social justice work.

These are just a few ideas. Personally, I’m making the commitment to stop eating red meat (gases emitted by cattle are one of the largest sources of greenhouse gases) and to begin using re-usable shopping bags. I’m a  graduate student, so I don’t have a lot of income–but I’ve also decided to commit 5% of  my paycheck from my part-time job to a different organization each month.

Like all New Year’s resolutions, your goals can be modest, but they should be specific and attainable. Don’t underestimate the power of  your personal choices to make a difference. Like Margaret Mead said, “A small group of thoughtful people can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Why We Need the Dream Act

During my first year of graduate school, I worked as an intern at a community health clinic located within a  CPS high school. As a social work student, my primary responsibility was to assist the mental health counselor at the clinic. The school where we worked was one of the most diverse in Chicago. Students originated from over 40 different countries. During my time there, I met students from Nigeria, Mexico and Cambodia (among many other places). Their stories, dreams, and opinions fascinated me.

Gonzalo was the most memorable patient I encountered. He was a high achieving student, a talented soccer player, and a leader in the student government. Furthermore, Gonzalo was the kind of kid who managed to be popular with both peers and teachers. When I met him, I instantly understood why our nurse practitioner had described him as “a really good kid”. He just conducted himself with a natural confidence, openness and maturity that was impossible not to like.

The first time Gonzalo came to the health center, he was experiencing difficulty breathing. When the nurse practitioner began to ask questions, Gonzalo was unable to reply. He simply grasped his throat to indicate that he could not breathe. Naturally, the nurse worried that Gonzalo was suffering from an asthma attack or heart problems. She called 911 and Gonzalo was rushed to the emergency room.

It turned out that there was nothing physically wrong with Gonzalo. What he experienced was a panic attack–a series of reactions caused by the sympathetic nervous system in response to extreme stress. After the incident, we asked Gonzalo to return to the health center for a follow up conversation with our mental health counselor. He complied, and completed the required psychosocial questionnaire before the visit. Although Gonzalo appeared to be a confident and easy-going young man, some of his responses on the questionnaire were troubling. For example, he responded ‘YES’ to the questions, “Have you ever contemplated harming yourself”, and “Have you ever felt that life was not worth living?”.

During our interview with Gonzalo, we found out that his parents had recently informed him that he was undocumented. Although Gonzalo was aware that his parents had come to the United States illegally from Guatemala, he had always believed that he was born in Chicago and was therefore a U.S. citizen. Gonzalo was a diligent student, and had always planned to go to college. Just a few months before his senior year, Gonzalo’s parents broke the news to Gonzalo that he  had been brought to the U.S. was he was just 3 months old. This information meant that Gonzalo was not a citizen, and therefore would not be eligible for college loans.

One can only imagine how distressing this information must have been, especially for an ambitious, hard working kid like Gonzalo. Gonzalo admitted that since receiving the news he often vacillated between feelings of depression and anxiety. He felt that years of hard work had been wasted, and he worried about the future now that it appeared that college was longer an option for him.

Sadly, Gonzalo is not an isolated case. There are millions of high school seniors across the U.S. just like Gonzalo. Right now undocumented immigrants, even children who were brought to this country at a young age against their will, are barred from serving in the military or accessing college loans. For such children, the future is bleak at best. Without providing undocumented children the chance to access a college education, we are in essence condemning them to a lifetime of poverty.

Congress had an opportunity to change the lives of countless immigrant children last Saturday, when it voted on the Dream Act. The Dream Act is a piece of proposed legislation that would allow undocumented children to obtain permanent residency if they graduate from high school, are of good moral character (i.e. no felonies), and if they commit to serving two years in the military or attending a four year college.

Unfortunately, the Senate fell short of the 3/5 majority needed to pass the legislation–which officially kills the bill for the remainder of this year. Given that next year’s Congress will be dominated by a Republican majority, it seems unlikely that this bill will resurface soon. I can only hope that progressives and education reformers will recognize the importance of continuing to mobilize behind this issue. For every year that passes, there are millions of high school seniors who will graduate without a future.

*Note: Names and other identifying factors were changed in this piece to conceal the identity of the patient described.

Obama Signs Child Nutrition Act

I thought I would post a quick update after my last blog. This morning Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The includes a 4.5 billion dollar plan to expand the free lunch program for needy kids and to make school lunches healthier! This is a huge victory for preventative healthcare!

GOP Blocks Bill Designed to Prevent Childhood Obesity

A few months ago, I posted a blog regarding my thoughts on childhood obesity. In that post, I shared my view that although America’s obesity epidemic is often portrayed as a consequence of personal choice, structural and political factors are largely responsible for this problem  (for example: grocery “deserts” in inner-cities,  unhealthy school lunch programs, etc). Predictably, obesity is often reflection of poverty and inequality. I was surprised by how many friends and readers responded to this post, many with stories of their own related to this topic. I realized that many of you are concerned about the obesity epidemic and passionate about preventative healthcare.

As a follow up to that post, I thought I would share a link to this article, which my boyfriend passed on to me: Republicans Block Child Nutrition Bill. If you don’t have time to read the article, there are two key pieces of information you should know. 1) House Republicans have just blocked a bill, which would provide free school lunches to thousands of more needy kids and make those meals healthier 2) Republicans (especially media-magnet Sarah Palin) have begun attacking Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign which aims to promote exercise and nutrition among America’s children. As usual, Palin has no shame, apparently calling the campaign a “school cookie ban debate”. The catch-phrase sounds a lot like other recent GOP scare-tactics (i.e. “death panels”).

The irony is that Michelle Obama’s campaign focuses on the structural aspects that cause obesity, not personal choice. For example, the Let’s Move Campaign advocates for healthier school lunches, recreational programs for children, and more sidewalks to encourage walking. Furthermore, Obama openly acknowledges that there “is a time for cookies and ice-cream”. The recent child nutrition bill (which the First Lady has supported) might prevent obesity and qualify more Americans to serve in the armed forces. Hardly a “cookie ban debate”, this is a bi-partisan issue that both Democrats and Republicans should be mobilizing to support.

Note: If you would like to learn more about the structural causes of obesity, Omnivore’s Dilemma by Micheal Pollan is a wonderful, eye-opening book. Pollan exposes the way in which the food industry has manipulated American consumers (for example: enlarging portion sizes in order to jack up prices).