A demonstration by Chicago Light Brigade Credit: Sarah Ji

Last Tuesday, just before the Chicago Police Department released the video of officer Jason Van Dyke shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald to death, the Chicago Public Schools sent out a letter to all parents and guardians. Signed by chief education officer Janice K. Jackson, it announced that the video would not be shown in CPS schools but that counseling would be available for traumatized students and a “toolkit” was being prepared for students to initiate conversations at home.

The following day, Amanda Lichtenstein, the educational director of 826CHI, a nonprofit writing and tutoring center in Wicker Park, began drafting a letter to her staff, briefing them on the case and asking for suggestions for how to to discuss the video with 826 students.

“We work with high school and middle school students who have lost loved ones to gang violence and police brutality,” Lichtenstein explains. “They’ve talked about police harassment and profiling in their writing. We grapple, as educators and writers, how to make a space for them to grieve and describe the violence and how to analyze and learn instead of glorifying it.”

The more the 826 staff talked, a few things occurred to them. First: that there was a significant gap between their experiences as white adults and those of their students. “But it’s not just police brutality and inequality,” Lichtenstein says. “Our parents and students have to think about how to get home at night. There are limits on their freedom, of where to go and spaces where they will be safe and respected and heard.” Second: that although they work with young people, their backgrounds were as educators not activists and, as Lichtenstein puts it, “We try to change our organization, but we’re not always getting it right. We want a bigger and more lasting change.” And third: that they probably weren’t the only group in the city that felt this way and that they wished others could join them in their feelings of grief and rage and exasperation and talk about ways to start conversations about race and equity in their own spaces.

So they rewrote the staff letter as a statement of solidarity with the #BlackLivesMatter movement: “We acknowledge our collective power as educators and artists to transform lives and vow to seize this present historical moment to stand in solidarity with youth and activists in our city fighting for true justice, racial consciousness, and community transformation. We will not be silent.”

Then they circulated it as a Google doc on Facebook. Within a week, they had more than 180 signatures from Chicago educators, artists, publishers, and theater directors.

Because it snowballed so quickly, Lichtenstein says, the 826CHI staff hasn’t yet worked out a solid plan of action besides presenting the petition to local activist groups such as the Black Youth Project 100, #LetUsBreathe, Assata’s Daughters, Chicago Light Brigade, and We Charge Genocide. She hopes the activists will be willing to meet with the arts educators to tell them what they need and advise them on what to do next.

“It’s powerful to hear from activists,” Lichtenstein says. “We don’t know what kind of support the activists are seeking. The artists and educators want the activists to know we are grieving and enraged and that the events of last week showed us we need deeper change, but we don’t know how to make it happen. We want to communicate with youth activists that there’s room for learning and collaboration—to apply pressure from multiple angles—for real change in our city. We have to get better at having hard conversations.”

StatementofSolidaritywithBlackLivesMatterfromCommunity BasedOrganizationsArtsNon Profits