Change at ChiArts: How The Student Union Came to Be

"Protest" by S Pakhrin is licensed under Creative Commons.

by Lily Potter

In mid-December, in my Integrated Arts class, a couple of seniors brought up whether or not racial tensions at The Chicago High School for the Arts (ChiArts) would be talked about.

The teacher in the class — Ms. Brenda Wakai-Torres — started the conversation about what we could do and encouraged the students to do something about the problem. I was in that class; I thought that was a smart idea and we could definitely take this somewhere.

The group in Integrated Arts quickly mobilized, originally deciding to attempt to instigate a school-wide sit-in. The problem was that we only had half a school day and two days on the weekend to plan a sit-in the following Monday. But the power of a group can really fuel the fire of justice.

We made a group chat on Facebook using the Messenger feature. We started planning for the sit-in. We had to spread the word without giving away too much information. The goal was to get the attention of as many people as we could. We all decided to wear black for unity. Anyone who wore black and went to the sit-in was united with us and our mission. We appointed people to be leaders to speak; those were the people — Elishama Carroll, Malinda Caston, Subria Mitchell, and Evan Simpson — who ultimately became our go-to speakers for events because of their strong rhetoric and presence.

It took until after Winter Break for the Student Union to officially be formed. It was important because members of the group thought that people might forget about the issue at hand. We had to plan an assembly where we were able to speak in full about the issue, why it was serious and important, and plan talks with Principal Michael Wang, School Social Worker Joseph Pancer, and other members of the administration about how we were going to build a foundation.

At the first meeting of the Student Union, there was a lot to discuss. We needed a complete and compact mission statement, one that addressed our motives while being short enough to remember. We also talked about forming a student hotline (, which would help students report any out of place things they see or hear happening during the school day.

Then, there was a conversation about something new to many of us: peer jury, officers/representatives in advisories, promotional teams, and educational panels (assemblies). We needed to figure out how to appoint members of the Union so that once the founders graduated, the organization wouldn’t fall through the cracks. Finally, we needed to recognize privacy and confidentiality guidelines within issues reported through the hotline.

We plan to discuss and go over these topics each meeting until graduation in May, and by then we should have everything laid out to run the union perfectly.

I have heard people saying that there are more issues at the school than just race and that by talking just about race, there is too much emphasis on one topic. There has also been a lot of talk about the conversation taking up too much time and space; maybe it should be left to the teachers to figure out. But we as students have finally started to address racism and other problems within the school and the administration. The administration at ChiArts places heavy emphasis on creating a safe space regardless of gender, age, race, etc. We already have a pretty firm grasp on respecting people’s gender and preferences, so why don’t we have a firm grasp on dealing with racism?

If the entire school can all comply and follow the safe space rule, then there will be fewer cases of detrimental actions against students from all people. As for why this should be a student-run group: Multiple negative events regarding race have come up within the past few years and with little to no action being taken for the issues. Someone outside the school’s administration needs to fix the issue.

Teachers are always lecturing students about how our voices need to be heard and the impact of sharing our voices with the world. Though it is a small step, we as students have started doing exactly what we have been told to do all these years: Raise your voice, because there is great power in sharing your standpoint that can influence those around you. And that’s exactly what the Student Union plans to do.

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