Change at ChiArts: How The Student Union Came to Be

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 (reporting@chiarts.org), 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.

ChiArts Students Demand Anti-Racist Policies Following Incident

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Teina Davis displays a hand-made sign during the sit-in.

by Alex Huizar

The Chicago High School for the Arts (ChiArts) prides itself on diversity and inclusion. In its mission statement, ChiArts states that it aims to “develop the next generation of diverse, artistically promising scholar-artists.” But in the few weeks before winter break, the school was affected by an incident that brought race issues to the forefront of a school-wide conversation.

In an email to the student body and their parents sent out December 7, Principal Mike Wang wrote, “The ChiArts community was deeply impacted by a teacher’s statement that was racist towards black students in the class while addressing exam results.” The email opened by saying that student self-worth and safety are the primary concern of the faculty at ChiArts.

According to numerous reports, the teacher made a racist statement towards black students in the class while addressing exam results. The teacher reported themselves after realizing their error, and advised students to talk to other faculty members about the incident. By December 10, the teacher had been placed on administrative leave.

Because there is an ongoing internal investigation into the incident, The Double Space is unable to disclose the identity of the teacher. We are also unable to speak individually with the teacher in question about intentions behind the statement.

However, The Double Space does have access to student voices, and to the steps that have been taken by the faculty and student body since December 4.

Many students requested a mandatory assembly addressing race issues at ChiArts. Principal Wang encouraged students to discuss race-related issues, but said he was unable to offer a mandatory school-wide assembly. Instead, Wang offered an optional peer circle on December 8, from 1 to 2 p.m., during the lunch hour.

Teiana Davis, Malinda Caston, Elishama Carroll, Subira Mitchell, Evan Simpson, Henry Schellinger, Vivian Jones, Aisha June, Gabby Smith, La’Tia Owens, Kyle pullman, and Lily Potter — a group of senior students — came up with a list of demands and organized a sit-in on December 11 at 10:25 a.m.

While I cannot condone the interruption to instructional time, I want to be sure that we support our students in their call for action against racism,” principal Wang wrote in an email. He also encouraged teachers to join students in wearing black in solidarity against racism.

On Monday, ChiArts Seniors also put up signs around the school stating, “The n-word is not to be used by anyone who is not black.” The class also took to social media, creating the hashtag #AddressTheIssue to call on the student body and faculty at ChiArts to talk about what many students feel have been long-unaddressed racist sentiments school-wide.

On Monday, students and teachers gathered around the office on the first floor to hear June, Owens, Caston, Carroll, Bates, Simpson, Davis, and Moore speak on behalf of the ChiArts students.

The student group also issued a list of the following demands for the school administration:

1) Proper reprimandation and penalization for actions involving racial prejudice according to level of offense for both staff and students.

2) Mandatory assemblies for both academic and conservatory staff as well as students regarding the importance of racial sensitivity and proper language  to be used in a professional and racially diverse setting. Each assembly must be held on every fourth month with a total of three a year.

3) Further introduction of ethnic faculty to mimic the level of complex diversity in our school

4) Proper notification of all events regarding social issues in our school’s community for students,staff, and parents with a description and explanation all held within a time maximum of 48 hours.

5) Power to further develop this lost of demands never be taken away from the students and faculty at ChiArts in the betterment of our school community.

6) Form of anonymous communication held for to the ChiArts staff and student body who feel at risk,but need to question or receive further assistance if they feel an action of racial prejudice has taken place against them or another individual.

Wang told the Double Space that the administration has been proactive all year about promoting compassionate, anti-racist practices among its faculty. The administration has partnered with CrossRoads Antiracism Organizing and Training (CROAR) — an organization that helps institutions recognize systematic oppression and white privilege — to provide professional development for teachers, faculty, and staff.

CROAR believes that punishing one person over an incident like the one that took place on December 4 does not address the deep roots of institutionalized racism.

“Their viewpoint is that if you choose to throw someone away you’re perpetuating white supremacists practices,” Wang said.

CROAR led a workshop at ChiArts on October 20, 2017; it was mandatory for ChiArts staff. Wang said that almost all of the academic staff went. Several ChiArts teachers have also attended optional all-day workshops hosted by CROAR off-site.

“Every person in the United States has racial bias. The society in which we grew up, the laws —  a lot of  these things were created by white people to keep power. We are changing that,” said English teacher Andrew Van Herik.

Many students, however, are still unsatisfied with the steps ChiArts has taken.

“ChiArts will not tolerate this. We are safe space free from racism, prejudice, sexism, homophobia,” said senior Nathaniel Turner. Turner added, however, that he is still optimistic.

Wang, Executive Director Jose Ochoa, and CROAR hosted a community forum on Monday, December 18 to talk about the recent events concerning racism at ChiArts. In an email following the forum, Wang wrote, “After a review of the incident with our legal counsel, we have determined that at this time, it is in the best interest of students for this teacher to return to the classroom after winter break under administrative oversight and professional development.”

There have also been reports of students making racist remarks.

Caston said she had been proactive with her peers. When recounting an incident with a specific student who got into a fight over the n-word, Caston said, “This is a safe space for everybody, our job is to deescalate the situation. We want to resolve it. We want both of you to walk out peaceful; to have a understanding of each other.”

“ChiArts has done enough to show that to its students by going so far as suspending the administrator who was responsible of one of the race related incidents and also agreeing with the terms to prevent racial tensions and incidents from ever happening again,” Armani Colon, a musical theater student, said. “I hope that in future years ChiArts can use this experience or revolution of our school as a stepping stone.”

Devyn Berkowitz wasn’t initially pleased with the way ChiArts handled the incident. Berkowitz wrote in an email, “The way that the staff handled this situation in the beginning was not enough to show their compassion and perseverance to make ChiArts, (an arts high school with lots of diversity), a safe place for kids of color (as well as other ethnicities/races), which surely made lots of people, including myself very upset.”

Now, though, Berkowitz thinks that the school has stepped up. “Recently, I think the staff at school have been diligently working hard to keep our school as much of a safe zone as possible and make every student, no matter what race, feel connected.”

Monee Bridge, a sophomore, told the Double-Space that she hopes nothing like this will happen again.

“I know our school is better than this, and we should encourage more students for example like our school protest to speak up when something is unexpectable,” Bridge said.

This Month’s Feature: BEVERAGES

Hey readers!

This month, our team is serving up a refreshing collection of articles. The feature section this month is all about the world of beverages, in all shapes in sizes, drinks old and drinks new. Whether a cold soda or a piping hot cup of tea, if anyone ever sipped it, you’re gonna find something about it in our feature.