Halting Closures and Rebuilding Communities in Chicago

The grassroots organizers in the Journey for Justice Alliance (J4J) were deep in the fight long before anyone funded it. Leading successful campaigns in Chicago and across the country against inequitable school closings and spurring the creation of sustainable community schools, J4J shows that centering racial justice in both analysis & strategy can help mobilize BIPOC communities and build popular power for the long term.

J4J was founded in 2012 with a handful of dedicated parent organizers, a vision for justice, and soon after, a $6,000 Schott grant. Since then, they have formed a key backbone of the OTL Network, growing into an alliance spanning 36 cities, more than 100,000 parents and students, and a budget of almost $700,000.

In 2015, J4J National Director Jitu Brown was a leader in a dramatic hunger strike that garnered national headlines and forced a powerful mayor to reverse his course.

Two years earlier, the Chicago Board of Education, appointed by then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel, announced that it would close 49 public schools in what was the largest mass school closure in United States history. The board’s decision sparked heated criticism, especially the inequity of which schools were being closed: poor, Latino and Black neighborhood schools. The Chicago Board of Education voted to close Dyett High School — the last open-enrollment high school in the historically-Black Bronzeville neighborhood — in June 2015.

By August, having exhausted every appeal and other course of action, Jitu Brown and eleven other parents and community members engaged in a hunger strike to reopen Dyett high school. After 34 days, school officials announced Dyett would reopen, a stunning reversal for Mayor Emanuel and a victory that inspired organizers across the country.

Journey for Justice has its roots in public education, but in recent years has begun to articulate a vision that encompasses not just the classroom and schoolhouse, but the entire social community our children and parents live within. And J4J has shown that this broader vision works in practice: in 2021 they succeeded in organizing to stop the closure of Mercy Hospital in Chicago, which if closed would have devastated access to healthcare for the Black neighborhoods surrounding it.

This expansive, interconnected understanding of education justice is a framework echoed in Schott’s Loving Cities Index, which examines community-wide factors that impact student opportunity and achievement.