Chicago students take a lesson from civil rights era

CHICAGO – “We’re here today to voice our message for safe passage to and from school and to say we are tired of students being killed,” said 15-year-old Armando Mancilla who attends the Little Village Lawndale High School on the city’s southwest side.

Mancilla spoke passionately during a July 31 press conference at his school, organized by him and his peers. Together they were joined by dozens of their classmates, teachers and staff, youth instructors and community activists to address the on-going violence taking place in the predominantly Latino Little Village neighborhood and the African American North Lawndale community. As many as 31 Chicago Public School students have died due to gun related violence since the end of last July.

“We’re here to demand, to inform and to take charge of this situation,” said Mancilla. “Children are getting shot on their way to school. We should be able to walk down the streets and feel safe,” added Mancilla.

Mancilla said the press conference was organized as a call to action in order to increase neighborhood safety and to reverse negative stereotypes about youth caught in community violence. In addition its purpose was to build broad multi-racial unity through collective power for more jobs, recreational opportunities and programs for youth including voter education and registration drives.

Mancilla participated in a group of students from the Little Village Lawndale High School who took part in a four-week leadership development program that focused on learning about the civil rights movement and connecting that history to the current struggles for undocumented workers today.

The program was a project of the Little Village Community Development Corporation (LVCDC) to address social justice issues and to encourage multi-racial unity, especially between the Latino and African American neighborhoods where the majority of students who attend the high school reside.

Denise Olivares, 17, said the press conference was not only to highlight safe passage for all Chicago students who walk to and from school but also to promote the importance of working together in a very segregated city. “It’s hard enough as minorities to surpass our limitations but it’s even harder for us as minorities to be constantly separated from each other,” added Olivares.

The leadership program gave the students the unique opportunity to visit historical sites and monumental landmarks of the civil rights movement as part of their learning experience. The students visited the 16th Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and went on a tour at the Lorraine Hotel where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. They also visited the home where King lived as well as the King Center in Atlanta, Georgia.

Tattiera Green, 17, said the trip was very moving. “The museums were so realistic and you couldn’t help but feel inspired to learn about the movement,” she said. “We were able to experience what people went through during the civil rights era,” added Green. “I learned that it doesn’t matter how old you are but it’s about the actions we take together and when that happens we could really make a difference,” she said.

Devontae Davenport summed up the trip, “I learned about how African Americans were killed so I could have a great education today.”

Mr. Rito Martinez, principal of the Social Justice School, one of the four at the Little Village Lawndale High School, said a guiding theme taught in the classroom is unity. Martinez said the idea is taken from a Martin Luther King Jr. quote, “We must fight together as sisters and brothers in struggle or parish together as fools.” Martinez added, “Everything that we do revolves around this guiding principle and through leadership programs students can become inspired to replicate the historic struggles of the past.”

Jesus Garcia, President of LVCDC, said the largest stakeholders in the Little Village and North Lawndale communities are young people and their presence shows the great promise of our future. “Partnerships and building unity allow us to improve the quality of life in our neighborhoods,” he said. Young people are the largest population in both communities added Garcia. “We need to listen better to young people,” he said. “We have the power to learn and make history. We have heard you and now we will seek to move and confront the challenges ahead.”

Cristina Pacione-Zayas, Director of the Community Schools with LVCDC, said the press conference was the culminating event for the students. “It’s important to instill a sense of history and inspire a drive for activism in order to build bridges between the Black and Brown communities in common struggle,” she said. “This project is one of those that passes the torch, and now these youth need to be prepared to take the lead,” said Pacione-Zayas.

Abdul-Aziz Hassan, instructor of the program, said, “We wanted the students to talk about the civil rights era and immigrant rights today as the same movement.” Hassan said youth today have to grow up too fast compared to past generations. “Young people today are not protected by their youth and are losing that privilege,” he added. “They are born and hit the ground running with no space to second guess or make mistakes.”

Hassan made the closing remarks at the press conference. “Your future is in your hands,” he told the attentive students. “It’s up to you to claim it and protect it.”