[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #14 in April 2014]
Chiara Galimberti: I sat down with my 13-year-old twin daughters Oona and Florence to talk about their experience of being kids in Chicago. As a parent it was sometimes painful to hear about how the dynamics of Chicago have hurt my daughters, and at the same time I felt heartened by their ability to imagine a more just reality. Here are some tidbits from our conversation.
What do you think about school closings and budget cuts?
Florence: My principal runs my school like a business and not a place where people get educated. She also told people not to protest because the mayor has our best interest. How is anything gonna change? She wants the parents to give money instead of the city, and pressures parents to give money to the school. She is trying to teach us to be quiet and play the game. The problem is not just that there is not enough money, it’s that people don’t feel like they can fight back. There should not be cuts for schools in the first place. That is wrong. Something in society is wrong for those cuts to happen. People don’t place enough value in education. Money is given in different ways in different parts of the city. They would not cut as much in richer neighborhood because the parents would all get really angry and fight back. At my school most of the kids don’t have a lot of money and they are all from different parts of the city so it’s hard to get together as a community. In other parts of the city the parents are close because they know each other and have the mobility to come to the meetings and organize. I can’t believe they are closing schools. It impacts everything. For example the school in front of my house will be crammed with kids from two other schools. So it impacts not just the school day of a kids but the whole neighborhood, either because the school will be overcrowded and tense, or because it’s gonna create a vacant hole where a school once stood. It makes me feel devalued as a kid.
Oona: The budget being cut will make the teachers less happy, which will make them crappier to the kids and then the kids are not gonna care about learning. This year with the longer school day teachers were unhappy and it made it horrible to be in their class. School is a really big part of everyone’s life because we spend six hours there and we make most of our friends there, so defunding schools will have a huge impact on our entire lives. Better teachers and a better education will make students less stressed out. School closings and defunding will mean I will spend an hour everyday just sitting there with a teacher. I will not be able to study my native language, because they cut it out of the school this year.”
What would you like to say to the mayor?
Oona: I wish the mayor would focus on the schools that are already here instead of opening new charters. It doesn’t make sense. They say they are saving money, but then they spend it on a bunch of other things, including more charter schools. Spend money on things that are important. Education is important!
Believe it or not we are gonna grow up soon, and if you want a whole generation of uneducated people it will not work out really well, so you should just educate people now. Why is it all about generating money? Schools generate smart people, isn’t that more important? He is just thinking about himself and not our future as kids, and adults to be. Teachers should be paid enough so they feel appreciated, otherwise they are gonna be more stressed out and then they are gonna take it out of the kids, and then the kids are not gonna like it, and it’s just a vicious cycle. If kids were heard in school decisions we would definitely have an elected school board and maybe even elected teachers.
Florence: I would say to the mayor: Stop spending money on stupid stuff and start spending money on stuff that makes sense! Don’t spend money on rebuilding Navy Pier and building a new stadium. There is no logic in closing 48 schools, shoving kids into other schools, and giving money to charters where teachers are paid less.
What is the sense in making the school day longer, and then cut money to schools? Now at my school I just have to sit in study hall because there is not enough money for an actual academic subject! What is the sense in that? What is the sense of having a longer school day? Kids are just being locked up doing nothing. It just makes kids angrier and more freaked out, not more educated or safer.”
What is the message you get from the city as a young person?
Oona: It makes me feel devalued as a kid. It makes me feel that the mayor and the board and society as a whole don’t care about kids or parents, and just care about money. They are telling me kids are not important because school is such a big part of our lives. It is a slap in the face. I just can’t believe it! I can’t believe that money is going to things like Navy Pier. Aren’t the people of Chicago more important than the people that visit for a day? Aren’t schools more important than making a dining hall more beautiful for the tourists?
Florence: It makes me feel that the higher ups in the city only care about themselves and not the kids at all. They are making decisions that will not affect them personally because they have the money to be buffered from it. For example, commuting for a long time really sucks. I had to do it and it was awful. I had to sleep less, sit in traffic, come home late, and have less time for homework and with my family. So it’s not just about overcrowding, it’s about the whole day of a kid being changed from how long they have to commute to school, to being in an overcrowded class with stressed out teachers. There is a sense of scarcity where people feel like there is not enough to go around and they are just pitted against each other for those meager resources and there is just more tension and conflict instead of collaboration. I think that is what we have to remember: that we have to be able to unite and collaborate instead of being torn apart by this.
Do you have anything else you want to add?
Florence: It has made a big difference living in different neighborhoods. Being somewhere where you can go to the park and walk around, and it doesn’t smell like cars everywhere. Some of the neighborhoods I lived in were close to the highway, deserted and without parks, and you don’t wanna walk around. It’s nasty. And it was scary because we had a violent neighbor. Another thing is that Chicago is so segregated, so people make assumptions. People assume I am white, so I must be middle class and live somewhere nice. Those things are not true, so it’s weird. I just wanna feel like I am a person, like someone wants to get to know me as a person, not just make assumptions about being wealthy or not, or feel like they can’t talk to me or relate to me because of my skin color or gender or age. I don’t want them to think about that first.”
Oona: People make assumptions based on where you live, your skin color, what school you go to, and things are just more complicated than that.
AREA Chicago interviewed Chiara Galimberti a few weeks after her conversation with her children. Here are some snippets from that exchange.
You are an artist and teacher engaged with issues of social justice. You are also a poor person, migrant, and single mother with no extended family support in the US. How does poverty affect your ability to engage in cultural or social change work?
Chiara: It is difficult to parse how poverty, not just the lack of money but the lack of social capital and support, affects my ability to be engaged in cultural or social work. Poverty permeates every aspect of my life, from the amount of time it takes to take care of basic needs, to the mental space occupied by a constant preoccupation with survival. Really, poverty is about a constant delaying of needs, a living day by day willfully ignoring what I can’t deal with at the moment. It creates a continuous state of emergency.
Cultural work in many ways is the opposite, in terms of having to look at the systemic view and the long term pushing forward of ideas. Being a cultural worker has in many ways sustained me during the worst hardships, as writing and art allowed me to look beyond survival at times when those realities felt suffocatingly close. I see people struggling with poverty being drained of the energy that is required for organizing, writing, learning, and making.
Another dynamic I have observed is the constant judgment that poverty brings. Society tells us that if we are poor we should get out of poverty by any means necessary, which usually means demeaning jobs, and putting everything else, our health, family life, political, and creative work, on hold. This perpetuates the sense that as a poor person I have no business asking for support so that I can do cultural work instead of working for a wage. This is pretty extreme in Chicago as so many people are struggling, so the thought that someone has the right to not work for wages but instead save time for other pursuits is deeply frowned upon. The way the mayor and the president speak mirror this also: the talk of job creation, of working hard as a path out of poverty, but at what cost? My childhood experience (and I see the same thing for many of my students) was one where a parent will work two or three jobs and then have no time for their children or for themselves, and still struggles to cover basic necessities. There is something deeply flawed in this equation. I have been trying to remind myself that it is OK to want time to do things that are not waged, to work on my artist practice and my political work. But every day I struggle with feeling like I have a no right to this.
You have mentioned that the message Chicago sends to poor people is: You must buy your way to safety. Can you speak more about violence, both surviving it and encountering it on a daily basis? How do you share that with your daughters?
Chiara: I want to qualify the idea of safety, first of all. To me, lack of safety means having to be in a constant state of vigilance, living with the sense that your environment is trying to obliterate you or push you out. When the basics of your life are continually destabilized or threatened, from your child’s school to how much you pay for rent, it is impossible to have a sense of safety and stability. Since coming to Chicago in 2009 we have not stayed in one apartment for more than a year. Once we moved after three months because of being attacked by a neighbor. The other times we moved because our rent was raised and we could no longer afford it. Chicago has so little regulation and enforcement when it comes to rent increase, which leaves prices vulnerable to speculation. This is not just about gentrifying populations, these currents are systemic and we need to ask ourselves who is benefiting from this speculation.
Violence usually refers to interpersonal acts, whether it is a shooting, mugging, or witnessing the like. Violence as I experienced in Chicago is much broader, and encompasses the school closings, the dilapidation of certain neighborhoods, the marginalization that affects poor areas. Violence is the sum of the things that affect quality of life and that are a direct result of policies aimed at enriching a very few at the expense of the ones that society deems politically powerless or expendable. It is feeling like you are worthless according to decision makers in City Hall, and to the array of parties involved in city development.
Violence has probably been the most difficult aspect of poverty to deal with as a parent. It is something that I have not been able to shield my daughters from. They have witnessed violence, whether it’s hearing gunshots, seeing people fight in the street, dealing with neighbors involved in the drug trade, or having lived through multiple break-ins in our building. I can see how it has profoundly affected their sense of trust, and their expectation that they have to be on edge most of the time. I try to keep the conversation open with them, and to foster spaces in their lives where they can let their guard down. I think there is a lot of power in strengthening relationships, and in creating a mutually supportive environment wherever we are. My example of that is getting to know all the neighbors in the building we live in and the surrounding houses. It has made a big difference in creating an environment of accountability and of solidarity.