Chicago Teachers Should Be Praised for Fighting for Students

Instead of our teachers being able to focus solely on their lesson plans and our students having time to just focus on homework, they’ve had to fight the city to get it to prioritize their health.

Chicago environmental justice activists support Southeast Side teachers Bianchi and Stark.

Chuck Stark and Lauren Bianchi are two teachers at George Washington High School (GWHS) on Chicago’s Southeast Side who have had to go above and beyond to protect their students’ health.

The Southeast Side is bombarded with pollution from toxic industry, such as petroleum coke dust, heavy metals in the air and soil, and much more. Instead of teachers being able to focus solely on their lesson plans and students having time to just focus on homework, they’ve had to fight the city to get it to prioritize their health.

And the recent fight against General Iron, a notorious scrap-metal recycling plant that planned to move across the street from GWHS, took everything that residents had to give.

Stark went without food for a one-month hunger strike. Bianchi participated in several protests, including one where she was arrested outside of Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Allison Arwady’s home for blocking the street while imploring the commissioner to deny General Iron a permit to open. Bianchi has also vocally criticized Chicago Public Schools for not upgrading GWHS’s crumbling infrastructure.

Ultimately, after a hard-fought battle, Chicago officials denied General Iron a permit application early this year. We could finally breathe a sigh of relief as the worst seemed to be over. But last week, Chicago Public Schools officials sought to fire Bianchi and Stark for encouraging their students to civically engage in protests against General Iron.

The Southeast Environmental Task Force organized a press conference this evening featuring two George Washington High School teachers — Lauren Bianchi and Chuck Stark — who Mayor Lori Lightfoot is seeking to terminate for their participation in protests against General Iron’s proposed move to the Southeast Side. Hear from them, as well as Southeast Environmental Task Force Director Olga Bautista, Washington HS alum Trinity Colon, CTU VP Jackson Potter and United Working Families Executive Director Emma Tai.

Posted by Chicago Teachers Union on Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Investigators alleged that the teachers “disregarded safety rules,” among other claims that both teachers and students say are completely false. The Chicago Board of Education eventually voted unanimously not to fire either teacher.

The Chicago Teachers Union spoke out against Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who appoints Board of Education members, for trying to retaliate against the teachers for protesting the relocation of General Iron. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Michael Regan called the proposed move of the facility a textbook case of environmental racism.

After a nearly two-year-long investigation, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) officials determined this month that the city had continued a “discriminatory” pattern of relocating polluters from white communities to Black and Latino neighborhoods by helping General Iron in its attempt to move from Lincoln Park to the Southeast Side.

The investigation also found that city officials ignored their own environmental justice initiatives and pushed ahead with the relocation, even though they knew it would negatively impact the Southeast Side.

The city’s response? That the findings are “absolutely absurd.” Chicago officials seem to be the only ones who don’t get the picture.

Educators play a critical role in teaching youth the importance of using their voice and getting involved in social and environmental justice issues that impact them and their communities. The mayor’s attempt to stifle that role could set a dangerous precedent that would affect teachers and the future generations they help cultivate.

Bianchi and Stark deserve to be praised for going beyond their normal nine-to-five duties to fight for their students’ right to breathe clean air. Instead, they were threatened with the loss of their jobs.

Mayor Lightfoot and Chicago officials now have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and embrace the voices of community members, like students and teachers, when making zoning decisions that affect their health.

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