A young Rachel Williams posing for school pictures at Theophilus Schmid Elementary, a CPS school | Photo courtesy of Rachel Williams
The People is our section for opinions on all things concerning Black Chicago. In this opinion piece, community organizer Rachel Williams shares her experience as a child growing up in the CPS system and how that shaped her support of the Chicago Teachers strike.

Every day, we see the effects of the intra-communal violence in Chicago and how this ongoing trauma impacts our students. Black neighborhoods often are the last to receive government resources for their children. 

In a city like Chicago, where we’re constantly paying top dollar for police misconduct settlements, a $1.5-billion annual police budget and last but not least, $95 million for a cop academy, it seems that our Black children are a low priority in the minds of our politicians and fellow Chicagoans. 

Why are we arguing over issues of housing when it’s clear that we have an estimated 16,000 Chicago Public Schools (CPS) students experiencing homelessness? Why are we making excuses for not putting full-time nurses, librarians and social workers in every school? These are basic necessities that any human, regardless of age or color, deserve.

I spent all of my academic career in CPS. As a student with physical and learning disabilities, I know first hand what it feels like not to have basic necessities like a school nurse. Throughout my time in grammar school at Theophilus Schmid Elementary, there wasn’t a full-time nurse on staff. So when it came to dispensing my Ritalin and epilepsy medications, I was at the mercy of the school’s principal or clerk. 

Sometimes if the principal was out of the office, I couldn’t even get to my medication, which was locked away in his desk. I had to wait until he returned. There were times when I didn’t get my medication until minutes before the dismissal bell. Think about how a situation like mine continues to impact the learning environment for CPS children in need of medications that help them function.

Rachel Williams posing for her high school graduation picture | Photo courtesy of Rachel Williams

As a CPS student, I didn’t see my first full-time school nurse until my freshman year in high school at John Hope College Prep. Nurse Jones not only made sure I had my medication on time every day, but she also cared about the overall well being of every student who walked into her office. She worked with teachers to make sure students got the medical support they needed. She called my parents, concerned that I may have been experiencing depression. Because I felt comfortable coming to Nurse Jones about what I was feeling, she took the lead and her actions honestly saved my life. 

I’ve witnessed teachers go above and beyond for their students. If it wasn’t for my art teacher in grammar school, Ms. V. Butler, I never would have seen people who look like me in paintings, literature and other artistic expressions. I never would have been a part of a group of students who recreated iconic Black scenes from the Civil Rights Movement out of glass, which ended up being showcased in the Seaway National Bank. Another teacher, Ms. O. Butler, brought in books from her personal home collection for me to read because I was banned by the assistant principal and my homeroom teacher for reading books that weren’t on our school reading list. I used to get bored in class and would start reading these unassigned books, and my homeroom teacher claimed that my reading was a distraction.

And then there’s Mama Ericka Hamilton, who I will never forget. She embodies everything that you can imagine in a Black educator, and then some. Mama Hamilton taught sociology from a Black perspective. I used to hide in her classroom instead of going to lunch. Her energy, and how she made students who had been written off feel that they were valuable, makes her one of the everlasting treasures of John Hope College Prep.

There comes a time when you become an adult and get to work in the education space. I now work as a debate coach at a CPS school. When I was a student, trauma was a part of my everyday life, but I didn’t have the tools to identify it exactly. But as an adult, it becomes easier to identify the trauma that you see in younger students who sit in the same chairs and classrooms we once did. 

It becomes easier to point out the ways in which this trauma affects the learning environment for students in school. And it becomes easier to see the real work of the CPS teachers and staffers who put their hearts and souls into their work, the ones who really give a f-ck about the success of our Black children. We don’t b-tch and moan when the Chicago Police Department (CPD) goes up for contract renewals that could cost the city millions of dollars and, really, we should be deeper in that joint than an HBCU cafeteria on Fried Chicken Wednesdays.

As a student at John Hope, once considered the “jewel of Englewood,” resources were slowly pulled from the school. First, our librarian got sick. We never received a replacement. Then, our band was pulled. As students, we didn’t have any idea that these cuts would result in the chaos that would follow. By the time former Mayor Rahm Emanuel released the list of the original 100 school closings, which later became the infamous 50, John Hope had dwindled considerably. Englewood had been wiped out by Norfolk Railroad, which played a part in the 2019 closing of our school. 

When Emanuel finally announced plans to close John Hope, I stood in solidarity with students who fought to keep it open. The main organizer was a freshman named Jacquia Jackson who had only been at Hope for about a month. Today, it’s bittersweet to think about Hope, because this year would have been my 10-year reunion. Now I have no school, no memories, to return to. This is one of the long-lasting traumas inflicted on Black students and families.

CPS only employs a handful of grief counselors for the 500-plus schools in the district, serving more than 360,000 children. When I lost my little cousin Takiya Holmes to gun violence in 2017, CPS sent a grief counselor to her school and told the school’s social worker “good luck” after that. Takiya’s family and friends still live with the effects of her murder every day. 

When I went back to my grammar school for National Gun Violence Day to honor Takiya with former first lady Amy Emanuel, Takiya’s friends and classmates started crying uncontrollably as teachers wiped away their own tears. The trauma of losing a classmate and friend, but also experiencing death day in and day out, is having a devastating impact on those students.

Takiya’s friends are like so many throughout this city. They exist in a world that tells them they were born in the wrong zip code and with the wrong skin tone. If this is what equity looks like for Black children on the South and West sides, then STRIKE ON!