Semester At Sea With Dennis Brutus by Kiley J. Bryant

[The end of the year, the death of every year, is of course connected with its opposite, the rebirth of the year.  The holiday season we celebrate in the northern hemisphere is of course of pagan origin, an origin that depended on recognizing seasonal change.  It’s usually associated with taking stock of accomplishments, gains . . . and losses of the past year.  We all have our individual and personal losses we’ve experienced, and we share them with others to establish a community in order to bear them better.  Some of these losses transcend the personal, the individual.  Maria Dimitriadi, the Greek singer about whom I knew nothing until February last year when she died, called the Red Heart of Greece;  Mercedes Sosa, the Argentine musical voice of Latin America; in the last few days, Dennis Brutus, poet of South Africa.  All these were artists of the world as much as of the particular nation from which they arose and whose spirit they evoked.  And just as the year dies away, but the cycle does not stop; so the season of these artists continues.  Kiley Bryant writes the following remembrance of Dennis Brutus, a wonderful evocation of why even in his passing we can celebrate him and the generation of the spring to follow.  The photo of Dennis Brutus was taken by Kiley on that semester at sea — editor]

Four years ago, I set out on one of my life’s most precious journeys to date,  Semester At Sea. I was amongst 700 college students from across the country, mixed in with a few students from abroad, to take part in a 100 day study abroad program that would take us around the world via the MV Explorer, the world’s largest traveling classroom aka a cruise ship!  The trip started in the Bahamas January 19, 2006 and ended in San Diego, California April 28, 2006, in between there were 10 ports of call on our agenda. Aside from the travel opportunity the program offered, the educational experience at large is what the opportunity presented most. After boarding the ship in Brazil, we were headed to South Africa, which took fourteen long, no land in sight days. Our first day back in class, which we had every day between ports, we were introduced by the Global Studies professor to Dennis Brutus, who was serving as the inter-port lecturer, who would historically be presenting to us an overview of South Africa. I don’t really know where to start, but once he opened his mouth and began speaking, he had captivated my attention. His history, his stories, his passion for life, learning, love, forgiveness and most of all his determination to educate; it was mind blowing, yet he did it all naturally, seeming as if it required no effort.  Dennis Brutus is and will be probably one of the most influential men I have and will ever meet in my life. Once we reached South Africa I was fortunate enough to travel with Dennis to Robben Island, an Island off of Cape Town where he was imprisoned alongside Nelson Mandela which now serves as a Heritage Site and Museum. Although the trip assigned us a tour guide, Modise Phekonyane, who as well was a prisoner on the Island, Dennis managed to take over the role of a tour guide. In doing so, he exposed us to his experience on the island through story-telling and even through pictures that were on display in which he was able to point himself out in. He took us into a bathroom where he was beaten by prison guards, showed us the barracks where they slept, and even took us to the Limestone Quarry where the prisoners worked hours on end. I quickly learned that his wit, his personality, his sense of humor, was all a part of the real ‘Dennis Brutus Experience.’ In telling us about the brutal experience he endured, he managed to squeeze in that while working in the Quarry while guards weren’t looking he’d sneak into holes and take cat naps. The experience overall I believe had so much more of a strong impact having Dennis there with us step by step as we learned the history of the island as well as his and Modise’s experiences.  After having a few one on one conversations with Dennis he asked where I was from, in telling him Evanston, Illinois, it opened up the door for many more conversations to come; I wasn’t aware that he was even familiar with Evanston, or even that he once lived there, I soon learned he was a professor at Northwestern University for nearly a decade and a half. Looking back at my overall study abroad experience, meeting, listening and talking with Dennis served as one of the most impactful learning experiences of my life. The man was filled with knowledge, his heart was filled with love, his ears were open for whatever, and his story was meant to be told. I was so saddened by his loss, his impact on my educational experience is one I will forever be grateful for.

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Mayor Daley: We Want To Use YOUR Internet!

No Community Library, No Community School:

Mr Mayor Can WE USE YOUR INTERNET!?

Lew Rosenbaum

As Substance News has reported, (see Jim Vail’s article in the education category here or follow the Substance News link on the right) the Chicago School Board met last week and was confronted by hundreds of people protesting Board policies.  Parents and students from Altgeld Gardens on Chicago’s far south side were joined by members of GEM (Grassroots Education Movement), Teachers for Social Justice, CORE (Caucus Of Rank-and-file Educators), Kenwood-Oakwood Community Organization and others to demand that CPS place a quality neighborhood public school in the building that houses Carver Military Academy.  The Academy, a selective enrollment school, replaced a community school that at one time served the Gardens and surrounding area;  but the Academy only uses 1/4 of the space in the school. What especially took the Board by surprise, was that the protesters presented the Board with a 38 page proposal for the new school.  Leadership of this protest belongs to the parents and students from the Gardens;  parents have been involved for 30 years in the battle against toxic waste dumping in the area, and the higher disease rates that are consequences.  The new school proposed by the protesters would be called the Hazel Johnson Environmental Justice School, and would exist side-by-side with the current military academy. Many speakers in the public participation part of the program repeated their support of the proposal.

Since then, parents and their supporters have met twice with David Pickens, a leading officer from the Board of Education.  The protesters had demanded a meeting with the Board in the Gardens. The Board officials typically refuse to meet away from their offices.  In this case, they did meet in the Gardens, and agreed to let Cheryl Johnson chair the meeting. She is executive director of the community organization that has spearheaded the fight against the toxics (People for Community Recovery) and one of the founders of the Committee for Safe Passage (safety for the students in the schools).

Wednesday, December 30 the parents and students from Altgeld came to city hall to confront Mayor Daley with their concerns.  The talks, Cheryl Johnson said, are now just talks.  Parents haven’t seen action yet.  Parents are not willing to accept transfers to other schools where the distance may be greater, educational services no better and the safety issue not resolved.  The parents have placed an interim proposal in front of the Board until a fully functioning school can be established in the fall of 2010.  They are asking for 4 or 5 classrooms to be staffed by certified, union teachers (the Board wants these to be associated with another CPS school, acting as a “satellite.”).  But, as Ms. Johnson reiterated, so far this is just words without action.

Last week, after the protests opposed a charter school in the community, the School Board showed their responsiveness . . . by approving the charter school.  On December 30 parents and students again emphasized their desire for a public high school in their community.  They were at Mayor Daley’s office perhaps because the Mayor’s office took control of the schools over 10 years ago and now is ultimately responsible.  But the occasion for coming to Mayor Richard Daley was to show him directly that students do not have a school and do not even have a public library in their community that is accessible, and consequently cannot even use public access internet to keep up on their classes during the holiday break, to do research. A number of students spoke to the issue:  they are behind in their classes and afraid of flunking.  And so in a spirited display, the community residents and their supporters chanted demands to use Daley’s internet access.

It is not surprising that Mayor Daley did not come out to meet the protesters Wednesday.  Nor is it surprising that he didn’t let them in to use his computer.  It is also not surprising the the Board is delaying action as long as it can.

This will be a difficult fight to win, but the people in the community have expressed their willingness to fight this battle.  It is literally a matter of life or death.  But it also raises questions about how much the School Board is willing to concede, and how will they guarantee a quality education when they have proven how adept they are at dismantling public education in the guise of “No Child Left Behind.”  The significance of winning this battle, even this limited one, is that the parents are taking the leadership in taking back from private hands a space that once was public — a school which was a public school, is now a military academy and is slated for charterization next year.

Note that GEM and CORE are planning a big event January 9, an educational summit at Malcolm X College, where the focus will be on school closings and charterization.  The event will take place from 10 AM to 1PM.  Child care will be available, and refreshments will be on hand.