Chicago school closings and the allure of the cost benefit analysis

Much as been said about the Chicago Public Schools closings that are being voted on in a few days. In this cacophony of voices I felt reluctant to write, although I found myself in daily conversations with my daughters, my students, friends, co workers and strangers. I am in the somewhat unorthodox position of being a parent to two children that have attended 3 different Chicago public schools in the 3 years we have been in Chicago, I teach at a non for profit public charter part time and at the City College, and I live in front of a school that will receive students from two of the schools slated for closing.

I can think about the problems with school closings from many different angles, but what has been conspicuously absent is a look of the effect of the closings beyond a cost benefit analysis. One of CPS’s main arguments is that it is broke, and that it needs to cut on cost. The media has reacted by questioning the actual savings that will derive from closing schools by analyzing numbers, and coming up with their own figures. What about the loss of quality of life  that these 46,000 children (and their parents/guardians) will incur?

My daughters experience changing school was largely driven by factors besides the academic strength of the schools they were attending. Last year we commuted 3 hours daily by car, and they had to wake up an hour earlier than the previous year. It was extremely stressful and it deeply impacted our family dynamics, finances, and their overall happiness, in addition to affecting their school work. These negative impacts will be felt by the children affected by the school closings, and reverberate within their families and communities. We are talking about thousands of children, in neighborhoods that are already lacking infrastructure, and where violence and poverty are high.

Being poor already breeds instability and the closings will be another forced change that interrupts the continuity a school can provide. Speaking from experience, we had to move four times in 3 years in the city. Three of those moves were because of rising rents and having to find cheaper living spaces, and one move was caused by the violence we experienced at the hands of a neighbor. I know that my situation is mirrored daily for others who are single parents, working poor, and marginalized. Increasingly this is a dynamic that touches more and more people as the city prioritizes a funneling upwards of money (hello refurbished Navy Pier, and new DePaul stadium) toward corporate interests, at the expense of everyone else.

Chicago has been declared the most segregated city in the US again last year, and the school closings exacerbate further the tension and inequality already present. The media and CPS talk of “West Side” and “South Side” fuels a rhetoric of a separated city, one where we are not invested in each other, and can say “it is not my problem because I don’t live on the South Side, I am not black/latino/etc”. In this hyper individualistic scenario where we retire in our respective corners by declaring “It’s not my problem”, we all lose. Martin Niemöller‘s poem comes to mind when I look at the erosion of the quality of life in Chicago, as violence and cost of life go up while services are cut and children shut out of their schools.

First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for the socialists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Catholic.

Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.

saya woolfalk!
February 3, 2010, 1:16 am
Filed under: artsy art | Tags: , , , , , , ,

Tonight I went to see the lecture by Saya Woolfalk and it got me thinking about art, the fetishism of otherness, and white guilt.

Saya makes amazing work about utopia, or what she calls “no place”. She works with ideas of fables and stories as a place where people can try different realities and possibilities. Her work used to be very much about gender and race in an overt way. She used to include images of genitalia and tropes of blackness in her art but she found that instead of questioning issues of race or gender they reinforced them.

I am sure her process is much more complicated than this, but she then decided to create “no place”, a utopia of how the world could be, populated by beings that can fluctuate through gender and color. Saya is herself Japanese, Caucasian and African American, so the sense of having to think about identity and race seems very personal. I related very much to that, the sense of being other, of not fitting, of being part of identities that are societally disconnected.

What I started wondering about once I got out of the lecture has not much to do with Saya’s work per se, but the bigger questions of people that are identified as “other” somehow being successful within the art world.

I would even venture to say that there is a sense of otherness being exotic, and desirable. If a gallery/museum/ art institution is exhibition work from a white anglo dude, than boring boring boring. It’s all about finding the most other, the farthest away from the canon. Though it seems that there is a positive change in whose voices are heard, I can’t help to also feel ill at ease.

Are the “others” just being fetishised? Are “others” becoming some sort of collective superficial riddance of white guilt? I am always weary of being seen as an exotic other, and I am especially weary of space that seems to be given to me because of it.

I have not talked to other people who are not white, not American, or straight or whatever other deviance from normalcy about feeling fetishised, or feeling used , but I am very interested to know how “successful” artists feel about this, or if it’s something that they think about.