Interview With Eve Ewing
Interview by Jamie Trecker
Photo by Nolis Anderson
Dr. Eve Ewing has become one of Chicago’s leading public intellectuals in an incredibly short span of time. The author of Electric Arches (Haymarket) and Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side (University of Chicago), Ewing is also the writer of Marvel Comics’ new series Ironheart. An accomplished visual artist, she teaches at the University of Chicago. She has also recently launched a podcast, Bughouse Square.
Ewing spoke to Lumpen’s Jamie Trecker about her recent work. This interview has been edited for length; a full, unexpurgated version is available online at lumpenradio.com.
How would you describe yourself to our readers?
I think of myself as a writer, a scholar, and a cultural organizer. Really what I am trying to do is use all the possible tools at my disposal to have fun, to imagine a better world, and ask difficult questions about why the world is the way it is. I just want to make Chicago better.
Do you consider yourself an activist as well?
I usually don’t consider myself an activist because I think that in order to claim that term the bar should be a little higher than it is for some people. So, sometimes I get called an activist for doing things that I would classify as just being a decent human being. I identify as a cultural organizer which means that I am trying to think about ways to use space and culture and art to change the political landscape. Similar to, for example, a community radio station [like Lumpen Radio]! I would call that a form of cultural organizing. And I do engage in activism sometimes; I go to protests and raise money for things I think are important but I really think that those are just decent person, active citizen things.
You have a new book out! It’s published by University of Chicago Press, it’s called Ghost in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side. How did you get involved with this particular project?
Yeah, so in 2013 we had the largest mass public school closure in the nation’s history here in Chicago. We had closed 50 schools all at the same time in one big wave, and that happened while I was in graduate school. I had been a CPS teacher and I was really dismayed to see that the school where I had taught was being closed. I was really shocked and people started asking me, “Why is this happening? What is the rationale behind it?”
And I felt that I didn’t have a clear narrative to answer that and that the narrative that was being put forth by people in power didn’t make a lot of sense to me. So I set out trying to answer that question and what I found was that there was this big debate in 2013 where people were like, “The school closings are racist” and people in power said “No, they’re not.” It just so happens that all these schools are the schools [in areas] where black kids live. And so, in setting out to kind of answer that question I really ended up diving deep into a lot of the history of why our city is the way it is and the role that race and racism have played in creating the landscape that we know now.
What was the rationale put forth by Chicago Public Schools and Mayor Rahm Emmanuel for closing these schools in the first place?
So, there were a few different things that they tried. First it was, “We are going to save money.” But then there were all kinds of analyses that showed they would not in fact save any money by doing this. Then what they settled on was this idea of “underutilization.” They said, “There are schools that can fit large numbers of students but those schools are pretty empty, so we need to close them to help the students.”
The idea was that the students would be sent to academically superior schools. This, even though there was a body of research that said students who experience school closure do not see academic gains. What really interested me though was this idea of building underutilization, because as an educator, the idea that we should measure a school’s quality by how many kids it can fit in the building is not really an educational value that most people would choose for their own children. In fact, people like to send their kids to schools where they have lots of space and small class sizes. But when it comes to poor black kids, it’s like “how many can we cram into this classroom.” So, a lot of the book is really dealing with this underutilization idea, set with heavy scare quotes, and really kind of taking that apart.
Did people actually take that seriously? Because, as you point out, most parents want to send their kids to small classes and small classrooms.
Yeah, the sad thing is that the segregation of the city is playing out ferociously in the schools. Chicago is about 1/3 white but Chicago Public Schools is about 9% white, so by and large white families have divested from the system. [And that means] even well-meaning people—who have never actually been inside these school buildings—tend to pretty much believe this narrative that is coming from the Mayor, because they don’t have any kind of counter evidence, and also because to many of them it’s easier and more palatable to listen to what the Mayor or the Superintendent is saying than to listen to protestors. Something that we’ve been talking about a lot this year is this idea between civility versus protest, and how protestors are seen as uncivil… this idea of “Why don’t they just go about things the right way?” Of course parents of students impacted by school closures spend a lot of the time trying to go about things the “right way.” When you see people protesting, it’s because no one has listened to them! I think all those things play into the fact that, unfortunately, the Mayor was able to very effectively convince a lot of people. Of course the people knew better were often not really given a voice otherwise.
You know the narrative also is that Chicago Public Schools, to not put to fine a point on it, are garbage.
Yeah the worst in the nation, it’s famously said.
Yeah and of course we’re also a crime-ridden hell- hole, if you listen to certain leaders who I won’t name. Can you talk a little about that? Because the idea that the public schools are a death trap is simply not true.
Yeah I think that you are exactly right. It’s not-so-subtle dog whistling. William Bennett, the former Secretary of Education, famously called CPS the worst schools in the nation and that was echoed more recently by our Governor Bruce Rauner. Rauner said that our schools are like prisons! And the thing is that plays off of stereotypes for people who, the last time they saw a glimpse of a public school, was when they saw Dangerous Minds with Michelle Pfeiffer.
There is a whole industry which kind of paints these schools as this battleground in entertainment, in mass media. I do think it’s important to recognize that our schools do face real struggles. Last year in Chicago a number of schools failed public health inspections, and we found that students were going to school with rodent feces, with roaches, with spoiled milk. Now, how did that happen? It happened because we gave a privatized janitorial contract to Aramark; we are paying millions upon millions of dollars for them not to do the bare minimum of mopping the floor and taking out the trash. Teachers talked about how ashamed they are going into their school because the school is filthy. You can only do so much as a teacher trying to do industrial-level cleaning of a building that houses hundreds of people. So that is just one example of the ways in which our schools are really truly struggling. But that is not an indictment of the people there, right? That’s an indictment of the power structure that has condemned them to say “This is good enough for you. It’s not good enough for me or my kid, but it’s good enough for you.”
I think it’s also reflective of the struggles of our city. We have huge unemployment, we have a mayor who shut down our mental health centers, and we have people who can’t get basic healthcare. I took a student last week to get some glasses. And she is somebody that I mentor, and she was always squinting. I said, “Well what do you do about this?” She said, “Well I just sit in the front of the room.” This is basic stuff! This is a brilliant kid and she is not able to read the board. The basics are: are our kids’ bellies full when they go to school, do their parents have jobs, do their parents have space and time off to care for them and help them with their homework, and do they have a safe and affordable place to go to sleep at night? We have huge amounts of homelessness in Chicago Public Schools. So all of these things can make the schools seem like pretty bad places, because they are one of the few public institutions that are actually facing up to the realities of our situation, when the rest of the city would rather brush it under the rug.
When schools close down, it devastates not just the students but the whole neighborhood.
Yeah. When Chicago Public Schools closed the schools they decided that they were going to sell the buildings on the private market. Like everything else in Chicago, that became a very shady and bizarre process. The sad thing is that people have to walk by these vacant buildings every single day. It’s just another reminder of what the city thinks of you, that a place that for you might have been a place of amazing memories, where not only you but your siblings, your cousins, and your grandmother went to school is now a condemned building. It’s a reminder as to the level of disregard with which this city treats you. The other thing that to me is that the people who have the greatest amount of desire for those buildings have the least amount of capital. Surprise, surprise: venture capitalists are not actually lining up to buy school buildings in neighborhoods that have faced historical amounts of disinvestment. It’s shocking that these are not considered desirable commodities on the private real estate market! Meanwhile a kid walking by there every single day might look at his old school building and think, “Man, it would be really great if I could get in there and have a recording studio or a community space or take some drawing classes or if my little sister could get daycare.” But those folks don’t have the capital to make those things happen. It’s really a shame.