Chicago has always been a city of advocacy. The fight for civil rights can be seen through the work of prominent names such as Fred Hampton and the Black Panthers and Martin Luther King Jr.
Today, South Side native Jitu Brown is one of many continuing the call for equity.
Brown is the national director of the Journey for Justice Alliance, and his fight for equity in the education system was instilled in him by the streets where he grew up.
Speaking to The Hill from a Chicago office adorned with posters screaming “Equality or Else” and “Water Is a Human Right,” Brown talked about growing up in the Rosemoor neighborhood of Chicago’s Far South Side during the 1970s.
The son of a nurse and a steelworker, Brown was the beneficiary of the civil rights movement: He lived in a working-class, Black community and had educators who looked like him and a school that encouraged cultural awareness.
“I remember growing up as a child, feeling very warm, feeling protected, not being afraid to walk, catching the bus all over the city,” Brown said.
That didn’t mean there weren’t issues in his community. Brown’s neighborhood was straddled by two of the city’s most prominent rival gangs: the Gangster Disciples and the Vice Lords.
Brown said he could have easily become wrapped up in the gangs, but he had the support of his family and friends.
“I learned compassion from my mother. I learned hard work from my pops,” he said. “I saw my father grind and get it done and saw the feeling that he used to have every Friday when he would bring us either pizza or fresh shrimp.”
Brown did have a low point in his life. He ended up getting kicked out of the first college he went to, leaving him “disgruntled.” It pushed him into street life for a while, selling drugs out of a housing project.
But music was a big part of his life too, and one day he and his hip-hop group, Hard Posse, were signed by a major record label out of Chicago. During his time with the record label, he went to a local school as a promotional tour.
“I was moved,” Brown said. “I was talking with the young people about why hip-hop needs to be positive, and the energy it was giving me back … I was like, “This is what I need to do.”’
Brown left the record label and joined the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization (KOCO), a South Side grassroots organization focused on bringing resources to the community.
Leaving the music industry, Brown said, “was the best decision of my life.”
“Hip-hop catches my heart, but what catches my spirit and what galvanized my soul is really making a contribution and working with people to say we are more than who you say we are,” he added.
Brown started KOCO’s youth development and youth leadership programs. As he worked with the students, schools began to take an interest. They wanted, in particular, Black men to bring their experience and knowledge into the classrooms. So Brown did.
And as he did, the inequity in the schools became quite clear.
“You're working with these young people, but you're noticing that at this school, there's one computer in the entire class and there’s no air conditioning,” he recalled. “Then I'm also going to schools and other communities and I'm working with student councils. You walk in and the school is bright. The classrooms are small. They got world language. They have counselors. They have teacher aides in every class.”
Brown began to realize the discrepancies between the schools were systemic. KOCO started organizing more and more, working to stop the city from closing more than 20 schools serving predominantly Black and Brown students and conducting sit-ins at City Hall for more youth job opportunities.
The goal was — and remains — to create an equitable schooling system regardless of the students’ races, leading to the founding of the Journey for Justice Alliance in 2012.
The Alliance focuses on enacting a “sustainable community school village.”
Sustainable community schools are rooted in the principles that everybody in the school community should have input on what an engaging and relevant and rigorous curriculum looks like, schools should offer high-quality and culturally competent teaching, and wraparound supports should be available to each child.
Wraparound supports are a big focus for the Journey for Justice Alliance, Brown said.
“For the casual listener, a wraparound support could be a speech therapist or a school nurse, and that's very true, but wraparound support is simply anything that removes an obstacle to learn,” he explained. “A debate team and Afro-American history clubs are wraparound supports. The question we began to raise is, why don't our children have access to that?”
Activists in other cities began to ask the question as well. Soon, advocates in Detroit, Newark, N.J., New York City, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington, D.C., and Oakland, Calif., joined Brown’s mission.
Today, the Journey for Justice Alliance is in more than 38 cities across the country. Its platform calls for policies rooted in what they call racial justice and education equity, including a moratorium on school privatization, building 25,000 sustainable community schools by 2025 and ending zero tolerance policies in public education.
“As we've grown, we have said that we can't just be about what we're against,” said Brown. “We have to start articulating a grassroots vision for public education.”
More than that, Brown said, the Alliance believes “the people closest to the pain must be closest to the power.”
“One of the things that we realized is that nobody comes to us and says, ‘How can this world be better?’ with any sincerity,” he said.
The Alliance has taken it upon itself to ask that very question. For months, it held more than 200 “listening projects” around the country, asking those who showed up how racism has impacted their quality of life and what their vision for a better country would look like.
Some of those visions included community colleges providing training and career placement for youth in green technology, which in turn will prepare students for a post-high school path outside of college and down a trade career path.
Other responses focused outside the school setting and on health care, particularly on the ability for resources to be allocated to doulas. Doulas, while not health care professionals, are coaches or companions for pregnant people. Doulas have often been a popular form of support in communities of color.
The responses were documented in a report that Brown and others with the Alliance will bring to Capitol Hill this month.
Already, Brown said, the Alliance’s plan has received support from politicians such as U.S. Reps. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), Illinois Democrats Chuy Garcia, Danny Davis and Bobby Rush, and Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)
With their support, Brown said he’s confident the Journey for Justice Alliance can bring policy change to communities across the nation.
“We gotta raise the bar, and I think we have some folks in Congress and definitely some folks locally who want to raise the bar right now,” he said. “If raising that bar is backed and buoyed by a movement, then you can win.”