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‘Shadow strikers’ marched with CTU

Striking Chicago Public Schools teachers their supporters march down Michigan Avenue Thursday.  |   Scott Olson~Getty Images

Striking Chicago Public Schools teachers and their supporters march down Michigan Avenue on Thursday. | Scott Olson~Getty Images

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Updated: October 18, 2012 6:08AM



They are the shadow strikers.

Behind the bullhorns and police lines, hundreds of community organizers and their compatriots strategized, marched and danced last week in solidarity with the Chicago Teachers Union.

Quiet as it’s kept, the city’s robust community-organizing movement has been a potent sister act for the CTU.

The organizers mounted a full-court backup in the strike effort. They may be bleary-eyed and caffeine-soddened, but they are also big winners on the political front.

“Community organizations are so supportive because [teachers] have the same vision we have,” said Amisha Patel, executive director of the Grassroots Collaborative, a citywide network of 11 community groups.

The collaborative and other neighborhood groups were working with CTU President Karen Lewis and her caucus years before she ran and beat the CTU old liners. That partnership helped lay the groundwork for her election.

They are simpatico on issues such as tax-increment financing reform, neighborhood economic development, access to health care and violence prevention.

The organizers are leveraging the strike to elevate causes that can’t be negotiated in the teachers’ contract. Things like smaller class sizes, an enriched curriculum, even “fighting to have books available on the first day of class,” Patel explained when we met at a sidewalk cafe Wednesday.

“The message we want to get out, here on the ground, is what parents care about.” She scarfed down her noontime “breakfast,” then was off to another series of strategy sessions and street actions.

At 37, Patel, the slender, elegant daughter of an Indian immigrant factory worker and union member, represents a transformative generation of grass-roots power.

The collaborative organized and led several strike rallies around the city, including a march on Thursday that drew at least 5,000 participants and shut down blocks of Michigan Avenue.

Community organizing is embedded in Chicago’s DNA. Jane Addams, Saul Alinsky, Harold Washington and Barack Obama all tapped the strategy to force social change at crucial moments in the city’s history. This is one of those moments.

Organizing took a big hit when Mayor Rahm Emanuel took City Hall. During the 2011 mayoral campaign, Emanuel ignored “countless” invitations to community forums and requests for meetings to hear their concerns, Patel said. Most progressive leaders backed Emanuel’s opponents.

They’re back. The CTU’s historic, and so far, successful strike lays the groundwork for a loyal opposition.

After the settlement, organizers can mount a citywide campaign to address the formidable list of concerns left on the table. The likely closing of dozens of public schools by next summer. Stark inequities in school resources. Crushing, unceasing street violence.

“I wish a contract could settle everything, but it’s a much longer fight,” Patel said.

At the climax of Thursday’s rally, the sound system failed. Sporting a CTU-red flower in her hair, Patel stepped up to the long row of media microphones, grabbed a bullhorn and pumped up the crowd.

You will hear from the organizers again.

Soon.



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