Supporting Education Activist Sarah Chambers

By Michelle Strater Gunderson.   Published in  Living in Dialogue

If you are fortunate, every once in a while you will meet someone who breathes the fire of justice. In my life Sarah Chambers, a special education teacher from Maria Saucedo School in Chicago, fills that role.

Yet, this is the teacher who the Chicago Public Schools suspended last week pending a hearing that could lead to her firing.

Sarah is everywhere in Chicago when there is a call to defend children with disabilities. She is the leader of the Chicago Teachers Union Special Education Task Force, the co-chair of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators, a member of the union’s executive board, and a negotiator on our latest bargaining team.

So, why would the Chicago Public Schools send her a letter the night before our Spring Break removing her from the classroom?

I can only come up with one answer. Fear.

Fear of the truth Sarah tells. Fear of the power of her leadership. And fear of the crumbling of the neo-liberal design for schools: underfund the schools, watch them starve, and blame the failure of the schools on the children, teachers, and the communities. Once our schools are deemed unfit they are ripe for privatization by our mayor, Rahm Emanuel, and his friends. Sarah’s work interrupts these plans.

Lois Weiner writes about why removing Sarah Chambers from her position should be of interest to all of us in her latest blog.

The stakes are very high in the struggle to protect Sarah, not only for Chicago kids and teachers, but also for public education and democracy.  CTU’s militancy and commitment to social justice has inspired teachers and education activists world-wide.

I would add to this argument that we need to fight for Sarah Chamber’s reinstatement into her classroom for many reasons, but for me personally, it is based on the person she is.

Sarah is often the first to speak out.

And let me be clear, those who oppose the education activists in Chicago do not invite us to polite meetings in board rooms where we are offered a cup of coffee.

When fighting our national teachers union against the Common Core Standards and the harm they inflict, Sarah was the first to the microphone on the floor of the American Federation of Teachers convention in 2014. The Chicago teachers faced large opposition to our stance from those in power, yet for many teacher activists Sarah’s depiction of one of her special education student’s pulling out their eyelashes while taking a Common Core based test remains hauntingly in our minds.

During the hunger strike to keep Dyett High School open in Chicago, education activists decided to interrupt Rahm Emanuel’s budget hearing to draw attention to the cause. I was the leader of the mic check, and was incredibly nervous to begin. When I began to speak, I looked across the hall, and Sarah was one of the first people to stand with me. The look of conviction and her sense of bravery permutated the meeting. She was not going to back down, and consequently neither were we.

And then there is the reason we are both banned from the Bank of America building on LaSalle Street. The Chicago Public Schools entered into toxic bond swaps with Bank of America and the debt payment on these bonds are running our school system into the ground. Sarah and I joined a group of activists who decided to occupy the bank and accept an arrest to call attention to this financial train wreck. Sarah was the first to lead us in our circle of linked arms on the floor of the branch office. She was chosen to lead us, because she has never backed down from a just fight.

Being with Sarah in this fight for education justice is like sitting next to the dance floor wanting to dance but waiting for the first person to start. For us in Chicago, that is our Sarah.

Throughout the coming days we will read articles and blog posts, see television news about Sarah, and rally with her at Saucedo School. There are many reasons to support this fearless educator: she represents a nationwide movement of teachers, she cares deeply and well for her students, and for Chicago educators she has always been by our side.

Sign the petition for Sarah here.