THE BLOG
12/08/2011 04:22 pm ET Updated Feb 07, 2012

The Original Occupiers

I admire the Occupy movement but because I've worked with homeless people for 16 years, I need to clarify something: Homeless people were the original "Occupiers."

In the early 1980's, as more and more youth, women and men were becoming homeless in Chicago and across the U.S., people now called "homeless" began to occupy parks, bus stations, airports, viaducts, sidewalks, libraries, cars, and abandoned buildings and factories.

In my work as a community organizer, I organized a group of about 20 men and one woman who in 1996 were living on Lower Wacker Drive, "a street beneath a street" in downtown Chicago. Two of the leaders, a woman nicknamed Tweety and her husband Bo, worked with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless to file a lawsuit in federal court against the city of Chicago. Their charge was that the city illegally took their belongings -- mostly bedding and a change of clothes -- and tossed them in the trash as a means of driving them out of Lower Wacker.

Their lawsuit was successful. It was very striking to see a group of homeless people come before Judge Wayne Anderson, a U.S. District Court judge, and hear that they would be awarded up to a couple hundred dollars to repay them for their lost belongings. The homeless "occupiers" had won.

Through this campaign, I became close to Tweety and Bo, and later, their 8-year-old daughter, Kajun. Sadly, Bo died earlier this year of throat cancer, at age 48 -- a relatively young man, aged by years on the street. Tweety and Kajun now have an apartment of their own in the city's Austin neighborhood.

Earlier this week, Tweety told me that Kajun got angry when the Board of Education announced school closings and turnarounds. Most of the schools are in Chicago's black and brown neighborhoods. "We're just as smart as those white kids. They shouldn't be closing our schools."

Tweety told Kajun that the schools need improvement and that's why they're closing or going through a turnaround. "Why are they closing only our schools?" Kajun replied.

While we adults debate the pros and cons of school closings and turnarounds, who is talking to the students? What effect does closing and re-locating have on student learning? There is plenty of research indicating a minimum loss of six months learning, when a child has to move to a new school.

If Kajun's school is on the closure list, she might start organizing students to occupy the school. Instead of staging a walk-out protest, students would refuse to leave school. Now that would be a turnaround.