Interview with Chicago Student Union Organizers: Ave Rivera, Oswaldo Gomez, & Ross Floyd

The Chicago Student Union, the first high school student-organized union in the history of the Chicago Public School system, formed over the months following the controversial closing of 49 elementary, middle, and high schools by the city of Chicago Board of Education last spring [2013]. Initiated, led, and represented by students from high schools across the city of Chicago, the mission of the Chicago Student Union (CSU) is to support and unite the student voice. Two AREA editors, Jake Klippenstein and Sarah Mendelsohn, met with three leaders of CSU on a Sunday afternoon at Harold Washington Library: Ross Floyd, a junior at Jones College Prep, Avelardo Rivera, a sophomore at Whitney Young High School, and Oswaldo Gomez, a senior at Lincoln Park High School. As the union’s first full semester draws to a close, we asked them to reflect on their experiences with the organization. The following interview has been edited for publication.

AREA: Please tell us how you first got involved with CSU.

Ross Floyd: I first became involved with CSU when, on May 20 of my sophomore year, there was a school boycott that I didn’t even know about… It was part of a teachers’ protest about the 49 school closings, and I organized a group of students from Jones, about 30 students, to meet in our lunchroom after school and march down to Daley Plaza to join the rally. And there I met Oswaldo and a senior who just graduated named Israel Munoz. We began talking and they introduced me to their organization that they had… and I became a member, and ever since then we’ve been organizing as the Chicago Students Union.

Ave Rivera: I became involved—I don’t know the exact date, sorry—(laughs) it was one of the days that there was a big rally for the 50 school closings in Chicago. And actually, before Ross had invited me to join a meeting, I had organized some students to join a rally downtown, and there I met Israel. We didn’t talk that much then, but I met him… and basically fate took its path, and Ross messaged me on Facebook, ‘Come to this organizing meeting, it’s for students in Chicago.’

Oswaldo Gomez: I became involved around the same time as Ross, for the same reasons: there was a lot of organizing happening in my school, especially around the issue of teachers being fired, and a lot of secrecy happening within my school. There was an unexpected walk-out that my school was a part of… And one day, my friend and I, Cian, who’s also one of the main organizers of the CSU, decided, Why not, you know, why not try something, why not do something for our teachers. And it happened, and it ended up blowing up on the news. And we realized that there were other students doing this. We started networking with other students, and I met Israel at an after-school conference, or some kind of club, and we started talking and then we became friends, and he…invited us to one of the meetings for the organization that is now Chicago Students Organizing to Save our Schools (CSOSOS). So we just decided that we were going to become involved, we decided to form the Union.

AREA: The connection between CSOSOS and CSU still feels a bit unclear—can you say a bit more about the formation of CSU, in relation to CSOSOS?

RF: When the 49 schools were being closed, there was a lot of anger in Chicago. How could they do this to all of these Elementary school kids, and no one knew what to do with this anger. Teachers were represented, CPS was represented, but there was really no student voice. I think a lot of students were really frustrated by that. And so Israel, and a bunch of other students around the city, started meeting with teachers about how to start a Union. And they all met, and reached out to friends who they knew would be interested, and, as Oswaldo said, that created CSOSOS, which I was a member of, and they were all members of. Since CSOSOS was founded by Israel, one of its goals was to turn it into a union—to give that stability, to have a long-term organization that could hold a greater number of students. Over the summer we saw that we had time to turn it into a union, so we started holding meetings about that, getting into a lot of talk on that, how to make it work, and we just turned into the Union.

AR: …over the summer it was kind of just a big decision that we had to make, about whether CSOSOS was just going to continue, or whether to let CSOSOS fade out, as CSU comes in… It was a big collective of students and we decided as a collective, that we actually wanted this, we wanted our voices to be represented, as the Chicago Students Union. So we decided to let CSOSOS fade out.

RF: Several students decided to continue on to organize as CSOSOS, because they wanted to continue to work on with the Albany Park Neighborhood Council, so there’s still a Chicago Students Organizing to Save our Schools, which works mainly in the Albany Park Neighborhood, and we support them and have good feelings for them, but they’re two separate organizations now.

AREA: What was it that seemed more powerful about the idea of a union? And, what have been some of the challenges of forming a union?

OG: The connotation that comes with a union is powerful. It’s very stable, as Ross mentioned, and it’s a long-term thing, which is exactly what we wanted. We wanted to unify the students’ voice, and be represented as one.

RF: What we tried to do also was to try to provide a structure for us to reach out into schools with the union.

OG: I think it was also a matter of bringing together more issues that broaden the spectrum of things we wanted to do. I think Ave touched on this, when CSOSOS came about, it was a very specific issue that they were all fighting for and advocating for, But we realized that, after coming together, after having meetings, after just being part of an organization, there were other issues that students wanted to talk about, and wanted to have a voice on. So I think that was one of the main reasons, if not the main reason, why we moved towards creating a union. Because we wanted every student to be a part…

OG: We wanted a form where we could all express our thoughts and everyone can have a voice. On paper it all seemed perfect, but it’s not always that efficient… Each school does things differently—I think one of the reasons why we decided to have a structure where we would have out reach to individual schools… comes from that idea that all schools are different, and they want to handle things differently. So when we were coming up with an organization, we decided to create the individual chapters, and I think that was one of the biggest steps forward we took… Did we model it after anything? Not really—it was just thought of.

RF: It’s been really hard to garner interest from students. Because, I think a major thing that’s not understood a lot of the time by the public is how busy students lives are—between taking AP classes, trying to maintain a social life, getting all their homework done, trying to get ready for college, students are really busy. So coming and asking them, ‘Hey, care about an issue that may or may not pertain to you;’ ‘Hey come organize;’ it’s not the most appealing thing. So it takes a lot of hard work to get that interest. But as hard as it is I think it’s even more rewarding when it works. When you see a group of students who are as diverse as Oswaldo said come together and agree on something, work towards it, have an action…some of my best memories have come from our actions where we’ve shown real power.

AR: I think something else that makes the union a rewarding experience is that every student’s so diverse, and, like Oswaldo said, Chicago’s such a diverse city… Different kids have such different perspectives on what CPS should be like, and what the city should be like. So if we have students from the west side, north side, south side, northwest side, all coming together, and every community has different issues, this is also a scope, per se, of the different issues that students have.

OG: This creates a very beautiful political scene inside the school. From being with these kids for so long, and we spend a lot of time together, they’re sort of a perfect political scene out there, because every school is different and every school wants to do things differently… And every individual who goes to that school has his own thoughts on the ways that things should be. But at the end of the day we all have this one goal, like Ave said, which is improvement, and development, and creating a better tomorrow for our schools… because this is for us, for our own betterment, everyone is willing to work together, even if there are a few disagreements along the way.

RF: We see a lot of systematic issues going on right now—systematic racism, funding that’s not going where it needs to be diverted—so it’s a lot of things that are harder to fight as issues. When you’re trying to get a kid interested in a bigger funding idea of the CPS budget, it’s a lot harder to get kids’ support for that, then it is to tell them that 50 schools are being closed… And so if there’s an issue with high interest, we’ll get high turn out, if there’s an issue with low interest, we’ll get low turnout.

AREA: How does the relative privilege of one school or another affect the way that you’re doing outreach, and the way that you think about bringing different voices into the union?

RF: It’s been a lot of different schools that have been affected by this, schools on the south side, on the southwest side that have faced the harshest budget cuts, as well as the northwest side… These are the schools that are most affected, and we want to outreach there, they’re the schools where kids who go there are often poverty stricken, where they can’t eat a good meal for breakfast, and they don’t have good books to use, they don’t have air conditioning…And the other side of that is that it’s really hard to outreach to these kids, because a lot of them have given up hope on CPS. They’ve almost accepted defeat, like ‘this is the school I go to, it’s not a good school, there’s nothing I can change about it.’ Because this is what they’ve had to deal with for their whole lives. I’m not saying that all kids who go to these schools are like this. The best organizers have come from these schools, for example, Israel who I think really got this off its feet, went to Kelly, which suffered some of the biggest budget cuts. They lost their entire band. Over four million… So, when you’re able to get into these schools this is where the best organizers come from.

OG: A lot of apathy comes from these schools, and like Ross said, it’s really difficult to get into these schools…

AREA: What makes it difficult?

OG: Sometimes it’s really hard to tell a student, this thing is going to be productive, you’re actually going to be rewarded by this, and your school is going to change from this. Sometimes you don’t see direct changes right away, especially with things like social justice, or funding for education. You know, just because you march somewhere, just because you deliver a letter to the mayor, doesn’t mean your school is going to get the classrooms or the teachers it deserves. It’s a long process, and it’s a long-term solution that we’re looking for. But at the same time, you need to give students an image that things are going to change, and that’s sort of difficult to do. I think it’s interesting that a lot of students who do become organizers actually come from the other spectrum, the other side of the coin, which is the better schools. Those schools, whether it’s Jones or Whitney Young, those schools are privileged in certain ways, but [there are students who] still want to engage with these other schools, still want to be part of the discussion, even if it means saying, you know, why is my school getting this much funding, it’s not fair. But, sometimes that’s not the case, and if you’re being funded, you don’t care.

AR: Another thing that’s been difficult from a more basic perspective is that we have our meetings downtown, and the schools that are being most affected are on the south side, southwest side, and…it’s difficult for those kids to come up north, or even to downtown. I guess transportation, being out late at night, those little things, they all add up to the difficulty of a student being able to come to a meeting downtown. I mean it’s hard, I live on the northwest side, and it’s difficult to come down...

— Interview for AREA Chicago, #14: Childhoods, 2014. Edited by Rozalinda Borcilă, Jacob Klippenstein, Mohamed Mehdi, Mendelsohn, Hannah Baptiste, and Erica Meiners. Available from Half Letter Press.