Granite City

Building Partnerships Across the Rural-Urban Divide

As the vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), I used to assume that many of our big urban teaching realities were a world apart from the concerns of educators in smaller rural towns on the Illinois and Missouri border. However, a recent experience challenged that assumption. Now I see that our urban and rural locals face many of the same challenges—and so we should be working together. Activism is in my DNA (I led a walkout of my high school in 1995 to highlight the need for equitable school funding statewide), so when I see a need, I start by exploring the problem and identifying potential campaigns and activities. Then reality settles in. My plate is full in Chicago—can I really add urban-rural partnerships into the mix? While I haven’t been able to devote the time I’d like, I have been taking advantage of opportunities to learn.

In the fall of 2022, our Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT) convention was held in St. Louis, Missouri (the St. Louis metro area spans Missouri and Illinois). Wanting to get to know nearby locals in Granite City and Madison, Illinois, I arrived early. And thanks to my fellow IFT executive board member Chuck Noud—a music teacher and the president of the Granite City Federation of Teachers (AFT Local 743)—I was scheduled to teach a civics lesson at Granite City High School before the convention officially began. Ahead of my visit, Noud described Granite City as “a community in flux that has experienced a lot of changes over the years, resulting in economic decline and presenting opportunities for a creative resurgence. We see large economic growth in surrounding areas.”1 Granite City currently has a population of nearly 30,000, down from a high of just over 40,000 in 1970 (before a recent decline in industrial plants, and therefore jobs, began).2

An avid biker—and a believer in getting to know an area by experiencing it—I decided to bike from my hotel in St. Louis to Granite City High School. It was pitch black when I started riding on the river trail out of St. Louis at 6 a.m. Soon, I was surrounded by construction yards, encampments for unhoused people, steel manufacturing shops, and timber salvaging operations on both sides of the trail. It was the most industrial section of bicycle path I’d ever seen—until I got closer to Granite City. After dodging numerous gravel sections, dump trucks, and semis loading up and shipping out, I crossed a bridge and reached the Illinois side of the Mississippi River.

Almost immediately, my senses were overcome by the intensity and magnitude of industrial activity. The streets were lined on both sides with warehouses, a US Steel Corporation mill about a mile long, a coke processing plant, refineries, concrete production, railroad depots, lumber and millwork facilities, and more. Mixed in were small bungalows—a residential-industrial remnant of how many mill towns in the United States were developed. Steel jobs have been part of Granite City’s identity since 1895,3 soon after the nascent industry was boosted by the McKinley Tariff Act of 1890.4

Granite City has experienced its share of the old and new economies. Shuttered plants have been replaced by hospitals and retail jobs, and there has been an influx of Black, Latine, and Asian families taking the lower-paying jobs left in the wake of deindustrialization and divestment.5 While the city’s population is still about 80 percent white,6 the high school’s student population is now about 64 percent white, down from over 70 percent in 2019.7

Although all the students and their families share similar economic interests, class solidarity in Granite City is being challenged by these changing racial demographics and job scarcity.8 In 2024, the US Steel mill that employs about 1,400 people is at risk of significantly reducing production due to a pending sale of the company to Nippon, a Japanese steel manufacturer.9 The plan still involves an earlier effort to repurpose the two blast furnaces that will likely result in 1,000 people losing their jobs.10

In this community, saving jobs is a top priority, even though another interest all the students and families share is environmental. More than a century of steel production means more than a century of pollution, and the Environmental Protection Agency has noted very high rates of cancer in the area.11

Arriving at Granite City High School, I was struck by both how close the school is to the steel plant and how racially divided the classes were. As is true in high schools throughout our country,12 white students were disproportionately enrolled in the higher-level honors and AP courses,13 and students of color were disproportionately in the regular and remedial courses.

The civics lesson I had been invited to teach was for an AP economics class. I chose a lesson about power that the CTU uses with its summer organizing interns (who are CTU members seeking to boost their advocacy and activism skills). It centers on an interactive discussion in which students grapple with and define power. AP economics students already have a macro understanding of power; they are studying economic power, concentrations of wealth, and supply and demand. Part of our discussion personalizes power: Who has it? Who doesn’t? What are their experiences of power? How do they distinguish the powerful and powerless—and why? Given how few students of color there were in this class, it was striking when a Latino student shared his experience of being exploited at work. He said that he often has to “deal with verbal abuse and arbitrary demands, low pay, and preferential treatment of some employees over others.” None of the white students had a comparable example to share.

Through this discussion, we established a shared definition of power focused on organized money or organized people. Students soon saw that the ability to make and act on decisions is key: you can’t put money under a blanket and expect to have power, and you can’t not interact with people and expect to have power. Then, we considered examples of people who have or had power, from Elon Musk to Martin Luther King Jr.

In the next phase of this discussion, I asked students what they would do if they had a great deal of power. Like other classes in which I’ve taught this lesson, the students in Granite City started thinking very small, like buying a nice house. As I challenged them to think bigger, soon they were demanding affordable housing for all, free universal healthcare, free college, and so on. After egging them on for about 10 minutes, I shifted gears abruptly, making it clear that they have no power—I have it. Then I told them what I was willing, and not willing, to do. I took on a bullying persona like a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, telling them they had to stay in the room, simply because I said so. After a few minutes of this bullying behavior, a student grasped that they had to stand up and organize themselves to take power from me.

The lesson wraps up with a debrief: Why were they reluctant to stand up to me? What aspects of our social conditioning were holding them back? Why do powerless people accept abusive, controlling behaviors and take so long to decide to organize in order to create some power for themselves? What would it take to wield power collectively? This activity always generates an intense and memorable conversation for most students (and adults).

For these students in Granite City, it was a good opening exercise to inspire them to consider what’s possible. Now, they need to connect to a local challenge in which they see how exercising their agency looks and feels in motion. They should be asking tough questions of decision makers and figuring out how to organize people to advocate on the street and in the boardrooms. So one question I left with that day was obvious: How can we, as educators and union activists, help them help their community?

In the following months, the more I thought about the CTU’s work in Chicago and the challenges facing Granite City, the more I saw how much our needs and goals overlap. Then more specific questions came to mind: Can we teach students in Granite City to become advocates for both saving steel mill jobs and reducing pollution? Can we give them the skills and tools they need to form diverse coalitions to bring about the just transition to a green economy that will be critical for their futures? Can the common causes of saving jobs and improving health and the climate become enough to form strong bonds between the longstanding white families in the area and the more recently arrived families of color?

Lessons from the CTU’s Freedom School

It may seem like our big city locals are a world apart from our rural ones, but efforts by the CTU to build coalitions across diverse community and labor networks show how powerful partnerships can transform our landscapes.14 The CTU’s current drive to provide educational and economic opportunities while addressing the climate crisis is a good example.

In the fall of 2024, the Chicago Public Schools will open up a citywide public engagement process to create a 10-year facilities master plan. The CTU has big plans to impact the district’s vision. In the 2022–23 school year, we started a campaign to convert all 600 district schools to green, sustainable, and anti-racist schools that convey love and liberation for our students and families. That objective requires anywhere from $15 to $25 billion to ensure all students are transported by electric buses (instead of diesel) and all schools are powered by solar, have heat pumps, possess gardens and green space, and are free of PCBs, lead paint, lead pipes, and asbestos. If achieved, this ambitious plan will provide countless opportunities to partner with the trades and form career and technical education (CTE) programs to ensure that our students, nearly 90 percent of whom are students of color (with 47 percent Hispanic and 36 percent African American students15), gain valuable insights and skills to participate in the green economy. Already we are seeing results from our advocacy, pushing the district to apply for and win a $20 million federal grant to manufacture the first in-sourced electric buses in Chicago’s history.16 Imagine school renovations that require contractors to hire and train people of color in economically distressed parts of the city. And imagine CTE programs that provide apprenticeships for students in solar panel design and installation, allowing them to improve their school facilities and nearby residential housing units.

Starting to bring this vision to life, in the summer of 2023 the CTU ran its first Freedom School with 16 students and 5 educators from schools across the city. Over two weeks, they engaged in a series of learning adventures about environmental issues and their impact on communities throughout Chicagoland.17 The participants developed action plans for refurbishing their own schools and reimagining buildings across the city. On the final day, June 23, 2023, students met with the heads of the school district and the school facilities department and then the mayor and the deputy mayor of education to share their proposals. In early July, three student leaders from three different schools testified at a Board of Education meeting about their experiences at the Freedom School. They detailed the specific needs of their schools and the importance of including them and their communities in the development of the new master plan.

The idea for our Freedom School emerged from the work we’ve been doing the last two years through our Climate Justice Committee. This is where CTU members forged our vision for a green, healthy, sustainable, anti-racist school district that improves the facilities where we teach and where students learn, starting with the communities that have endured the greatest systemic inequities, such as environmental racism.18

Two critical issues are removing lead paint from our schools and adding solar panels. In addition, we have several hot zones for pollution, mainly in communities of color. This is an ongoing legacy of environmental racism.19 For decades, industrial zones, bus depots, highways, landfills, and other sources of pollution were intentionally placed next to Black and brown neighborhoods when people of color had no other housing options because of redlining.20

For our Climate Justice Committee, key questions are: How do we center the communities that have been harmed the most to receive the greatest school renovations and healthiest environments? How can we offset some of the historical damage and environmental racism that those communities have experienced and continue to endure? How can we ensure this is a coalition effort with community organizations involved? Knowing that students are very interested in climate change and environmental racism, how do we involve students in their own school communities as advocates?

The Freedom School was intentionally designed to build connection and coalition between Black- and brown-led environmental justice organizations, our students, and our members throughout the city. For instance, on a field trip to the South Side’s Altgeld Gardens community, students met with Cheryl Johnson, the daughter of the late Hazel Johnson, who is known as the mother of the modern environmental justice movement.21 Altgeld Gardens has been referred to as the Toxic Doughnut, in large part because of the steel manufacturing that used to be in the area.22 It’s a public housing community with almost entirely Black families, and there’s a Black-led organization, People for Community Recovery (which Hazel founded and Cheryl now leads), advocating for the corporations that polluted the area to now clean it up. In addition, they are demanding restitution for the families who have suffered. For students, it was striking to grasp how a community that has been repeatedly poisoned for decades is standing up for itself.

Along with studying environmental challenges, we wanted students to reconnect with nature, even in our urban environment. We did a camping trip in Big Marsh Park, a relatively new addition to the Chicago Park District system. Big Marsh first opened in 2016 and was erected out of the rubble of the industrial dumping ground in the Lake Calumet area that used to house the nation’s largest steel factories. It is now an incredible urban wildlife oasis where students hiked, biked, engaged in birding, and listened to dozens of coyotes howl throughout the night. It was also the first camping trip for 15 of the 20 participants. The students really had a memorable experience that reinforced the importance of preserving and conserving nature, including by converting to green energy.

To help develop their plans for greening their school facilities, students interviewed district officials who walked the group through a school building so students could gain insights into the challenges of renovating and greening our facilities, which average 82 years old.23 To prepare for this walkthrough, students read a Chicago Tribune article stating that 70 percent of schools had at least one water fountain that tested positive for lead.24 They used that information to ask the district officials pointed questions.

Our 2023 Freedom School was just a proof of concept. In the summer of 2024, we’d like to expand from two weeks to six weeks of youth programming so students can engage in deeper explorations, such as doing assessments of their school buildings and comparing communities with newer infrastructure to those that have been allowed to deteriorate. We’d like students to gain hands-on skills in infrastructure by examining HVAC systems, paint (especially peeling lead paint), and plumbing. Equally important, we’d like them to gain skills in meeting with community organizations, especially those that have been doing this work for a long time in frontline communities like Altgeld Gardens.

Ultimately, our Freedom School will be a strong pipeline for youth leaders who can build coalitions, conduct needed research, and be advocates for the green, anti-racist vision we share. And the more I reflect on what our initial Freedom School accomplished, the more I think back to that AP economics class in Granite City. Those students are facing the same fundamental economic and environmental crises playing out in Chicago’s most polluted areas. For the CTU, our experience with the Freedom School was transformational because it gave us insights into how we could build CTE pipelines and fortify our labor tables. It also served as a model for building regional solidarity across rural and urban counties. Imagine not just a Freedom School in Chicago each summer, but Freedom Schools all across Illinois sharing the goal of creating green, healthy, sustainable, anti-racist schools that prepare youth for good green jobs and community activism. Fortunately, our state offers a Freedom School grant25 that’s fairly easy to win. So while this is just a vision at the moment, it’s one that many of our locals could realize.

Imagining a Brighter Future for Granite City

It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that the health of democracy and the planet itself may depend on our ability to bridge the urban-rural divides within our states and across the country for the sake of winning green, sustainable community schools and infrastructure.

The combined threats to Granite City’s economy and environment present a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to form a coalition-based effort to convert to green schools, clean up polluted areas, and look ahead to a just transition to greener, cleaner jobs. But Granite City can’t form the type of strong coalition needed without being able to build across communities—including across unions and racial divides, and across longtime and new residents—and to see past our differences.

In Chicago, the CTU’s base of strength is the incredible relationships with our students and their parents and other caregivers, relatives, and neighbors. When there are challenges in a community—like Granite City’s steel mill announcing plans to transfer 1,000 jobs out of state—that’s an opportunity for us as the teachers union to expand our base by connecting to the affected students, families, and unions. It’s also an opportunity to expand our thinking. When we form new coalitions, we anchor them in new, shared conceptions of improved conditions. Keeping what we have is not inspirational or adequate.

Educators in Granite City could accomplish a great deal by adopting this mindset. With climate change dominating young people’s concerns in national polls,26 with community health in Granite City at risk from industrial pollution, and with the threat of losing up to 1,000 good-paying union jobs, the only path forward may be to develop a new vision for a just transition to greener, cleaner, good-paying union jobs. Imagine partnering with the state of Illinois and putting pressure on the next owner of the steel mills to do right by the workers and their communities. Instead of letting the owners transfer jobs and pollute another community, a broad, strong Granite City coalition could make offers that are appealing. For example, it might be hard to quickly reduce the factory’s direct environmental impact, but the next owner can sponsor and help apply for a government grant for new electric school buses. It could start actually paying local property taxes into the adjacent school districts, instead of taking subsidies that deprive the schools of essential resources.27 Both Granite City and Madison County have endured over a century of contamination without seeing tax benefits accrue to schools or communities. Additionally, despite the fact that Madison also sits next to the plant, it does not receive any of the property tax revenue to support schools or services. A win for the community would be to force US Steel’s successor to become a great community partner instead of a cut-and-run avatar for capital flight. But that’s just one idea from an outsider.

As we build bridges across locals, it’s important to focus on sharing strategies and tactics—like building diverse coalitions to rally around shared goals—and keeping the goal setting local. Learning more about Granite City, and nearby Madison, in the months after my visit, I saw more and more opportunities for coalition-based progress.

Getting to Know Madison County

Madison County, which includes Granite City, trends conservative in its voting history; Trump won by 15 points in 2020. In 2022, Madison County voters gave Republican candidates a clean sweep of the seven key offices at the state level.28 However, an amendment of the state constitution on the ballot to establish the right to collective bargaining and union organizing, the Workers’ Rights Amendment, passed the county by a solid 55 percent majority.29

This support for unionization shows an opportunity to turn the tide politically. The Workers’ Rights Amendment’s success suggests that there is an alternate path to motivating the Democratic base while simultaneously providing movement infrastructure to grow it.

In contrast to Granite City, neighboring Madison (a small town of about 3,000 people split between Madison and St. Clair counties) has a majority Black population and is also a much more reliable base of support for Democrats. Currently, both teacher union locals are working with the steelworkers to stop the deindustrialization of the area. This could evolve into a broad, diverse coalition of all union members in the region—including educators—and their networks, such as students whose family members fear deindustrialization and restaurant owners and workers who depend on customers with good-paying jobs.

Whereas manufacturing jobs are often associated with urban America, they constitute 15 percent of rural earnings—far more than the 9 percent of urban earnings nationally.30 As one labor scholar explains, “there are more factory workers than farmers in rural America. And many of these rural factories employ a racially diverse workforce.”31 That’s true in Granite City—and it gives Granite City another strength to build on. According to Dan Simmons, president of United Steelworkers Local 1899 in Granite City, 60 percent of his members are white men, 25 percent are Black men, and the remaining 15 represent other groups. (There are very few women of any race working in the mill.) Simmons described steelwork as providing a standard of living that is a “little better off than the surrounding industry.”32

Wanting to better understand the challenges and opportunities in Granite City, I spoke to him at length, listened to his ideas, and tossed out ideas based on the CTU’s coalition-based work. Simmons has consistently welcomed the possibility of a teacher and steelworker coalition to hold the company owners—and the state—accountable to the needs of the larger community. The local teacher unions, along with the Illinois Federation of Teachers, and the United Steelworkers plan on issuing a letter to the company and Governor J.B. Pritzker calling on them to protect the workers by providing guarantees of a just transition and financial support to ensure their families, the schools, and all taxing bodies are held harmless by the profiteering of the steel corporations.

As I got to know Madison County, one factor that could inhibit such a diverse coalition stood out: where diverse communities had, and had not, formed. My initial experience in the disproportionately white AP economics class alerted me to this concern, then other indicators soon came into view.

When Noud, the Granite City Federation of Teachers president, grew up in Granite City, it was an overwhelmingly white working-class community with a wide range of high-paying unionized jobs. Now he and his fellow teachers are facing a rapidly changing student body who are living and learning in a very different context, both economically and culturally. The school system is projected to be over 40 percent students of color in the next year, while over 98 percent of the teachers are white.33 This is concerning given the well-established research showing the benefits of a diverse teaching force, and particularly of students having teachers who share their racial and cultural background.34 And, the climate and culture of the high school has received low marks by students and staff in the state’s school climate surveys.35

According to a recent study by the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica, Granite City has a significant number of students ticketed and fined in the state for disciplinary violations, 70 in all.36 The district has not released data to the media breaking down those numbers based on racial demographics. However, it’s likely to follow school suspension and expulsion data. The percentage of students of color in the district has gone from 29 in 2018 to 36 in 2022,37 whereas the percentage of students with in- or out-of-school suspensions who are of color has risen from 44 percent in 2015 to 55 percent in the 2021–22 school year, according to the Illinois State Board of Education.38 So, as Granite City has become more diverse, the percentage of disciplinary infractions has fallen even more disproportionately on students of color.

But the situation is far from bleak. As Noud and I discussed these challenges, he emphasized that the community has become resilient from prior periods of plant closures, though he also fears they may share the fate of other rust-belt communities, such as loss of tax revenue, property values, and population. Still, he said, “These are difficulties at times, but … our faculty and staff are focused [on] and geared towards giving our students the best education we can.”39

Imagining a Way Forward

Reflecting on this conversation, I came back to one of the CTU’s key lessons from coalition building in Chicago: keeping what we have is not inspirational. Imagine diversifying Granite City’s educators, ensuring they reflect the student body and their diverse families—many of whom make up the workforce at the steel mill and surrounding retail stores. This would greatly strengthen the potential for developing a strong coalition across Madison County and, in my opinion, is the only way to achieve a shared goal, whether that goal is merely to save 1,000 to 1,400 jobs or to make a just transition to green schools, green jobs, reduced pollution, and a healthier, more connected community.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to look far to find local expertise in diversifying the educator workforce. Madison, the small, predominantly Black town, is succeeding in this work. According to Madison Federation of Teachers President Joshua Webster, his local has undertaken an effort to diversify the teacher ranks of their schools through partnerships. And the district has been very supportive because four out of five administrators are African American. Webster’s local has partnered with several of the local teacher preparation programs, including Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, Harris-Stowe State University, and McKendree University. They also work directly with a statewide program, Grow Your Own, to increase the number of Black and Latine student graduates pursuing careers in education. As one of the few Black teacher union presidents in the state, this is one of his top priorities—though he still has a long way to go. Currently, 90 percent of the students are Black and only 35 percent of the teachers are Black.40 But crucially, students do see themselves among their teachers, making Webster’s efforts to grow the number of Black teachers in their districts so critical.

Thankfully, Webster says, “These administrators know that students’ environment and home life goes hand in hand with education.”41 That’s why they supported having white educators participate in the IFT’s trauma training; it helped them better understand, communicate with, and empathize with Madison’s students. Imagine what this training could do for Granite City. And imagine the goodwill Granite City educators could build if they proposed a diversification plan that focused on the changing student body while respecting the hard work of the existing teachers. For instance, they could demand a diverse teacher training pipeline, showing the forward thinking necessary to build trust and confidence with future coalition partners while allowing the change to happen through normal vacancies.42

Given how I’ve seen work with partners grow and expand in Chicago, I was not surprised to learn that Webster’s local has also been actively involved in shifting the political landscape of the county. “By working with local clergy and civil rights organizations, … our local has been instrumental in registering voters, canvassing, and getting out the vote,” Webster said.43 He has also developed strong relationships with statewide legislators and local politicians through our IFT field service director (a staffer who supports local leaders with contract negotiations, grievances, and community partnerships). Webster sees this activity as central to building a diverse educator workforce in the future, along with maintaining and growing pro-labor policies for the region. Such coalition forces will be increasingly necessary to combat existential threats that face unions and the larger community on the horizon—like those that face steelworkers in the area.44

Webster’s work in Madison is a great foundation for a much larger regional coalition. Imagine Webster, Noud, and Simmons mapping out which communities they can each bring to the table—not just their members, families, neighbors, and students but also everyone who voted for the Workers’ Rights Amendment. And imagine that broad, diverse, strong table negotiating its own new vision for their region. Now that’s inspirational.

There are times when this work feels impossible, and there are setbacks. But the CTU’s work over the last decade has shown me that when coalitions are large, diverse, and determined, they win.45 Sometimes quickly, sometimes with protracted struggle. They win.

This is true in rural areas too. Consider McDowell County, West Virginia. In the early 2000s, the loss of unionized coal jobs upended a solidly middle-class standard of living. Families faced sky-high unemployment, crushing drug abuse, and diminished life expectancy. In 2011, AFT President Randi Weingarten and former West Virginia first lady Gayle Manchin developed a project called Reconnecting McDowell to address economic dislocation and poverty through a broad coalition of alliances and policies. Today, over 125 national, state, and local partners have helped establish free broadband for all schools, dental care for families, enhanced clinical interventions for students, and affordable housing for teachers. As a result, high school graduation rates and academic outcomes have improved.46 McDowell demonstrates that places like Granite City, according to Weingarten, “can thrive again, that all children regardless of demography or geography can thrive.”47

As in Chicago and Granite City, McDowell County has a history of industrial pollution. For McDowell, a critical problem is water quality after decades of coal mine operators neglecting their obligation to protect waterways.48 But now, thanks to a partnership between Reconnecting McDowell and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection’s Project Water Education Today, fourth-graders in McDowell are learning about how to be good stewards of their local waterways. Visiting a riverside park, they studied aquatic life under microscopes and went into a soil tunnel to see the water’s impact.49 This is not (yet) as elaborate as the CTU’s Freedom School—but it’s a start, and one that Granite City could readily adapt.

While Reconnecting McDowell is a particularly ambitious project, much can be accomplished with just a handful of partners. For example, when the AFT learned that the semiconductor manufacturer Micron is building a new plant in Syracuse, New York, it spurred a partnership with local school systems and teachers unions. Now, there’s a collaborative effort underway to prepare students for engineering and technical careers at Micron—and to offer professional development to teachers to teach this innovative content.* With the Biden administration passing the CHIPS and Science Act,50 the Inflation Reduction Act,51 and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act,52 these opportunities will grow exponentially if we take advantage of them.

Teachers in Granite City and Madison, and steelworkers in both towns, are facing crises that they can turn into opportunities. Demographic changes, deindustrialization, and generations of pollution can become the catalyst for people to band together and fight for a just transition to green schools and green jobs for all.

This work begins with us.

By living next to, growing up with, and developing deep relationships with students and families their entire careers, teachers occupy a key intersection for hope and transformation. Solidarity may not be enough to surmount the considerable obstacles on the horizon, but nothing short of a multiracial coalition can address the current challenges.

I was raised by labor lawyers who were active in the union movement, working to make a more just society. I don’t believe that any progress will be made in isolation. To address racial and economic inequities, to ensure LGBTQIA+ students and families feel safe and have equal rights, to offer opportunity to all, we have to work together. We have to form coalitions and launch campaigns that stretch beyond our comfort zones and our traditional communities. That’s how movements grow.

There is a longstanding critique of teachers unions as being more concerned about adults than students. That’s not true. We bargain for the common good. We’re trying to advance the interests of young people, from securing basic classroom supplies to expanding CTE for green jobs. Still, if we’re not explicitly doing things as unions alongside young people, it will be easier for anti-union extremists to separate us from our base—to separate educators from their students and communities.

In Madison County, if it’s just the teachers union presidents of two locals fighting a giant industrial behemoth, they’ll lose. If it’s every member of those teachers unions, the young people in their classrooms and their families, and the steelworkers, then they’ll have a large community that feels empowered and understands their agency—and they’ll win.

I can’t think of a single movement that was able to reach its heights without student involvement. We saw that with the civil rights movement, and now we’re seeing it with efforts to win more environmental justice. I think young people are the conscience of the country. And I think Dr. King put it best regarding the Children’s March in 1963: young people are not just receptacles that are influenced by adults; children have their own beliefs, ideas, and needs.53 Like King, we must have the courage to let them lead.

Jackson Potter is the vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), AFT Local 1. A former high school teacher, he was a founder of CTU’s Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators.

*To learn more about this partnership, see “Advancing Tech Dreams.” (return to article)


1. Chuck Noud, personal communication with J. Potter, July 25, 2022.

2. Wikipedia, “Granite City, Illinois,”,_Illinois.

3. Granite City, Illinois, “History of Granite City: Part II,”

4. N. Carey, “Trump Metals Tariffs Make Granite City Great Again, but at What Cost?,” Reuters, May 25, 2018,

5. A. Merrilees, “In Granite City, Civic Leaders Prepare for a Future with Less Manufacturing,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 3, 2023,; and Data USA, “Granite City, IL,”

6. US Census Bureau, “QuickFacts: Granite City city, Illinois,” US Department of Commerce,

7. Illinois State Board of Education, “Illinois Report Card, 2021–2022: Granite City High School (9–12), Granite City CUSD 9: Racial/Ethnic Diversity,”

8. Noud, personal communication with Potter, November 11, 2022.

9. Y. Obayashi and R. Shimizu, “Nippon Steel Emphasises Its ‘Deep Roots’ in the US as It Pursues U.S. Steel Deal,” Reuters, April 1, 2024,

10. W. Bauer, “Steelworkers Union Could Block Sale of Granite City Plant—Keeping 1,000 Jobs,” St. Louis Public Radio, January 12, 2023,; K. Landis, “Corporate Plan Would Permanently End Steelmaking Jobs at Granite City Mill, Union Says,” Belleville News-Democrat, June 29, 2022,; and K. Kull and A. Huguelet, “Granite City Braces for Future Without Steel Plant,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 30, 2022,

11. H. Henderson, “EPA Report Brings Pollution Dangers Home…Literally,” Expert Blog, Natural Resources Defense Council, June 30, 2009,

12. R. Chatterji, “Closing Troubling Racial Gaps in Advanced Courses,” FutureEd, December 11, 2021,

13. ProPublica, “Miseducation: Illinois: Granite City Community Unit School District 9,”

14. J. Potter, “On CORE’s 15th Anniversary, Reflecting on the Teachers Caucus That Changed Chicago—and the Nation,” In These Times, June 7, 2023,

15. Chicago Public Schools, “About CPS: District Data: Demographics,”

16. Office of the Mayor, “City of Chicago, Chicago Public Schools Awarded $20 Million Grant from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for 50 Green Buses,” press release, City of Chicago, January 8, 2024,

17. I. Khera, “A New Summer Program for Students Starts with a Tour of Chicago Pollution Hotspots,” WBEZ Chicago, June 23, 2023,

18. To see lessons developed by the Climate Justice Committee, visit Chicago Teachers Union Foundation, “Climate Justice Education Project,”

19. H. Washington, “Healing a Poisoned World,” AFT Health Care 1, no. 1 (Fall 2020): 16–21, 44,

20. R. Rothstein, “Suppressed History: The Intentional Segregation of America’s Cities,” American Educator 45, no. 1 (Spring 2021): 32–37,

21. B. Loch, “Hazel M. Johnson, ‘Mother of the Environmental Justice Movement,’” CPL Blogs, Chicago Public Library, October 6, 2018,

22. S. Cosier, “What a Gutted EPA Could Mean for Chicago’s ‘Toxic Doughnut,’” Natural Resources Defense Council, April 17, 2017,

23. N. Issa, L. FitzPatrick, and S. Karp, “10 Years After Mass CPS School Closings, Enrollment Is Even Worse. What Can Be Done?,” Chicago Sun-Times, 2023,

24. E. Hoerner, “An Illinois Law Required Schools to Test Water for Lead. They Found It All Over the State,” Chicago Tribune, May 7, 2023,

25. Illinois State Board of Education, “ISBE Announces $17 Million Grant to Create the Nation’s First State-Funded Freedom Schools Network,” press release, March 24, 2022.

26. S. Durr, “New Poll: Climate Change, Gun Violence the Defining Issues for Young Voters,” United States Conference of Mayors, January 24, 2020,; Blue Shield of California, “New Poll Finds Climate Change Is Taking a Toll on Gen Z Mental Health While Also Inspiring Youth to Take Action,” April 21, 2022,; and D. Schechter, H. Rush, and C. Horner, “As Climate Changes, Climate Anxiety Rises in Youth,” CBS News, March 2, 2023,

27.  S. Luke, “An Illinois Town’s School Sacrifice,” Washington Post, September 2, 2001,; and City of Dixon Illinois, “How Do TIFs Improve Communities?,”

28. Madison County, Illinois, “Summary Report: 2022 General Election, Madison County, Illinois, November 8, 2022: Official Results,”

29. Madison County, Illinois, “Summary Report.”

30. K. Moody, Breaking the Impasse: Electoral Politics, Mass Action, and the New Socialist Movement in the United States (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2001), 78.

31. Moody, Breaking the Impasse.

32. Dan Simmons, personal communication with J. Potter, February 16, 2023.

33. Illinois State Board of Education, “Illinois Report Card, 2021–2022: Granite City High School (9–12), Granite City CUSD 9: Demographics,”

34. J. Hart, “America Needs Diverse Teachers More Than Ever,” Century Foundation, April 14, 2023,

35. Illinois State Board of Education, “Illinois Report Card, 2021–2022: Granite City High School (9–12), Granite City CUSD 9: Climate Survey,”

36. ProPublica and Chicago Tribune, “Granite City CUSD 9,”

37. Illinois State Board of Education, “Illinois Report Card, 2021–2022: Granite City High School (9–12), Granite City CUSD 9: Racial/Ethnic Diversity.”

38. Illinois State Board of Education, “Data & Accountability: Expulsions, Suspensions, and Truants by District.” 

39. Noud, personal communication with J. Potter, November 11, 2022.

40. Illinois State Board of Education, “Illinois Report Card, 2021–2022: Madison CUSD 12: Demographics,”

41. Joshua Webster Sr., personal communication with J. Potter, July 6, 2023.

42. Joshua Webster Sr., personal communication with J. Potter, July 16, 2023.

43. Webster Sr., personal communication with Potter, July 6, 2023.

44. Webster Sr., personal communication with J. Potter, August 24, 2023.

45. Potter, “On CORE’s 15th Anniversary.”

46. American Federation of Teachers, “Latest Reconnecting McDowell Accomplishment: Groundbreaking on Apartments to House W.Va. County’s Teachers,” press release, September 9, 2019,

47. M. Balingit, “Rebuilding the Village: A West Virginia School System Strives to Lift Up Its Children by Tackling Poverty,” Washington Post, October 19, 2019,

48. J. Comer, “Justice-Controlled Coal Company Liable for Water Pollution in McDowell County,” ABC4 WOAY, July 28, 2020,; and B. Lawrence, “EPA Administrator States West Virginia Water Issues Are ‘Unacceptable’ During Visit to McDowell County,” ABC4 WOAY, December 8, 2022,

49. K. Skeldon, “WV DEP and Reconnecting McDowell to Bring Back McDowell Water Festival for Nearly 200 Fourth Grade Students,” MetroNews, May 24, 2023,

50. White House, “Fact Sheet: CHIPS and Science Act Will Lower Costs, Create Jobs, Strengthen Supply Chains, and Counter China,” press release, August 9, 2022,

51. White House, Inflation Reduction Act Guidebook (Washington, DC: 2022),

52. White House, “Updated Fact Sheet: Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act,” press release, August 2, 2021,

53. K. Lawton, “Birmingham and the Children’s March,” Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, PBS, April 26, 2013,

[Illustrations by Andrea Mongia]

[updated May 2024]

American Educator, Winter 2023-2024