Posted on May 8, 2018

Students Learn Grass-Roots Activism While Campaigning to Rename Douglas Park

William Lee, Chicago Tribune, May 3, 2018

The group of fifth-graders {snip} approached a few dozen morning commuters and started their pitch.

“Have you ever been to Douglas Park?” the kids asked in unison. No parks should be named after slaveholders, they said. “Especially parks in black neighborhoods. It’s insulting!”

The Village Leadership Academy fifth-graders were assigned to persuade commuters to sign a petition to add an “s” to Douglas Park, renaming it for former slave and groundbreaking orator Frederick Douglass rather than onetime U.S. Sen. Stephen A. Douglas.

Meanwhile, sixth-graders were to meet with West Side community groups to gain public support before formally requesting the name change and presenting signatures to the Chicago Park District Board, which has the final say on how city parks are named. Later this month, the students will visit North Lawndale near the park and gather signatures from neighborhood residents.

Their push to rename the sprawling 218-acre West Side park comes during a nationwide resurgence of youth-led activism {snip}.

At the same time, there has been a growing national conversation about whether the people commemorated in place names, statues and memorials reflect modern values and should continue to receive such homage as the country and communities becomes more diverse. {snip}

Disagreements like those involving Douglas Park, which straddles a neighborhood of African-American and Latino residents, have also found their way north. A commemoration of Confederate soldiers at Oak Woods Cemetery, where many prominent African-Americans are buried, recently drew counterprotests. Meanwhile, supporters of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, who is buried at the cemetery, seek a monument to honor the Chicago journalist and anti-lynching crusader.


The train takeovers are the latest phase of a school assignment first conceived last year that pushes African-American and Latino students to learn about politics, current events and how to make changes in their communities.According to historical accounts, the park’s namesake did not own slaves, but the senator’s wife and children did.


In the subway, the students were a well-oiled machine an hour into their takeover, each knowing his or her role.

While Jones held up a student-drawn poster of Douglass, some of the kids recited a brief script and students like Zahir Mbengue and Caleb Hill, both 10, quickly sized up their captive audience, eyeing who looks more likely to sign up. {snip}


Jones, a Baltimore native with a background in community activism, has been excited by how well and how quickly her students have adapted to her lessons as well as the confidence they’ve shown in approaching people.

“I know young people who can’t say what they want to order in a restaurant, and (my students) are going up to strangers,” Jones said. “(With) life skills like public speaking being their No. 1 fear, they’ve already got it.”