CPS students

Rebel Rouser: High school activist speaks up for better education

By Morgan Gilbard

Nidalis Burgos stood her ground when police threatened to arrest her during a school closings protest in 2013. A teacher told Burgos, who was only 15 at the time, that the incident would cost her a future.

“My eighth-grade teacher came into the classroom and said, ‘Hey, just so you know, if you do this, colleges won’t accept you,’ ” Burgos recalled.

Now a senior at Lincoln Park High School and a prominent figure in the burgeoning student-led activism in Chicago Public Schools, Burgos still doesn’t regret that night—especially now that her college dreams are approaching on the horizon.

“I got my three acceptance letters and all I could think was, ‘Hey, Ms. Macey was incorrect,’ ” Burgos said.

Proving people wrong is a hobby for Burgos, who is doing just that as co-founder of Chicago Students Union, the champion force behind student-led advocacy for education funding and reform. Support for the Students Union has increased at the same pace that the district’s pile of problems has grown. CPS has made $75 million in cuts for this fiscal year, is in the midst of seemingly endless teacher contract negotiations and needs a $725 million loan to stay afloat.

The student protesters who follow Burgos at marches and rallies are fed up— and their numbers are growing into the hundreds.

For Burgos, the school closings that almost led to her arrest were personal.

Although she dodged a police record, Burgos and others lost that fight and several others. The closing of Burgos’ old elementary school meant that her siblings would not benefit from the same music program that launched Burgos into one of the best high schools in the city. Now, she worries that her siblings and other minority kids in lower-income neighborhoods won’t get that chance.

CPS protest
Burgos (left) led approximately 300 students in a march at the Thompson Center on Jan. 15.

“That orchestra gave me opportunity to exceed the limitations that were set for me in my neighborhood,” Burgos, a violinist, explained. She feels that some of her peers at Lincoln Park don’t understand the importance of educational opportunity.

“I go to such a rich school, they feel like they’re entitled to an education, you know? They don’t know the loss of a school,” she said.

Some of Burgos’ peers at Lincoln Park didn’t know other things either, like how to pronounce her Puerto Rican first name. Burgos conceded by going by “Nini” – a nickname that stuck until support and recognition for the Students Union took off in September.

“In all honesty, I saw the respect level shift. Now, everyone calls me Nidalis,” she said.

Lincoln Park’s student body is 28.2 percent white, while the district’s enrollment is just 9.3 percent white. Burgos says her white peers are more aware of Chicago’s inequality than ever since the release of the video of the Lacquan McDonald police shooting.

Still, her greatest obstacle remains mobilizing students who come from more middle-class families and are relatively unaffected by the district’s financial problems.

Burgos found an ally in her English teacher Kevin Streicher. She talks about Streicher and his class with enough excitement to remind one that she carries a genuine thirst to learn. One of the few teachers who addresses racial inequality in his lessons, Streicher stands out as an advocate for Burgos and her peers in a neighborhood that has more boutiques than minorities. He listens to their excitement when they return to school after a demonstration downtown.

One student asked Streicher if what they did actually mattered— if it could actually make a difference. Streicher credits that awareness to Burgos. “Just by providing the opportunity, that’s one of the ways she impacts her peers.”

Burgos’ time at Lincoln Park is getting shorter. She was accepted at her first choice for college, Loyola University of Chicago, but money is a factor in whether or not she’ll attend. She hopes she’ll still find the time to play the violin, read the books she loves and binge-watch her favorite dramas on Netflix.

Regardless of where she ends up, Burgos’ dream is to become a defense attorney for minorities, in hopes of “righting the wrongs” throughout the city.

Reaching that goal would justify every time that Burgos spoke out instead of remaining quiet and asked for more because she knew she needed to.

She recalls her mother explaining the status quo that she would face as a person of color early on. “My mom has always put me in my place: ‘You need to finish high school and go to college because you’re a minority and people are going to look down on you. So prove them wrong.”

Photo at top: Nidalis Burgos (left), a leading student activist, chats with friends at Lincoln Park High School (Morgan Gilbard/Medill).