By Mark Allen
Very sad to hear that James Deanes, one of my longtime legendary educational activist friends of over 35 years died. It really breaks my heart to think that he died looking at how some of the educational legislative victories, which he helped to anchor and win, have all been erased from history since we are now lifting up new names.
As a youth activist I worked with James Deanes and his group Parent Community Council (PCC) when he was chosen by former Mayor Harold Washington to lead the Mayors Education Summit. The Summit and creation of The Local School Councils led to major education victories that gave the community some power over local schools. The leaders of the council had to be elected at the polls just like any other elected official that laid the foundation of the current movement: the fight for an elected school board. We actually won the fight for local control with the Local School Council and we let former Mayor Daley rewrite the legislation and totally dismantled the Local School Councils!
Then, I worked with James Deanes after we were both elected as Local School Council members.We were both then elected by The Sub District Council, a group created under Mayor Washington to approve major educational policies for the various local districts across the city. After that second election with the city-wide Sub-District Council we were elected by The citywide sub district leaders to the powerful positions of Commissioners of The Chicago School Board Nominating Commission where commissioners had the power to create the members of The Chicago Board Of Education. Washington wanted to ensure that the community had direct input into who the Board members would be and could be held accountable.
Mayor Daley hated the fact that this new law, which empowered the community, kept him from being able to just hand pick board members that did not get approval from the community. Mayor Daley kept his promise to get rid of the Local School Council’s, The Sub District Council, and The School Board Nominating Commission, committees that helped us elevate two Black School Board Presidents. Our leaders did not block Mayor Daley’s goal to rewrite the legislation and after years and years of work and major educational empowerment victories under the late Mayor Harold Washington and chaired by the late James Deanes, that work was erased from history! It is a real insult to the educational legacy of James Deanes that over 20 years of collective work was set back, as if the price had not already been paid and won. But James Deanes was the absolute champion and before the Commission was erased I enjoyed Deanes’ support when I became Vice Chairman of The Nominating Commission.
Maybe the hard part in acknowledging the educational activism of James Deanes and others is that far too many of the activists became employed by Chicago Public Schools. It looked like the system swallowed up our once active community leaders. When many of them got into the system, the grassroots organizations began to fade away because no new leadership sustained them. But even in the system, James Deanes would still use his roles to keep many of our civic education projects going in the schools with the student leaders. He was in the system but remained one of our champions that you could always call on. The pressures to stay community connected while inside the system, however, was wearing him down after a while.
Deanes retired from CPS last year but remained active in community and school issues, including the closing of nearly 50 schools last year. Our community owes a great deal of gratitude for the life and legacy of James Deanes. It was an honor for me to have worked with him for over 35 years, from my childhood to adulthood. We learned so much from each other while working for the educational empowerment of our people. As I look back to some our last conversations we did talk about how hard it was to believe that all of our years fighting to win certain educational and political victories seemed to be in vain.
Thank God for the life, legacy and example of my friend James Deanes and thanks so much for investing so much of your mind and spirit in my life! I have great memories of our struggle together. People will remember you as a school official for that is all they know, but there are those who will lift you up and educate others on the educational activist giant that you were and your role in history!