By Natalie Eilbert and Emily Little
Medill Reports

When yet one more industrial facility planned to move operations to the Southeast Side, they likely didn’t think their main opponents would be high schoolers. But the students of George Washington High School weren’t going to back down.

After Lincoln Park residents fought for its removal, General Iron, a scrap metal recycling facility responsible for toxic dust and air pollution, plans to move to the Southeast Side of Chicago in early 2021. The new location is only two blocks away from George Washington High School, a proximity not lost on a community that has long been blighted by the “toxic doughnut” that has defined their neighborhood for decades.

On Oct. 25, students from George Washington High School rallied alongside longtime environmental justice activists and concerned Southeast Side neighbors to oppose General Iron’s move.

The Student Voice Committee at George Washington High School allows students to voice their concerns about their community and take action. This was the second rally at the high school, following efforts to reduce school police presence. (Emily Little/MEDILL)
“A lot of teachers over the last two years have been adding General Iron and environmental racism to our curriculum,” says Lauren Bianchi, a social studies teacher at GWHS. “So a lot of the students know about what’s going on because teachers felt it was important to … learn about it during class time.” (Emily Little/MEDILL)
General Iron’s new location at 11600 S. Burley Ave. is less than one mile from George Washington High School. Rally participants used this interactive map to visualize how close the scrap metal facility will be to their homes. (Emily Little/MEDILL)
George Washington High School students, Trinity Colon, 17, and Gregory Miller, 14, announce to the crowds that the speaking portion will begin at 1 p.m. Colon is the student representative of the Local School Councils at George Washington High School. Miller, a freshman, says that the pollution on the South Side is already bad enough as it is. “When a student thinks of school, they’re supposed to think about something lovely, like a safe environment, right?” Miller says. (Emily Little/MEDILL)
David Ramirez participated in the rally because he is concerned for the future of his neighborhood and his family. “Why can’t I live here and have a healthy life and a safe life, instead of having to go somewhere on the North Side [or] downtown to feel safe and not worry about pollution?” (Emily Little/MEDILL)
“You see mothers caring about environmental justice because it’s their children they care about, [and] they essentially speak for their children,” says Luis Cabrales, president and co-founder of the Southeast Youth Alliance. “We’re at a point where we’re not children anymore. This is also our time to speak up.” (Emily Little/MEDILL)
With COVID-19 still present, rally participants wore masks and maintained social distancing. The correlation between the virus and the health effects caused by environmental injustices is indisputable, with the number of positive cases and deaths disproportionately higher on the South Side of Chicago, according to South Side Weekly. (Emily Little/MEDILL)
Gregory Miller, 14, tacks on one of the many GWHS student messages to both General Iron and Ald. Susan Garza. The messages range from “That’s messed up what they’re doing” to “My house has been built on top of uninhabitable land. I do not want more of this happening in my community.” (Emily Little/MEDILL)
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but what I hear young people saying is, ‘Y’all need to get out of the way, we have no more patience,’” says Olga Bautista, community planning manager for the Alliance for the Great Lakes. “We’re gonna follow your lead.” (Emily Little/MEDILL)
For decades, this neighborhood has been subject to environmental injustices resulting from industrial corporations rooting down on their land. Yessica Vargas, a volunteer with Bridges // Puentes, one of the organizations leading the George Washington High School rally, says an important takeaway from their work is their ability to “reclaim the streets.” “We must reclaim space for justice, whether they give it to us or not,” Vargas says. (Emily Little/MEDILL)
Trinity Colon, 17, hopes that this rally will open the eyes of Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Ald. Susan Garza to the struggles of the Southeast Side. “I would say to Garza to stop being afraid to stand up for your community. Either make change or watch out for reelection,” she says. (Emily Little/MEDILL)
The Chicago Police Department makes its presence known among the ralliers. A teacher intervenes with a CPD police officer on the sidelines as Gregory Miller speaks to the crowd. Moments after Trinity Colon announces their plan to walk to Ald. Susan Garza’s house to demand answers, the three police vehicles make their way to her address. (Emily Little/MEDILL)
Vanessa Bly, a volunteer at Bridges // Puentes, leads the march toward Ald. Susan Garza’s house in a vehicle garlanded in vines, butterflies and tapestry. “There was a cop in front of me, then my car, then we had all of our bikers who served as protective barriers for the protestors, and another cop behind us,” Bly says. “The cop interference wasn’t really bad, and you know, those kids walk fast. I’ll tell you that.” (Emily Little/MEDILL)
The Student Voices Committee use the common refrain “We can’t learn if we can’t breathe” to call their representatives to stop General Iron. They say they want a clean and safe environment for their education and their futures without the fear of environmental racism and oppression. (Emily Little/MEDILL)

Natalie Eilbert and Emily Little are health, environment, and science reporters at Medill. You can follow them on Twitter at @natalie_eilbert and @emilym_little.