Asean Johnson, a firebrand of a 9-year-old boy, is being credited with helping to get his school, Marcus Garvey Elementary, off the list of 50 schools that will be closed in Chicago through his forceful and articulate advocacy and standing up to Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Chicago School Board.
Asean delivered several passionate speeches on behalf of his school—including one at a meeting in April that brought a tear to the eye of Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who called him “an articulate, learned young man,” according to the Chicago Tribune.
But it was his impromptu speech last week at a rally, when he didn’t even know he was going to be speaking and had no remarks prepared, that has brought him to national fame, including appearances on CNN with Wolf Blitzer and MSNBC with Melissa Harris-Perry.
A video of his remarks has gone viral, with more than 150,000 views. The video shows Asean climbing onto a metal folding chair so that he can see over the lectern. He introduces himself to the crowd, then tears into Mayor Emanuel, accusing him of “not caring about our schools.”
“You should be supporting these schools, not closing them,” he says, his voice rising in anger.
After calling the closings racist, Asean strikes a more conciliatory tone when he says, “We are black, and we are proud! We are white and we are proud! No matter what the color is, no matter if you’re Asian or Chinese, it doesn’t matter. You should not be closing these schools!”
Sensing the crowd’s support, he pumps his fist in the air and leads a chant: “Education is a right; that is why we have to fight!”
“I was so amazed because he was so well composed,” Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis said, recalling how she also was brought to tears when she first heard Asean speak. “He just totally blew me away. He had on this suit, and he was so kind and so well-mannered and articulate and sweet and adorable. I thought, ‘This kid has it.’”
In a profile of Asean in the Tribune, he notes his fans are asking him to enter a life of politics, but he has another goal in mind, saying he wants to be a professional football player.
“President would be my second choice,” he said on the playground at Garvey Elementary. “And I might want to be a scientist or a lawyer. Those are going to be my two backup plans.”
During the interview Asean was quick to share the credit for saving Garvey with the entire school team.
“I think I helped because we’ve been going to all the meetings, but I don’t think it was just me. I think it was my fellow students and their parents because we all came out. It was a team effort,” he said, as his mother, who the Tribune said has been acting as a press secretary of late, nodded in agreement.
Asean came to Garvey from a small parochial school, so he was shocked when he was told his new school was slated to be closed.
“This is my first year at the school, and I wasn’t going to let it close,” he said. “I already transferred to a school, and then I’m going to lose all my friends that I already knew, and I didn’t want that to happen.”
Asean’s father, Antonio Johnson, who works the overnight shift in a plastics factory, said he got teary when he first saw the video of his son’s speech.
“It reached my heart,” he said. “For me, it’s amazing to see your child that you’ve known since he was a baby, to see how he’s growing up into such a fine young man. People still can’t believe Asean, the way he speaks, how special he is.”