Chicago teens overturn high school hoodie ban
Uplift Community high school Sophomore, John Balarbar, stands proudly in front of his project at Mikva Challenge’s 17th Annual Action Civics Showcase | Michelle Zacarias/PW

CHICAGO – Students at Uplift Community High School in this city’s Uptown neighborhood overturned a hated rule that banned hoodie sweaters on their campus. Their victory came as a result of their “Hoodies, Harmless or Hated” campaign. The campaign was just one of scores of civic activism projects that high schoolers throughout Chicago have been working on all year under the guidance of the Mikva Challenge, a not-for-profit program encouraging youth participation in civic and political life.

At Uplift, a four-year public high school, the students chose to tackle an issue within the walls of their own institution. The “hoodie” sweater is a popular garment among teenagers around the country; in this windy city, it serves a very practical purpose through the cold winter season. Students at Uplift also argued that the ban fed into harmful misconceptions about hoodie sweaters being associated with criminal activities.

Sophomore John Balarbar described the initial response from students to the ban. “After we got a new principal at the beginning of the year, they told us that we were not allowed to wear hoodies to class.” Balarbar told People’s World that many initially thought the rule only meant that students were not allowed to wear the “hood” part of their sweaters up during class, but came to discover it was a complete ban on the garment.

The Uplift student population is over 80% African American, a fact that is especially important in the context of school dress codes. The “hoodie” has become a highly politicalized item of clothing in the years following the murder of Trayvon Martin said Balarbar. The media’s portrayal of hoodies and baggy pants as being affiliated with violence perpetuates the myth that young Black boys are criminals.

Uplift students challenged the hoodie stereotype, making a compelling argument against the new dress code to the school administrator. Balarbar said they noted that over 90% of other public schools allowed hoodies; they advocated for students who might not be able to afford entirely new winter wardrobes. After several discussions with school officials, they settled on a compromise permitting the wearing of hoodies without the hoods up.

Students are now given up to three “strikes” for having their hoodie worn up in the classroom before they are completely banned from wearing them altogether. “Since the rule changed in December nobody has been written up at all,” said Balarbar proudly. The small, but determined, collective of Uplift students succeeded in challenging and overturning the outright ban on hoodies at their high school.

Over 300 teenagers from 60 schools gathered to present their best and most innovative ideas to tackle local, and city-wide problems at the Annual Action Civics Showcase May 21 in Chicago’s near west side Bridgeport neighborhood. The event, a partnership between the Chicago Public Schools’ Department of Social Science and Civic Engagement and the Mikva Challenge, showcased students’ year-long efforts. Some youth, reflecting passion and commitment for bettering the city, focused on developing policies and implementing political programming, while others, like the Uplift group, looked internally at resolving issues within their own institutions. High schoolers from the north, west, east and south sides of Chicago utilizing their wealth of knowledge about matters that directly affect their communities are now taking tangible action steps to address them.

Senior Program Director of Mikva Challenge, Meghan Goldenstein, spoke to People’s World about the importance of inviting youth, like the students at Uplift, to take part in civic engagement. “If you get engaged early, it is likely that you will remain engaged throughout your life,” she said of the students. “But when they are not invited, it’s hard to be a voice for change.” Goldenstein emphasized the importance of recruiting students to be involved in all the steps of the decision-making process.

“When you invite young people and ask them ‘what do you care about and how can we empower you to do something about it?’” said Goldenstein, “that’s a lesson that lasts a lifetime.”


Michelle Zacarias
Michelle Zacarias

Michelle Zacarias was a staff writer at People's World. A graduate of the Univ. of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, Zacarias invested her time in raising awareness on issues of social justice and equality. Michelle self identifies as multi-marginalized: as a Latina, a woman of color and a person with disabilities.