A Prom Committee Decides Which Side It’s On | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

A Prom Committee Decides Which Side It’s On

High-school prom season is just around the corner. Students who serve on their school's prom committee are in high gear to finalize their plans. When it comes to finding a venue for the dance, students typically look for some elegance at the right price. But a prom committee at one Chicago school is taking another factor into account. The students have canceled their reservation for the ballroom of a certain hotel downtown and forfeited a $3,000 deposit.

After school at Chicago's Northside College Preparatory High, senior Sam Hamer leads his Jewish student club in a song for Passover.

HAMER: OK, ready? Dayenu. Dayenu. Dayenu....

Hamer says his faith came to mind when he saw a notice for his senior prom in June. The dance's location was the Congress Plaza Hotel. Workers there have been striking almost six years for wages on par with what other downtown hotels pay. Hamer says he found out about the strike from a Jewish social-justice group that's helped picket the hotel. He points to Torah and Talmud teachings against defrauding workers.

HAMER: Everything in my religious spirit, my religious being, tells me that to stand by while injustice occurs would be the wrong thing to do.

Hamer marched in to speak with the Northside principal. That led to an emergency meeting of the prom committee so Hamer could make his case for canceling the hotel reservation.

HAMER: I started off the presentation with an interesting video of then-Senator Barack Obama picketing in front of the Congress during his campaign for the presidency.
OBAMA: ...You've been out here in the cold...
HAMER: But there was a certain level of frustration in the room.

Some of that was coming from prom committee member Jesse Speth.

SPETH: We were kind of hostile initially.

Speth and fellow senior John Konow had spent weeks searching for the venue.

KONOW: Everybody else we ran it by in the school had seemed like, ‘Yeah, it's a good place place, nice location.'
MITCHELL: And it was the cheapest.
SPETH AND KONOW: Yeah, by far.

The prom committee also didn't want to say goodbye to a $3,000 deposit for the Congress reservation.

Hamer countered that any picketing in front of the hotel could spoil the prom's atmosphere. And he pointed out that the committee was counting on teachers to serve as chaperones.

Konow says he realized many of those teachers would have refused to cross the picket line.

KONOW: We just had a discussion about what would have happened if we had kept it at the Congress and eventually decided that moving it would be the best choice because there's no way we wanted to be walking through picket lines and have chaperones withdrawing their names.

The students cancelled the reservation and found another hotel ballroom. That lifted spirits among strikers meeting at the headquarters of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 1.

STRIKERS: Clapping.

At the Congress, hotel President Shlomo Nahmias declines to say whether he's got any other high-school proms booked. Nahmias doesn't want to speak on tape but insists he treats his employees well and says the strike attracts more business than it turns away.


Back at Northside College Prep, Principal Barry Rodgers presides over a spring pep rally. He says he's proud of the prom committee's decision. But Rodgers doesn't think it would be a great idea now to accept an offer from Sam Hamer's rabbi to raise funds to cover the Congress deposit.

ROGERS: If you have a problem and you can have someone write a check for you, then it's no longer a problem. So we believe that if they were going to make this decision that they were going to have to make some type of sacrifice. That's where the real meaning and that's were the real learning is going to occur.

The students don't want to hike the price of the prom's tickets. So they're hoping to come up with the $3,000 by, among other things, selling pizzas and washing cars. Hamer says those efforts mean he'll have more chances to spread the word about the Congress strike.

HAMER: Then I can really say, ‘This is the issue and this is how we dealt with it at Northside.'

Hamer's fight to change the prom venue didn't make him popular with his fellow seniors on the prom committee. But he says he'll still enjoy the dance June 5.

Chip Mitchell, WBEZ.

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