The ephemeral and timeless Karen Lewis

A leader for a moment and an age

There have been many wonderful commemorations of former CTU leader Karen Lewis, who died February 7th, outlining her impact on schools and teachers—which stretched far beyond Chicago.

In addition, so many folks have shared their own memories of personal encounters with her. There’s something amazing about all of these personal stories. They speak of her interest in and ability to reach out, connect with, and encourage anyone. No matter who, no matter how far out of the limelight. You may well have one yourself. I do.

But the thing I’m reflecting on more than her citywide and national impact, more than her abiding, caring interest in—anyone who needed a boost—is how short her leadership tenure was in our city.

Something about her leadership made it seem like she had been rallying the masses for decades. Really it was a few short years—with the intensity of a comet, or a bomb.

My kids were getting started in public school when Karen Lewis came to CTU leadership. I was getting to know the lay of the public school land in Chicago.

I was unaware of how neglected and underinvested Chicago public schools were. I was just learning there were schools that used textbooks so old that kids could find their parents’ names written on the card inside. And schools with no afterschool programs, no libraries, no nurses, little art, little to no music, broken playground equipment, and buildings full of mold and mice. And I was beginning to understand that the main reform strategy for this landscape was not to invest in these schools, but to close them.

Back then I was only peripherally aware of how bad the national narrative against public schools had become, and how aggressively Chicago’s main media outlets, and the nation’s, screeched against public schools as money-wasting failure factories. But I was certainly to hear more of this narrative in its full force when Rahm Emanuel ran for mayor in the same year Karen Lewis was elected CTU president.

He power-sauntered back into town from DC with a long to-do list that mostly involved cutting public services. Regarding CPS, his preferences were for charter schools and budget cutting, and his orders were for a longer school day with no pay increase.

CTU contract negotiations broke down for this reason, and many others. Karen Lewis and her CORE leadership team organized the first strike in decades—with 90% of teachers voting in favor. I will never forget the immense sea of red overflowing through downtown streets: my first real exposure to solidarity. I didn’t even know this massing, solid red solidarity was something new. But it hadn’t been seen in Chicago in decades. It was specifically the result of years of CTU groundwork creating strong bonds with teachers and communities, and the reinvigoration of all the possibilities of unionism. And with CTU’s subsequent groundbreaking report, The Schools Chicago’s Children Deserve, the possibilities of unionism to renew the public education landscape were solidified and ratified for the future of CPS.

Karen was inspirational, but not just to her union laborers.

She let parents know their voices were important too. She gave students the encouragement to stand up and make their voices heard. And when Chicago Public Schools’ troubles went from the frying pan to the fire in 2013—the largest mass school closure in US history—this city was mobilized and unified: teachers, parents, and students. We didn’t manage to stop the closures, but so many parent and student leaders rose up—marching, researching, writing, speaking, hunger-striking (the things folks have to do in this city)—that it changed the balance of power. It changed Chicagoans’ practice of confrontation with bad governance. Now, we massed together in solidarity for justice for Laquan McDonald or for Dyett High School. Teachers and pro-public school community leaders ran for city council and state legislature, and won.

Karen was inspirational, but not just in Chicago.

Based on CTU’s example and influence, by 2018 teachers all over the country were standing together and shouting, enough. Enough pathetic pay, underinvested schools, and runaway privatization. All of it had to go. In Arizona, Oklahoma, Kentucky, West Virginia, Denver, Oakland, Los Angeles—and indeed, Chicago again.

This one woman planted the seeds for this, watered it, grew it into existence with her tremendous faith, strength, and vision. And as one of her great gifts was creating more leaders, many others have been able to carry on that vision, and still do so.

Her formal leadership tenure lasted just 4 years, from 2010 to 2014 when, though she was still designated CTU president, vice president Jesse Sharkey was named acting president on account of Lewis’s diagnosis of glioblastoma.

For just 4 years, we got the full force of this woman’s comet-bright leadership—which showed others the way to step up, and why. Our schools still need so much help. It almost seems like they’re under greater attack than they’ve ever been. Don’t forget that bright comet blaze that was Karen Lewis. Let’s bring our solidarity with each other right back into the face of power, envisioning and creating the schools all our nation’s children deserve.

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