"The People's Champion": Labor Leader Karen Lewis--Who Fought for Students, Teachers, and Community--Dies at 67

Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) then-president Karen Lewis holds a press conference after CTU delegates voted to end their strike on September 18, 2012 in Chicago. More than 26,000 Chicago Public school teachers and support staff walked off the job on September 10 after the union failed to reach an agreement with the city on compensation, benefits, and job security. With about 350,000 students, the Chicago school district is the third largest in the United States. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

"The People's Champion": Labor Leader Karen Lewis--Who Fought for Students, Teachers, and Community--Dies at 67

"She fearlessly confronted the powerful."

Labor leader and fierce critic of corporate education reform Karen Lewis, who headed the Chicago Teachers Union from 2010 to 2018, has died, the union said Monday. She was 67.

"Karen did not just lead our movement. Karen was our movement."
--Chicago Teachers Union
The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) said in its statement that Lewis "bowed to no one, and gave strength to tens of thousands of Chicago Teachers Union educators who followed her lead, and who live by her principles to this day."

Lewis was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2014, which brought to a halt her bid to unseat Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

It was under her leadership that Chicago teachers in 2012 staged their first strike in 25 years. That action, Rethinking Schoolswrote in an editorial at the time:

showed the importance of teachers using their collective power to demand that all children get the education they deserve. It demonstrated the necessity of an alliance among teachers and parents and community organizations. It exposed the bipartisan corporate "reform" agenda promoted by key sections of the Democratic and Republican parties.

It also signaled that a new teachers' union movement is in the making.

In short, it was a wake-up call to anyone concerned with the future of public schools.

"She understood that the union had to organize families and communities, not just their own members," education historian Diane Ravitch wrote Monday. "She fearlessly confronted the powerful."

Chicago Teachers Union then-president Karen Lewis speaks to supporters during a rally at Union Park September 15, 2012 in Chicago. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

From WBEZ:

Lewis was born on July 26, 1953. A proud daughter of Chicago Public School teachers, she went to Kenwood Academy in Hyde Park on the South Side. She left her junior year to go to Mount Holyoke College and then transferred to Dartmouth College. She said she was the only African American woman in Dartmouth's graduating class of 1974.

Before becoming president of the teachers union, she was a chemistry teacher in Chicago Public Schools for more than 20 years.

CTU's statement spoke to Lewis' impact on the city and public education advocacy more broadly, and referenced the "Red for Ed" movement:

Karen had three questions that guided her leadership: 'Does it unite us, does it build our power and does it make us stronger?' Before her, there was no sea of red--a sea that now stretches across our nation. She was the voice of the teacher, the paraprofessional, the clinician, the counselor, the librarian, and every rank-and-file educator who worked tirelessly to provide care and nurture for students; the single parent who fought tremendous odds to raise a family; and the laborer whose rights commanded honor and respect. She was a rose that grew out of South Side Chicago concrete--filled with love for her Kenwood Broncos alumni--to not only reach great heights, but to elevate everyone she led to those same heights.

But Karen did not just lead our movement. Karen was our movement. In 2013, she said that in order to change public education in Chicago, we had to change Chicago, and change the political landscape of our city. Chicago has changed because of her. We have more fighters for justice and equity because of Karen, and because she was a champion--the people's champion.

News of Lewsis' death sparked an outpouring of condolences as well as celebrations of her work:

The American Federation of Teachers, of which CTU is an affiliate, shared a video highlighting Lewis' fight for educators and students:

"May her memory be a blessing, and her lifelong dedication to education and working people an inspiration to us all," the union wrote. "Rest in power."

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