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Learning From Karen Lewis

Educator, labor leader, and populist powerhouse Karen Lewis is busy fighting a battle against cancer, but the teachers, students, and community leaders she organized and energized are still applying the lessons she taught towards the goal of improving schools and the society as a whole. (Photo: AP)

Karen Lewis is a woman who speaks truth to power— boldly and without hesitation. When you listen to her words and watch her actions, you realize the possibility of winning, the possibility of what it means to fight back. She inspired us all when she led the 2012 teachers’ strike in Chicago.

Karen had been on all of our minds lately. In October, she was diagnosed with a brain tumor. She decided not to run for mayor against Rahm Emanuel in Chicago, and has needed to step down for a time as president of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU).

As Jesse Sharkey, who is now serving as interim president of the CTU, remarked at our conference, “We have all been carrying a heavy load up a steep hill for a long time. When someone has to put the load down for a while, the rest of us need to say we will pick up the load and carry on. CTU will not let up.”

But first we need to honor the type of leadership Karen Lewis represents, and the influence she has had on unionism and the political landscape nationwide.

“It is activism, not compliance, which moves us towards a better democracy.” —Karen LewisFirst and foremost, Karen is a teacher. As a national board-certified science teacher and veteran of twenty-two years in the Chicago schools, she leads with first-hand knowledge and excellence of her craft. Former students talk about the life-changing experiences they had in her classes. They speak of the joy and passion she brought to her work, something that she fights to retain in all of our classrooms.

And as a union leader and activist, Karen is always teaching— every moment is an opportunity to educate.

“Karen activates the populace and walks with the people,” says Kimberly Goldbaum, an activist with the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE)—the organization that brought Karen Lewis into leadership. “It is activism, not compliance, which moves us towards a better democracy.”

Lewis’s commitment to the field of education and her role as our “teacher in chief” appeals to young educators, something that is essential if teacher unionism is to survive the political and corporate attacks on collective bargaining. She listens to them, challenges them, and then brings them into the fold. This is the exact opposite of the unionism we experienced before Lewis took leadership in 2010. The old guard practiced a service model of unionism, where rank and file were expected to fall in line with leadership decisions and get involved with the union’s downtown offices only when problems arose.

“I’ve met Karen Lewis a few times, mostly in passing at different union events,” says Annie Tan, a new teacher in Chicago. “She, alongside the union I’m a part of, lit me up. I realized that a different paradigm existed in this union. I was able to actually contact people in power in the union because they didn’t see me as just a teacher in the ranks, but saw me as one of them, worth listening to. And they taught me to consider the whole education battle: We were not just fighting for a living wage, but for our students.”

Like fighting trade unionists before us, we are in the habit of calling one another brother and sister. But when Karen says it, it has real meaning. She brings together teachers, students, and community leaders as a family.

And like any good teacher, Karen knows that ideas matter. She is willing to study, debate, and learn from experience. CORE was built on the founding principles of social justice, and these ideas are attractive and inspirational. We are willing to fight for the needs of our students and communities in equal balance with the workplace rights of teachers. We do not see ourselves as separate from other workers.

“It has been a long time since we have seen how to win. For more than a decade, teachers have been blamed and shamed,” notes education writer Anthony Cody. “But a few years ago we heard about a new energy coming from Chicago. A woman named Karen Lewis was leading a resurgent union local. We saw leaders listen to their members. We saw a union local actively investigating community concerns around the schools and developing a campaign centered on the needs of the students—especially the African Americans and Latinos hardest hit by school closings. And we saw that union actually win in a showdown with a politically powerful mayor. Karen Lewis showed us how to win.”

Yet the winning has not always been easy. “It isn’t all rainbows and puppies,” as Karen is fond of saying. The Chicago and national media often cry out that she needs to tone down her narrative. She is often portrayed as too brazen and outspoken—someone who agitates instead of negotiates. Leading as an unabashed African American woman with a huge intellect was bound to ruffle feathers. She is a woman who speaks up and talks back to those trying to undermine our schools, unions, and communities, and it makes people in power incredibly uncomfortable.

Barbara Madeloni, newly elected president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, has gotten to know Karen over the past couple of years and admires her strength.

“Her swagger, good humor, and bold certainty require digging down deep sometimes,” she says. She admires the example Karen “provides of being a leader and cultivating leadership while being attacked for being a union leader, for being a woman, for the color of her skin.”

Now, as our sister recovers from an illness that separates her from this work for a while, those of us involved in CORE and the Chicago Teachers Union are reflecting on our own skills, and how we develop leadership. We wonder what we could have done differently in order to have more leaders who are also recognized as people of power such as Karen.

Someone said the other day that CORE has such a deep bench of talent. We do have tremendous talent and willpower but none of us has been on the bench. We are out in the world fighting daily for the schools and communities our students deserve. Yet when Karen was sidelined, all of us had to admit that she is a singular person. She is the standard-bearer of our movement. In fact, Lewis is so well known throughout Chicago that her campaign buttons for the pending mayoral race just said “Karen” in red.

Very few people realize that Karen is an actress, singer, comedian, and a student of cinema. She knows how to weave a tale and tell a powerful story. She has a theatrical flair.

She usually ends her stories with this precept, “Always say to yourself: Does this unite us, build our strength, and give us power?”

We are all grateful that Karen Lewis pours her heart, soul, talents, and energies into fighting for our shared vision of education and a better world for the children we teach, and we are looking forward to sharing the stage with her once again.

Karen Lewis—you unite us, you give us strength, you give us power.

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Michelle Gunderson

Michelle Gunderson teaches fourth grade in the Chicago public schools. 

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