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Chicago won’t succeed if Lori Lightfoot and Stacy Davis Gates are always at odds

I have enormous respect for the load Lightfoot and Gates carry. But as a strategist on women’s leadership, I know the importance of judicious, calm public action to achieve justice for all parties.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks at a Jan. 4 press conference at City Hall on the Chicago Teachers Union vote to go to remote learning.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot speaks at a Jan. 4 press conference at City Hall on the Chicago Teachers Union vote to go to remote learning.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Apart from the tragedy of it all — nearly 300,000 Chicago students and their families suffering because Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union can’t find a path forward to open the schools — one has to wonder if the wildly different leadership styles of Lori Lightfoot and Stacy Davis Gates have anything to do with the mess Chicago is now in.

Neither Lightfoot nor Gates, the vice president of the CTU, has been the only spokesperson for her side in the current dispute over COVID safety; Pedro Martinez, the head of CPS, and Jesse Sharkey, CTU president, are also in the public eye.

But why do Lightfoot and Gates persist in speaking at such cross-purposes when so much is at stake?

I so want these two gifted women to succeed and for our city to thrive while they are in power. But these days, they are constantly at odds, victimizing themselves and, more importantly, victimizing other Chicagoans. It all seems due to their clashing styles of public leadership and, therefore, their inability to sit down and settle up.

I am at a loss as to why these two custodians of the public trust haven’t found a way forward. Perhaps there is lingering ill-feeling from the last mayoral contest, when the CTU backed Toni Preckwinkle instead of Lightfoot. Or perhaps there is ill-feeling because of rumblings that Gates wants to be mayor herself.

In any event, both women surely know just how much is at stake right now: They know Chicago can’t succeed if it is plagued every few months by shouting matches, work stoppages, and declarations of bad will. And neither Lightfoot nor Gates will remain in power given the current climate. That requires gaining and keeping a good reputation. Right now, that’s not happening for either one.

Stacy Davis Gates of the CTU is shown on Jan. 18, 2021 at a press conference on school reopening.
Stacy Davis Gates of the CTU is shown on Jan. 18, 2021 at a press conference on school reopening.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

When you examine the careers of other Chicago women leaders — past as well as present — you see a range of public leadership styles. Consider Jane Addams and Lucy Parsons at the turn of the 20th century. Addams served on the School Board while Parsons was a radical activist and published an anarchist newspaper. Yet, at times, they found a way to collaborate. Or consider former Mayor Jane Byrne when she, without notice, moved into the Cabrini-Green housing development and stayed there for several weeks to call attention to the plague of neighborhood crime. Byrne made her point and moved on.

Or consider more recently Karen Lewis, the late former president of the CTU who went head-to-head with former Mayor Rahm Emanuel. But before it was too late, Lewis and Emanuel found a way forward. They even claimed they grew to respect each while hashing matters out when necessary.

But this Lightfoot/Gates head-to-head feels different. It’s bewildering to me, but it appears each has willingly put forth a leadership style she believes is right for the current circumstance. But neither is. As a result, Chicago is in a state of war.

Lightfoot’s style is the stern, austere teacher or mother. Check out her memes from early in the pandemic for proof — those were fun, the current iteration isn’t. Gates, in contrast, is the unrelenting, uncompromising firebrand for her cause.

Notably, neither Lightfoot nor Gates shows any fear of negative repercussions because of her style. But what about the repercussions for Chicago?

As a strategist on women’s leadership, I know the importance of judicious, calm public action in order to achieve justice for all parties. As an advocate like my father — he was a leader on environmental justice — I know the dispiriting fallout, public criticism and private distress that can come from pushing too hard. Happily, I learned from my mother — a school board president — that sometimes one just has to proceed with as temperate an attitude as one can muster, even when it feels insufficient.

I have enormous respect for the load Lightfoot and Gates carry, but we’re tired, girlfriends. Really tired. And also really scared. Please settle up and move on.

Rebecca Sive is a public speaker and the author of Make Herstory Your Story: Your Guided Journal to Justice Every Day for Every Woman.

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