CTU’s Karen Lewis led with an iron fist and a soft heart

We hadn’t seen Chicago Teachers Union leadership like that since the 1990s, when Jackie Vaughn was at the helm of the powerful labor organization.

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Karen Lewis was president of the Chicago Teachers Union from 2010-2018 and was credited with revitalizing the local and boosting teachers’ morale and the labor movement.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file photo

I don’t remember the people who led the Chicago Teachers Union right before Karen Lewis. But when Lewis took over the reins in 2010, it was clear she would be memorable.

It was as if Jackie Vaughn, the legendary labor union activist, was reincarnated. Vaughn was the first African-American and first woman to head the third largest teachers union.

Critics, politicians and editorial boards didn’t intimidate either woman. Ironically, both women led the union through some tough negotiations even as they were battling serious illness.

Lewis developed brain cancer in 2014, just as she was contemplating a mayoral run. Her passing was announced Monday.

Lewis was president of CTU from 2010-2018 and was credited with revitalizing the local and boosting teachers’ morale and the labor movement. During Black History Month, her death allows teachers to reflect on her contributions to building a public school system envisioned by the civil rights activists who pushed for school desegregation.

Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court decision that outlawed segregation in public education, was passed a year after Lewis’ birth. Few Black public school students had the education experience Lewis enjoyed.

You could see from the schools Lewis attended, her parents, both of whom were teachers, valued education and saw to it that she went to high-quality schools. She went to Kenwood Academy High School in Hyde Park when it was considered elitist. In her junior year, she left and went to Mount Holyoke College before transferring to Dartmouth College. In 1974, she was the only Black woman in Dartmouth’s graduation class.

“The majority of our students, most of whom are Black and Brown, experience a form of educational apartheid,” Lewis told the school board in 2012, the year she led the first school strike in 25 years. ”Children who need the most resources get the least. Parents who cry out the loudest have their voices drowned. Schools that deserve the most support purposely get little,” she said.

While we disagreed on some issues, she was right about the Chicago Public School system—like many public school systems across the nation—CPS was still largely segregated.

Lewis was bold enough to bring up the public school’s march toward a de facto segregation when most school board members were in denial.

It was straight out of Vaughn’s playbook. When City Hall tried to make it easier for the school board to fire teachers, Vaughn shot down the notion that bad teachers were to blame for low-performing schools.

She was unrelenting when it came to salary and benefit demands.

“Her personal fear was that ‘unless teaching is given the respect that we award other professions, only the least qualified and the least committed will seek employment in the classroom,’” the late journalist Vernon Jarrett wrote after Vaughn’s death in 1994 from breast cancer.

Her powerful advocacy awakened a sleeping giant in the form of Lewis.

“Karen did not just lead our movement. Karen was our movement…We have more fighters for justice and equity because of Karen…,” said the Chicago Teachers Union in its press statement. “Karen taught us how to fight, and she taught us how to love. She was a direct descendant of the legendary Jackie Vaughn.”

When it became clear to Lewis that she was in the fight for her life, she stepped down as CTU president.

In 2018, she wrote a letter to union members expressing her hope for the future. “CPS may always be a hot mess, but with due diligence, creativity, expertise, and insights, we can one day make this the strongest school district in the nation,” Chalkbeat Chicago reported.

Besides making a difference in teachers’ lives, as a teacher, Lewis’ advocacy impacted countless CPS students' lives.

She left big shoes to fill.

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