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"Karen Lewis (1952-2021)"


An absolute legend: "does it unite us; does it build our power; does it make us stronger?"

How Karen Lewis Helped Her Students — And Teachers Everywhere — Find Their Voice: ‘Karen Was Our Movement’

Former CTU president Karen Lewis, who died Sunday at 67, was a people’s champion, a motivating educator and a fighter with sharp wit and tough love, her admirers say.

Ariel Parrella-Aureli
5:10 PM CST on Feb 8, 2021

CHICAGO — Karen Lewis revitalized a union, stood up to the city’s most powerful leaders, fought for marginalized youth and inspired countless people to follow her example of bold, fearless, progressive leadership in service of public education and community justice, her students and admirers said.

Lewis, the former Chicago Teachers Union president who died Sunday at 67, was a passionate and vocal advocate for Chicago’s teachers and students for years, even as Chicago Public Schools closed schools and grappled with a shaky budget. She led CTU during its 2012 strike and considered running for mayor in 2015 — with some predicting she’d beat incumbent Mayor Rahm Emanuel — but cancelled those plans when she learned she had cancer.

A Hyde Park native, Lewis was the daughter of two CPS teachers. She attended Kozminski Elementary School and Kenwood Academy High School before going to college on the East Coast. She returned to Chicago to teach at King College Prep and Lane Tech high schools, and joined the CTU in 1988.

She was a direct descendant of the Jackie Vaughn, the first Black, female president of CTU, union leaders said.

She motivated her students inside the classroom but also inspired many of them to become educators and active community leaders, as well.

“She taught us as a union and me to dare the systems, to push up against power and not to be afraid,” said William Smiljanich, a West Side CPS teacher whom Lewis taught at Lane Tech in the mid-’90s.

“To have a Black woman educator and center needs of marginalized students — that was a game changer for our political analysis of what’s happening in the city.”

‘A Shining Example Of Personal And Collective Power’
Lewis attended prestigious Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, then Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. She earned degrees in sociology and music in 1974, according to a 2013 Crain’s Chicago profile.

Soon after, she married and moved to Oklahoma, spent some time in Barbados, then returned to the city to attend medical school at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

She hated it, though. Lewis left medical school after two years. But the chemistry part stuck and she became a substitute chemistry teacher “until I figured out what I wanted to do,” she told Crain’s.

She then went to Columbia College Chicago to study film. Her first husband died and Lewis remarried John Lewis, a Lane Tech teacher, coach and union activist, who encouraged her to pursue an open spot on Lane’s local school council, according to Crain’s.

As a teacher, Lewis was “sharp as a tack,” said Maraliz Collazo-Salgado, a Lane Tech student during the early ’90s. Lewis brought biting humor and tough love to her classroom — keeping her “cocky, too-smart-for-our-own-good seniors” in line — while still being engaging, warm and respectful.

Collazo-Salgado knew Lewis as Ms. Jennings, her maiden name before she married Lane Tech coach John Lewis. She said Lewis made her love chemistry and learning, and pushed her to be her best by standing in her own power and being true to her beliefs.

“She taught me to honor and respect the value of building knowledge in community and that becomes strength in power,” Collazo-Salgado said.

Collazo-Salgado, of Hermosa, was a CPS educator for 20 years before becoming a life coach and racial healing facilitator. In a Facebook tribute, Collazo-Salgado called Lewis “the hardest and best teacher, and a model for my future teaching style.”

“The Lane Tech fight song says, ‘Be fearless and bold for the Myrtle and the Gold’ — she was fearless and bold, yes she was,” Collazo-Salgado said.

Lewis was looking ahead to retirement when she attended a book club meeting in 2008 that reinvigorated her and inspired her to fight the privatization of schools, according to a Chicago Magazine profile. The group turned into the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators, known as CORE, that wanted to give teachers a stronger voice in reshaping Chicago’s schools.

Lewis ran for president of the teachers union in 2010, pushing a progressive policy and working against the expansion of charter schools with other rank-and-file organizers. Their grassroots campaign rejuvenated the powerhouse union.

The 2012 strike was the first teachers’ walkout in decades. The union won salary bumps and protections for teachers who worked at schools being closed, among other improvements.

Collazo-Salgado said she admired Lewis for standing up to then-Mayor Emanuel and then-Gov. Bruce Rauner, for which Lewis gained a national profile during her time with the CTU.

“She was a shining example of personal and collective power,” her former student said. “Even in the classroom, she was a city of a woman but she went on to shoulder that responsibility and did it with great fighting for CPS families at the city and state level.”

Smiljanich said Lewis’ relatable, humorous teaching style made him feel like part of a community. He, too, became an educator for 20 years and said it was special to see Lewis rise into citywide leadership at the CTU after having her as a teacher.

Smiljanich recalled another special moment with Lewis during the 2015 mayoral election. He attended a rally for Jesus “Chuy” Garcia at the Logan Auditorium, who’d reached a runoff against Emanuel, and Lewis was in attendance. Everyone wanted a photo with Lewis, but after he re-introduced himself as one of her former students and told her he’d become a CPS teacher at his old elementary school, she pulled him out of the crowd and gave him a big hug.

“That feeling of being pulled out of the crowd, to have someone that is your former teacher tell you that they are proud of you is really emotional,” Smiljanich said. “To be seen and have that opportunity to be spurred on as an educator… I appreciate that so much.”

Nate Pietrini, a former principal of Hawthorne Scholastic Academy, said he admired Lewis’ fight for justice and liberation within the school district, and standing up for diverse families and students.

Pietrini, the executive director of education nonprofit High Jump, interviewed Lewis for an episode on his education podcast Ed Couple three years ago, when he was still a principal. He remembers her openness and comfort during the interview, especially considering it was the first time they met in person.

“She raised the conversation and cemented the values around progressive education and caring for caring for students like ours,” Pietrini said.

The Chicago Federation of Labor, which represents nearly 300 unions and labor organizations in Chicago and Cook County, said the city lost a legend and a trailblazer.

“Karen Lewis was someone who stood tall not only for the educators of this city, but for every single worker in Chicago,” the federation said in a statement. “She never compromised on the values she held dear, fighting for her students and their families with a fierce determination that will never be matched. She also inspired countless Chicagoans within and outside of the labor movement as she spoke truth to power without fear. Her voice — unique, uncompromising, brilliant, and kind – will be forever missed.”

The CTU called Lewis a brawler who changed the local education movement and a people’s champion for justice and equality.

“She spoke three languages, loved her opera and her show tunes, and dazzled you with her smile, yet could stare down the most powerful enemies of public education and defend our institution with a force rarely seen in organized labor,” CTU said in a statement. “She 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.”


"Walleye, a lot of things are going to go wrong in your life that technically aren't your fault. Always remember that this doesn't make you any less of an idiot"

--Walleye's Dad


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Chicago Reader: Now They Love Her
Feb 14th 2021

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Sun Feb-14-21 12:26 PM

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1. "Chicago Reader: Now They Love Her"
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Powerful, warm piece here that doesn't back off from the important truth that standing up for working people like Karen Lewis did means making all the right enemies.

Now they love her
Karen Lewis knew you don’t make a lot of friends in high places when you stand up for teachers and poor kids.
By Ben Joravsky

February 10, 2021

It was an hour or two after I learned that Karen Lewis had died.

I was sitting at my desk feeling blue, looking out the window at another gloomy winter day in Chicago when my phone rang, and onto the caller ID popped the name—Karen.

Folks, it was like a surrealistic moment.

Could it be that she hadn’t really died? Could it be that she was just playing a prank on us? And when I clicked on the phone, I’d hear her familiar voice giving me her standard greeting: “What up, bruh?”

Alas, it was a different Karen. One I also love. Just not the legendary Karen Jennings Lewis, who I’ve been mourning.

Man, I miss her calls. Karen Lewis was many things. A great teacher. A powerful union leader. A courageous advocate for the poor and disposed.

But she was also just a great friend to talk to on the phone.

I met her years ago—when she was a science teacher at Lane Tech. She loved theater. As such, she volunteered to help run the lights for a student production directed by an English teacher named Randy Bates, an old friend of mine.

You gotta meet Karen, Randy told me. You’re gonna love her.

Randy was right. When she met me, she said—you’re the guy writing all those TIF articles!

And she gave me a big kiss.

First time anyone’s ever kissed me for writing TIF articles, that’s for sure.

Karen was funny. And wise. And smart. Really smart. I think she knew everything. Opera. Theater. Books. Tennis (she loved Roger Federer). And movies. She used to work in a video store back in the 1980s.

OK, she didn’t know or care much about basketball. Which is sort of funny. ’Cause her husband, John Lewis, coached the basketball team at Lane Tech.

On top of it all, she could sniff out bullshit from a mile away.

As a matter of fact, I wish she were around today, if only to hear the wonderful things her old enemies have been saying about her in the last few hours.

It would be that scene from Tom Sawyer—where Tom gets to watch his own funeral.

Rahm said what about me? She’d be laughing her ass off.

’Cause here’s the deal—back in real time. When Karen was in all her glory. Wearing red. Rallying teachers. Leading them into the streets. Calling Rahm “the murder mayor.” Using her status to shine a spotlight on all the crooked deals and injustices of this city. Standing up for teachers and poor kids in poor schools . . .

Man, the powers that be hated her. She was their worst fears come to life—a powerful Black leader who wasn’t afraid to tell it like it is.

On top of that, Karen was a big woman. As in . . . heavyset.

Sometimes she’d read me the things people wrote about her. The nasty shit of twisted minds.

I don’t want to belabor this, ’cause I’ll probably get in trouble for saying it, but . . .

There’s a certain type of white person—generally a well-to-do north-side woman who’s in great shape—who cannot stand big women. Especially heavyset women who aren’t afraid to take center stage and tell the world what they think.

I can’t tell you how many north-siders have told me—in this patronizing voice—Ben, I know you like her. But you have to agree that the teachers could have picked a better representative, at least just for the sake of how she looks on TV.

You don’t have to be a genius to read between the lines to see what they’re really saying.

In addition, Karen was standing up for teachers. People have conflicting attitudes toward teachers. They might love them when they’re meek, mild, and doing whatever the mayor tells them.

But take a stand? Rally in the loop? Go on strike? How dare they! What about “the children”?

Wouldn’t it be a wonderful world if people always cared about “the children”? As opposed to only caring about them when teachers go on strike.

Karen didn’t seem too bothered by the nasty things people said about her. By the time she got elected president of the union in 2010, she was already well into her 50s. She had a lifetime of experience—nearly 30 years in the classroom teaching high school science at Sullivan, Lane Tech, and King.

She wasn’t looking to cozy up to power to advance her career.

She certainly wasn’t looking to get elected mayor.

But she couldn’t stand how Mayor Rahm was leading this city.

She tried to talk Toni Preckwinkle into running against Rahm. But Toni chickened out. So Karen launched a campaign.

This was back in the summer of 2014. She set up a series of meetings around town to raise money and generate interest, called them “conversations with Karen.”

The first one was in a banquet hall in Beverly. Place was packed with teachers, firefighters, and yes, cops.

Afterward, I was giddy with excitement. I really thought she was gonna mop the floor with Rahm . . .

Well, you know what happened. She got brain cancer and had to drop out.

She endorsed Jesus Garcia. But he wasn’t ready. And corporate Chicago—President Obama included—rallied around Rahm. He got reelected. And then a few months later everyone woke up to realize he’d been hiding evidence of the Laquan McDonald murder.

In 2018, Karen stepped down from the union. Her health got worse. But every now and then, she’d call.

Her brain was sharp. Her memory intact. We’d talked politics, tennis, movies—pretty much anything but basketball.

Hold it. This just in. The Chicago Tribune editorial board just weighed in with a tribute to Karen.

You hear that, Karen? The fucking Tribune. The one that once compared your union to the North Korean regime of Kim Jong-un.

You gotta laugh to keep from crying. And even then the tears still fall.

I saw the same thing happen with Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King.

They love you when you’re not around. Not so much when you are.

Rest in peace, my friend. v


"Walleye, a lot of things are going to go wrong in your life that technically aren't your fault. Always remember that this doesn't make you any less of an idiot"

--Walleye's Dad


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