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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.

Karen Lewis at a CTU Day of Action on April 1, 2016.
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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.”

Credit: Twitter/CTU

‘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 [power] 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.” 

Karen Lewis in 2016.

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.”

Karen Lewis in 2016.

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