Today we learned that Karen Lewis — educator, organizer, and pathbreaking labor leader — has passed away. She leaves us with a legacy of unwavering commitment to children, public education, and racial justice.
After teaching chemistry for 22 years, Lewis was elected president of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) along with fellow members of Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE). This new leadership within CTU brought a fighting spirit, an activist orientation, and an expansive framework that placed racial justice at the heart of their work within a still-deeply segregated city.
This shift of power within the union set the stage for the historic and successful Chicago teacher's strike in 2012. The strike was remarkable not only because teachers there hadn’t struck since the 1980s, but because the union laid the important coalitional groundwork to bring community partners into discussion and cooperation. That coalition strategy is widely understood as the key to the strike’s success: because educators, students, parents, and community groups worked together, city officials couldn’t pit them against each other. Much of the inspiring educator activism across the country over the past eight years, including the wildcat educator strikes on 2018-2019, can be linked to the positive example of the 2012 strike.
Bridging together different sectors of the broad education justice movement is at the heart of what the Schott Foundation does. We highlighted the important cross-sector movement work of CTU under Karen Lewis in our 2018 report Keeping Students First: Building Community Labor Partnerships for Strong Schools.
We were also lucky to have Karen Lewis speak on our 2017 webinar When Community and Labor Join Forces: Parent, Student and Teacher Partnerships:
In recounting her time organizing in CTU, Lewis said, "You have to go where people are. You can't just say 'oh, come to our meeting...' You build the movement by finding common ground. And that's what I think we were able to do."
May we continue to gather in her strength, courage and conviction.