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Black History Month – Former Chicago Teacher's Union President Karen Lewis

Date: February 8, 2021

Our hearts are heavy today as we join our brothers and sisters from the Chicago Teacher's Union and share in their loss as we learn of the passing of former Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) President Karen Lewis on February 8, 2021.    

AFA and the Chicago Teacher’s Union have rich history of supporting each other and standing together in solidarity and this was especially the case under Ms. Lewis’s tenure at the CTU.  During some of the most tumultuous years at our airline, while under Ms. Lewis’s leadership, our brothers and sisters at CTU assisted us in increasing external awareness of our issues and challenges. In a similar way, AFA supported and walked with Ms. Lewis as she led her union during a strike in 2012, the first such action from the teachers in decades. As a result of this solidarity, their union won salary increases and improved protections for teachers.

It is undisputed that Ms. Lewis is among the frontline of black unionist women who have forged a heroic path to labor unity, justice equality and civil rights within the labor movement and within our communities.   Her leadership style of demonstrating a vision for workers by uniting them, shows how building power through solidarity will ultimately result in a stronger labor force.   For all of her efforts, her leadership and her vision, we thank Ms. Lewis for uniting us and building power within each of our respected labor communities.

The Chicago Teachers Union released the following statement today regarding the passing of President Emerita Karen GJ Lewis:

“Our Union is in deep mourning today at the passing of our sister, our leader and our friend, President Emerita Karen GJ Lewis.  

Karen taught us how to fight, and she taught us how to love.   She was a direct descendant of the legendary Jackie Vaughn, the first black, female president of our local.  Both were fierce advocates for educators and children, but where Jackie was stately elegance, Karen was a brawler with sharp wit and an Ivy League education.   She spoke three languages, loved her opera and her show tunes, and dazzled you with her smile, yet she could stare down the most powerful enemies of public education and defend our institution with a force rarely seen in organized labor.

She bowed to no one and gave strength to tens of thousands of Chicago Teachers Union educators who followed her lead, and who lived by her principles to this day.

Karen had three questions that guided her leadership: “Does it unite us; does it build our power, and does it make us stronger?”  Before her, there was no sea of red – a sea that now stretches across our nation. [note: Red is a union symbol to show solidarity].  She was the voice of the teacher, the para-professional, the clinician, the counselor, the librarian, and every rank-and-file educator who worked tirelessly to provide care and nurture for students; the single parent who fought tremendously odds to raise a family; and the laborer whose rights commanded honor and respect.  She was a rose that grew out of South Side Chicago concrete – filled with love for her Kenwood Broncos alumni – to not only reach great heights, but to elevate everyone she led to those same heights.

But Karen did not just lead our movement.   Karen was our movement.  In 2013, she said that to change public education in Chicago, we must change Chicago, and change the political landscape of our city.   Chicago has changed because of her.  We have more fighters for justice and equity because of Karen, and because she was a champion – the people’s champion.”

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