Karen Lewis, Street Fighter

Obstreperous, loud, and unscripted, the Chicago Teachers Union president led the city’s public school teachers to strike against Rahm Emanuel’s reform agenda—and became a national figure overnight. Who is this person?

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Q&A with Lewis: Part I | Part II

The older of two daughters of Chicago public school teachers, Karen Lewis (née Jennings) grew up in modest comfort in Hyde Park at the height of the civil rights era. Her mother was the daughter of a surgeon who served as the chief of staff at a hospital for blacks in St. Louis. Her father, the son of a bus driver, came from segregated Tulsa, Oklahoma. She was steeped in social justice thinking from an early age. “My parents never placed limitations on me,” Lewis says. “As far as they were concerned, I could be the president of the United States.”

Or a professional baseball player. When Lewis was born, her father bought her three mitts—one for each hand and a catcher’s glove—and taught her to bat left-handed to give her an advantage in hitting to the major league’s shorter right fields. “I grew up thinking I could play major-league baseball, not knowing that because I was a girl that would not be an option,” Lewis says. “He never, ever thought that I should think about those things.” The news of the day dominated dinnertime conversation: “It didn’t matter how old you were, if you wanted to talk at the table you had to be on top of it.”

Chicago was roiled by social unrest while Lewis attended high school. Protests against the Vietnam War were raging, and the city—the South Side in particular—was reeling from the 1969 killing of Fred Hampton, a Black Panther, by police. Two years earlier, Lewis had entered the newly opened Kenwood High School, a freshman in its second class of students (along with Chaka Khan and Mandy Patinkin, a year ahead). She soon began participating in black-student walkouts, which were happening at other city schools.

“We were upset that the curriculum lacked blacks in any kind of position of power,” she says. “There was no African American history. And we wanted better food in the cafeteria.” Her father would often chauffeur Lewis and her friends to evening organizing meetings. “My parents understood how important it was for us to be involved,” she says. “Just don’t get arrested! That’s all they cared about.”

Lewis left Kenwood after her junior year, without graduating, to attend Mount Holyoke College, the prestigious all-women’s school in Massachusetts, which had offered her early admission and a scholarship. A wave of student protests had swept across college campuses during the 1969–70 school year, and a riled-up Lewis arrived at Holyoke the following fall ready to join them—only to find she was a year too late.

Lured by a boyfriend, she transferred to Dartmouth in 1972, the first year the school admitted women, and hated it. “What a lot of people don’t realize is when Dartmouth went coed, the students [were] against it. The only people that voted for it were the trustees,” she says. “So it was just a hostile environment.”

During the fall of her senior year, on a trip to visit her grandparents in Oklahoma, she met Arnold Glenn, a friend of the family. A real-estate inspector six years her senior, “he was gorgeous, and he was grown,” Lewis says. She married Glenn immediately after graduating.

Living in Tulsa was an alienating experience. “It felt like the black revolution had never hit,” she says. It was there that she was called a nigger for the first time in her life, by a young child on the street. “I just went nuts,” she recalls. “I completely went off on this kid.” The child’s parents, she says, looked at her as if they didn’t understand why she was upset.

Lewis fumbled around in odd jobs—a social worker in a methadone clinic, a computer programmer, a substitute music teacher—until 1980. By then separated from her husband, she left Oklahoma to live in Barbados for a year and fell in love with the island’s communal culture. “I was poor, really poor, and it was OK because in Barbados nobody will let you starve,” Lewis recalls. “I cannot tell you the warmth of this environment.”

She returned to Tulsa but soon moved back to Chicago; Lewis and Glenn divorced in 1984. She enrolled in medical school at the University of Illinois at Chicago, intent on returning to Barbados as a doctor, one of the few jobs outsiders could hold in the country. She flunked out after two years. “Med school is something you have to have a calling for. You have to really want to be a doctor. I just wanted to live in Barbados!” she says, cackling.

Older than her classmates by ten years, Lewis enjoyed the courses but chafed at the hours of studying and the testing regimen. “I would read these multiple-choice questions and they were crazy to me. It was like Greek,” she says. “I was like, ‘Why can’t you just ask me?’ At Dartmouth, we didn’t have any multiple-choice tests. You just wrote. You defended an argument.”

Medical school may have been a bust, but through it Lewis discovered that she loved chemistry. “The beauty of chemistry to me—which is different from, say, biology—is that if you forget a step, you can think your way through it,” she says. “It teaches you to think logically. If [an experiment] doesn’t work, you get to reflect and say, ‘Where in my thinking, where in my process, did I make a mistake?’ ”

Lewis is quick to make the connection to the current battle over education reform, which in her view is not a rational discussion about how to fix schools but rather a political fight for control. “People have this ideology about education that’s not based in research, in a real understanding of how things work,” she says. “I have no patience for that, because it’s just silly. Where’s the evidence?”

* * *

To make ends meet, Lewis worked at a video store in Hyde Park and briefly flirted with standup comedy, scoring the occasional gig at the Woodlawn Tap. In 1987, she landed a job at Sullivan High School in Rogers Park as a substitute chemistry teacher and was hired full-time the following year. (She had previously resisted teaching, she says, so as not to follow directly in her parents’ footsteps.) Around that time, Secretary of Education William Bennett famously derided Chicago’s school system as the “worst in the nation,” citing the 43 percent high-school dropout rate and dismal ACT scores.

But Lewis says Bennett’s view wasn’t her experience. A neighborhood school on the North Side, Sullivan was using the Paideia program, a holistic curriculum that included discussion-based seminars and analysis of primary sources. “Instead of using the textbook to look at Boyle’s law [at constant temperature, the pressure and the volume of a gas are inversely proportional], we could read what Boyle wrote,” Lewis explains. “It promoted critical thinking like you wouldn’t believe.” Assigned a seventh-grade biology class, she taught using her anatomy and physiology textbooks from med school.

Three years later, Lewis moved to Lane Tech, the city’s prestigious selective enrollment math and science academy. She found that Sullivan and Lane were a case study on the difference curriculum can make: Lane was using the kind of drill-based, rote exercises that she had found so dispiriting as a medical student. “What I found at Lane was that kids were really good at memorizing and taking multiple-choice tests,” she says. “They were not as good at critical thinking, like the kids at Sullivan.” (Lewis, who is childless, says that she wanted to be a parent but the timing never worked out.)

Lewis thrived at Lane, however, where she was one of nine chemistry teachers in the robust science department. In 1995, she started dating John Lewis, a physical education teacher at Lane (initially set up as prom dates by students, they married in 2001). She also became an active member of the teachers’ union, in part because she objected to what she calls the principal’s “bullying” management style.

That same year, the Illinois General Assembly gave control of the Chicago school system to Mayor Richard M. Daley to speed reform. He appointed Paul Vallas, his budget director, to be the new CEO of CPS. Vallas slashed costs, ended social promotion, and began a serious data-gathering campaign to track student progress.

Arne Duncan succeeded Vallas in 2001 and, three years later, launched Renaissance 2010, the most ambitious school reform effort in Chicago’s modern era. The signature education initiative of Daley’s 22-year mayoralty, the plan sought to create 100 high-quality schools by opening new ones and closing those that were underenrolled or considered beyond redemption. Renaissance 2010 added subject-specific magnet schools and a raft of new charter schools—publicly funded institutions run by outside companies that usually admit students by lottery.

Though many rank-and-file teachers opposed the plan, the mayor assuaged union leadership with lucrative contracts. “Mayor Daley simply paid for cooperation,” says Robert Bruno, a professor of labor studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “There were good bread-and-butter contracts, but teachers had to relinquish control of the classroom.”

By the time Lewis left Lane in 2006 to teach at King College Prep, near her home in the South Side neighborhood of Oakland, she was inching toward retirement. Eager to retreat to her time-share in Hawaii with her husband, who had retired in 2003, Lewis curtailed her union involvement. But in 2008 she attended a book group with a handful of teachers, many of whom worked at schools that had been targeted for closure under Renaissance 2010. They discussed The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein’s 2007 polemic about the spread of the privatization movement. Lewis found new purpose in organizing teachers against Daley’s sweeping reform measures.

The reading group evolved into a faction of the Chicago Teachers Union called the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE). They believed that a member-driven union could counter the encroachment of reform-minded philanthropists and give teachers a voice in shaping the direction of schools. “We increasingly had this sense that if we didn’t do something, you could wind the film forward ten years and there wasn’t going to be much left of our public school system or our union,” says CTU’s vice president Jesse Sharkey, who convened the reading group.

In 2010, CORE put Lewis forward as a candidate to run against the two-term incumbent union president, Marilyn Stewart. “We’re in an existential fight here and who better to do that?” Lewis says. “I feel like this was a responsibility—when called, you have to come.”

She won by a landslide, in large part due to her ability to tap into how teachers feel. “I don’t think anyone was under the impression that Karen was going to be the operations person,” Sharkey says. “She provokes both a sense of pride and a stiffening up of the spine and a willingness on the part of our members to take a stand.”

Lewis’s term began in June 2010. Terry Mazany, president of the Chicago Community Trust, became the interim CEO of CPS shortly after. “She is at the intersection of ideological, social, and political divides in our community,” Mazany says of Lewis. “But underneath it all there beats a human heart who has a real commitment and passion for young people and their ability to gain an equitable education. The only tool she has is the union.”

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