By now you have most likely heard about the tragic news out of Chicago concerning Karen Lewis. In case you have not: she was operated on to remove a cancerous tumor from her brain. She has now returned home and is recovering but has taken a leave of absence from her position as President of the Chicago Teachers Union and announced she will not be a candidate for Mayor of Chicago. Obviously everyone’s first concern is her health and I add my prayers to those of countless Chicagoans who have been inspired by Karen. It’s fair to say she has lent new meaning to the words “The Audacity of Hope.”
Karen had the audacity to hope that the people of Chicago would demand more from their elected leaders, particularly the Mayor. The courage she demonstrated in leading the Chicago Teachers Union in the strike against Rahm Emmanuel changed the political equation in a city where people are raised to believe the “you can’t fight City Hall.” Yes you can, Karen proved, and you can win.
But it’s not enough to fight City Hall, even if you sometimes win. People shouldn’t have to fight with the leaders they elect just to get a living wage or to prevent schools from closing. So while I’m relieved that Karen is now home recovering, it’s a tragedy still that she had to step away from the Chicago Mayor’s race. She’d have won.
I had the chance to spend just a little time with Karen recently. She came to New York and New Jersey for a couple of days of meetings and speaking engagements — she was the keynote speaker at the New Jersey Working Families annual gala. Karen and her team (an impressive team I should add), spent a couple of hours meeting with some of the NY progressive movement leaders who were organizers and advisers on Bill de Blasio’s mayoral campaign.
I left those meetings all the more inspired about her campaign and about our collective project: taking back government from the corporate elites, reversing the senseless austerity project that is crippling ordinary Americans, and especially low-income and primarily black and brown communities.
As a life-long educator, she didn’t just teach chemistry; she taught a master class in fighting for justice and equity. Her leadership has inspired so many in Chicago and around the country. It certainly inspired me, and and I know she’ll have the chance to inspire many, many more.
Leaders like Karen Lewis don’t come along every day. But they also don’t exist in a vacuum. There is a rich network of activists, teachers, leaders and fighters in Chicago who are ready to carry the fight forward. Not only the other leaders at the Chicago Teachers Union, but also groups like the Grassroots Collaborative, Action Now, and Health Care Illinois/Indiana. These organizations — and perhaps others — are now coming together to build United Working Families to link the power of community organizing and the power of the labor movement together towards a bold political organization that — like Karen — won’t accept the status quo, will push the envelope, take on powerful elites and (not always, but often) win.
So Karen, if you need to rest for a while, have no fear. Many others stand ready to build the movement that you have played such a big role in.
All of us who struggle to make this world a little more decent for ordinary people stand on the shoulders of giants. Karen has surely proven herself to be one such giant. I hope you will join me in praying for her health, even as we are surely ready to roll up our sleeves and get to work on the project of winning justice and power for the people of Chicago.