A Letter in Support of CTU President Karen Lewis

A few right wing bloggers have been highly critical of the talk that Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis gave at the Northwest Teaching for Social Justice conference, and they are pressuring her to resign.

Rethinking Schools was a sponsor of the conference, and our curriculum editor Bill Bigelow served on the conference planning committee. He drafted a letter in support of Karen Lewis on behalf of conference organizers and Rethinking Schools, reprinted below:

November 15, 2011

To Whom It May Concern:

Speaking on behalf of the planning committee for the 2011 Northwest Teaching for Social Justice conference and Rethinking Schools magazine, I am dismayed that certain individuals and groups are seeking to undermine the important work of Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis and to misrepresent what transpired at our conference. Our committee invited Lewis to be the keynote speaker at our 4th annual conference because of her defense of children, public schools, and public school teachers—and because of her work to build a teachers union that promotes the interests of communities and children, not only of teachers. In fact, one of the major sessions at our conference cited Karen Lewis’s election and outspoken work on behalf of teachers and public schools as one of the most hopeful recent developments and “part of the steady growth of a deep, broad, and thoughtful pushback against a corporate school reform movement.”

Let me offer a bit of context about Karen Lewis’s keynote. Lewis was the lead-off speaker for a day-long conference that brought together several hundred educators from around the Pacific Northwest. The conference — planned and staffed entirely by volunteers —was held on a Saturday—October 1, 2011 at a public school in Seattle, Chief Sealth International High School. In addition to Lewis’s keynote, there were over 60 workshops offered, and dozens of community organizations displayed materials. None of the educators in attendance was paid, and everyone gave up part of a weekend to attend — some driving for several hours. Teachers attended because they wanted to learn from one another and to hear about how one of the country’s major teacher unions is transforming itself to put children first.

I was the liaison between the NWTSJ planning committee and Ms. Lewis. I encouraged her to be informal in her presentation, that her talk would be the first thing on a Saturday morning and no one was coming expecting a formal recitation about the CTU’s work in Chicago. I encouraged her to be conversational and that I hoped that she could inspire teachers to see themselves as participants in a broader national struggle to defend public education from those who want to bust unions and use schools to further their own narrow economic ends. And that’s exactly what Ms. Lewis did. Here is what one longtime Portland, Oregon high school teacher, Hyung Nam, took away from Lewis’s talk: “The message I heard was about teachers standing up for disadvantaged kids whose school was about to shut down for the interests of developers. I took away the importance of rank and file teachers challenging city leaders, the school district, and even one’s union leadership in order to advocate for students and families. This is a courageous and inspiring story of teachers’ commitment to justice, students, and communities.”

Compare this substantial message with the petty and silly soundbites about “potty talk” that a few bloggers have focused on. “Potty talk”? Evidently, some commentators think that they can use some off-hand remarks to distract people from Lewis’s important work of building a union focused on education and justice. And let me just add that educators in attendance at the NWTSJ conference were all grown-ups and are unlikely to be corrupted by a few humorous remarks about college marijuana use.

Finally, I’ll offer a bit of additional context. It’s common for a keynote speaker to come to a conference, deliver one’s remarks, take a few questions, and leave. Karen Lewis, on the other hand, stayed for the entire conference, made herself available to teachers throughout the day, and attended and participated in sessions. She was gracious, warm, and thoughtful in all her communication with Northwest educators. In other words, Lewis walked her talk: She demonstrated what a new generation of union leadership looks like.

The message that Karen Lewis brought to the Northwest from Chicago was one of renewed commitment to the best ideals of public education—that schools should serve all children and all communities, and that teachers should be treated with dignity. I hope that people in Chicago hear her message as clearly as we did when she visited us in October.


Bill Bigelow
Curriculum Editor
Rethinking Schools magazine
Planning Committee
Northwest Teaching for Social Justice Conference