You would be hard pressed to find a movement for social, economic or racial justice over the last 50 years that Debby Pope hasn’t been involved in. She fought the Vietnam War, marched for civil rights, women’s rights and reproductive freedom. She’s been a member of four different labor unions and is currently the first woman vice president of the Illinois Labor History Society.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Pope began her life-long activist path in high school, when she organized a petition drive to win the right for girls to wear pants at school — yes, in 1968, the largest public high school in the city still imposed a no-pants dress code on young women. That same year, she helped organize a walk out in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Pope’s father died of service-related injuries when she was young and his veteran status earned her a scholarship to the University of Wisconsin at Madison, a center of the anti-Vietnam war movement that appealed to her. But at age 19, the university expelled her.
“I can’t really blame them — I never went to class. I spent all my time in the movement, organizing,” she recalled. So, with no skills and no job, she joined some political friends in Oakland but eventually moved to Chicago.
Despite flunking out of her first college, Pope went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in history, with a minor in women’s studies, from Roosevelt University, and eventually a master’s degree in bilingual and bicultural curriculum and instruction from National Louis University.
“I have a lot of historians in my family and I had always wanted to be a high school history teacher,” she said. “So, when I was in my 30s, I decided it was now or never.”
But her road to the classroom took many twists and turns.
Along the way, she did clerical work for the Illinois Department of Public Aid, an experience she said helps her identify with our PSRPs. “The working conditions were terrible compared to the caseworkers, which has always made me identify with the PSRPs in our schools because I was basically a PSRP,” she said.
She also worked at Penn Central Railroad as a block operator, raising and lowering bridges, and drove a cab to put herself through night school.
After working as a guest teacher for “a horrible year” and unable to land a full time teaching position, Pope took a job in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which managed the food stamps program. She helped organize those workers, too, into the National Treasury Employees Union.
Like CTU, Pope, who now works as the union’s class size coordinator and grievance correspondent, has not been a fan of the so-called school reform ushered into CPS in 1980. But she acknowledges it helped her land her first CPS job. That’s because the Reform Act, which gave control of Chicago schools to the mayor, also gave hiring authority to principles.
Fed up with her government job, she sent application letters directly to principals at high schools across the city. Benito Juarez High School – at the time the entry point for Mexican immigrants to Chicago – responded, attracted by her resume which said she could speak “some” Spanish.
“To me, that meant I could tell Jose’s mom that he wasn’t turning his homework in or ask why Maria had been absent,” she said. “When they offered me a job as a bilingual history teacher, I burst out laughing and told them I couldn’t do it.”
After the school promised her a bilingual aide to help translate lessons, she accepted, thinking her work would help improve her Spanish. But that aide didn’t show up until March, leaving Pope with what she remembered as “the most difficult year of my life,” staying up late into the night using a dictionary to translate materials while also raising two young children.
Pope began working in CPS and became a CTU member in 1990. Throughout her 33-year career, she worked at Juarez, Schurz — where she was the lead delegate for the school’s 205 teachers and staff — and Gage Park high schools. She also has worked for four different CTU administrations as communications director, organizer, and now as part of the grievance department, specializing in class size issues.
Looking back, Pope said she believes she was a good teacher.
“I wanted my students to learn big ideas and see history through the lens of ordinary people, not through the lens of kings and presidents,” she said. “I wanted them to figure out how conflicts impacted working people, the pressures facing them and who benefits from that.”
She has seen similar questions drive the transformation of the union she has been devoted to for the last 33 years.
“I saw CTU go from a very service and business-oriented union to a union that brought members in and took a much broader view,” she said. “We’ve transformed into a union involved in the issues of our time, a union that understands the links between the fights for racial and economic justice. We have deepened our understanding of what it means to be a union and our place in the world we live in.”
That transformation helped get a union brother, a fellow history teacher, to the fifth floor of City Hall and she believes it will help CTU win a historic contract next year that transforms our schools.
She is particularly proud of her work on the class size committee, which has won class size relief for hundreds of classrooms, providing both teachers and TAs to support oversized classes. She hopes to be a part of CTU’s successful fight to win smaller class size caps and a more timely, efficient system for enforcing them.
“We fought to get back our bargaining rights on class size and now it’s time to use them,” she said.