But it has been quite a ride.
I am not sure I would have believed anyone had they told me I would be where I am today back in 2010, when I was elected vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union. I grew up on a dirt road in rural Maine, raised by a single mother who was an elementary school teacher and editor of a poetry journal. I was just a kid who wanted to change the world. Those were pretty big aspirations, I guess, but I never imagined life would unfold the way it did. But here I am, and I am forever grateful. And now, it is my time to move on.
What set CTU leadership apart in those early years is similar to where we find ourselves today. We were a group of educators whose schools were being closed, meeting at protests, public hearings and the Chicago Board of Education in defense of our classrooms and colleagues. My personal start came in 2004, when Chicago Public Schools — under mayoral control and led by CEO Arne Duncan — sought to close dozens of traditional neighborhood schools as part of its Renaissance 2010 plan.
My school, Senn High School, was slated to be turned into a military academy. So I began organizing, and found a group of like-minded and strong-willed teachers doing the same. One of those teachers was Karen Lewis, a bright and brilliant voice who would soon become known to our union, and our world, as a beloved and fearless union leader.
At the time, I had no dreams of being a labor leader for the next decade. I was just a teacher whose school had been threatened with closure, and I was surrounded by educators in similar situations who were fed up with conditions in CPS. We wanted members’ rights to be respected, but soon realized that the forces working against educators were not just a reform movement, but a deform movement that used the turnaround model, charter proliferation and layoffs of Black educators as a pathway to a school district accountable not to people, but to profit.
We were in a battle for the soul of public education, as Karen, Financial Secretary Kristine Mayle, Recording Secretary Michael Brunson and I took office at the end of Mayor Richard M. Daley’s term. Ron Huberman was CPS CEO. Rahm would arrive the next year. Soon-to-be 2023 Chicago mayoral candidate Duncan was the U.S. Secretary of Education, and also the architect of Renaissance 2010, which allowed a wave of privatizers and education reformers to close nearly 100 traditional neighborhood schools while opening 100 charter schools.
We had seen the joy of teaching fall under attack by moneyed interests and corporate hacks, and we wanted to protect schools and honor classrooms by making our union more responsive and more effective. In the eyes of many around our city, and our country, we succeeded.
I have been extremely fortunate to work alongside brilliant minds in Karen, Vice President Stacy Davis Gates, Financial Secretary Maria Moreno, Recording Secretary Christel Williams-Hayes, CTU Chief of Staff Jennifer Johnson, Grievance Director Zeidre Foster, Organizing Director Rebecca Martinez and a host of rank-and-file leaders. Among Union officers, Stacy is to me what I was to Karen: a steady force that I have leaned on during the most turbulent of times. Christel is our soul, and Maria is our heart. I remain confident in my decision to move on because our union is strong, with not only capable leadership and staff, but more than 25,000 members and a deep bench of activists stretching from Austin to the lake, and from Howard Street to the 10th Ward.
We have faced budget cuts, pension insecurity, a pandemic and a revolving door of CPS CEOs, but throughout it all, we gained invaluable experience and changed the narrative around public education in Chicago. It was shocking for many — our enemies, especially — to see teachers take the lead. But we knew there was power in our rank and file, and that bread and butter unionism, despite being the foundation of traditional labor, wasn’t enough.
It wasn’t enough then, and it isn’t enough now as we face right-wing forces that want to break our union, ban books, end anti-racist curriculum and unmask children during a pandemic.
During the last two years, as we all collectively struggled to survive COVID-19, our union secured a moratorium on school closings, historic safety agreements, the restoration of our bargaining rights, an elected representative school board and a multi-million dollar settlement for Black educators impacted by racist turnaround layoffs. We will have a nurse and a social worker in every school by 2024. We have students recognizing the power of their voice, and their action, to fight for the schools and the city they deserve. Community organizations in places like Brighton Park, Kenwood-Oakland, Pilsen and Logan Square, many of whom were doing this work long before our union, have grown even stronger.
This country was built on the labor and sacrifice of women, and our sisters Stacy, Maria and Christel are ready to fight even harder for classrooms and communities with smart, bold and dependable leadership. Our union will remain a force, and our dogged defense of public schools and the willingness to speak truth to power are not going anywhere.
But I am. Because it is time. My mother passed away in October of 2020, followed by a brutal school reopening campaign and Karen’s death in February of 2021. My wife, Julie, has stood beside me and experienced all the stress and heartache that I have felt in nearly two decades of this work. My youngest son, now a freshman in high school, was a toddler when I first took office. My oldest son is navigating college life hundreds of miles away.
So my fourth term in CTU leadership will be my last. I will serve until June 2022, but will not seek re-election as president of the Chicago Teachers Union.
I am immensely proud of our union’s work, and the commitment that our educators bring to their classrooms every day. We are part of a movement, and as an educator at heart, I view myself as a leader in that movement. I never planned on a decade-plus of union leadership, because I do not think that is the goal of movement work. Movements have to change as people change, with new leaders and new vision stepping to the fore.
I will not be leaving the movement, the labor struggle or this union. I will return to where my journey began: the classroom. I will do so with fondness for my time in leadership, because I had the joy and privilege of representing educators who care.
I am confident in the future of our union because I know the human quality of our members — how much love they bring to this profession and their schools every day, and how much they value the humanity of our students and school communities.
I thank them for electing me to lead, and for everything they have given to me, the labor movement, our school communities, our union and our city.