Members have seen CTU Lead Organizer Tennille Evans whipping up the crowd and belting out chants and songs in her beautiful, powerful voice at union rallies, events and parties. But most folks will be surprised to learn that Evans has always thought of herself as somewhat reserved and shy.
And many also might be surprised to learn that education was not her first career choice. In college, she majored in criminal justice and at one point applied to the Chicago Police Academy.
“We all get confused when we’re young and try to figure it out,” she said with her booming laugh.
Born on Chicago’s West Side and raised mostly on the South Side, Evans comes from a deeply religious family and attended Catholic elementary schools. She started singing in her church choir and never stopped.
“Singing and serving God has been my passion,” she said. “My family and church are everything to me.”
After graduation from Jones Commercial High School — now the elite Jones College Prep — she attended Northern Illinois University in DeKalb but later transferred to Roosevelt University.
While Evans was completing her criminal justice degree at Roosevelt, her mother, who worked in CPS Central Office, convinced her to take a job in CPS. In 1995, she began working as an engineer at a school on the south side but then accepted a job at Nancy Jefferson Alternative School, which she calls a “hidden gem” inside the Juvenile Detention Center.
She worked at the school for 20 years in almost every PSRP position there and loved it.
“I loved being a PSRP and I loved the kids,” she said. “I was teaching the most challenging students but saw it as a mission of hope. We were helping them rebuild their lives and let them know there’s a better pathway.”
Thinking back, Evans said, she’s always been somewhat of an organizer. In high school, she was the one organizing a young women’s club and planning social events and activities. She also was the organizer in her family, pulling together reunions and other family events.
“I’m an only child so I’ve always been the one getting the family together, it’s like organizing,” she said. “I’m the go-to one in the family. Everyone comes to me for questions and answers.”
In the early 2000s, members at Jefferson realized their paychecks were being shorted by 15 minutes. Evans organized them to file a grievance, which won hundreds of thousands of dollars in back pay.
After that, people took notice.
“They were so relieved that I could help them fight for what’s right that they asked me to become delegate,” she said. “They started seeing me as someone who would stand up and challenge CPS school issues.”
Evans dealt with several challenging principles and won several grievances stemming from administration retaliation. That pushed her to want to be a stronger union activist and to do more to empower teachers and PSRPs. In 2016, CTU recognized her talent and hired as an organizer. She was recently promoted to lead organizer.
“I had been a union member for years, but I wanted to do more to fight back against principal retaliation, to help empower members, especially our PSRPs,” she said. “It was kind of a natural transition. It was destiny, my calling.”
Evans is particularly proud of the CTU strikes and the work to lift up teachers and PSRPs — “empowering them to come out of their shells” — and helping union members in other cities organize. As a PSRP for more than 20 years, she relates to how important it is to be a part of a union and how difficult it is for PSRPs, who are mostly black and brown women, single mothers faced with inequities, to stand up and fight for what’s right. Because when we fight, we win.
“I was hiding my gift and talents,” she said. “I needed to empower myself so that my light would shine because the role of a leader is not to get other people to follow them but to empower others to lead.”
In her free time, Evans enjoys spending time with her daughter, family, AKA sorority sisters, traveling and, of course, singing in the choir. Although she sees retirement on the horizon, she said she’ll never really leave the union.
“CTU is in my blood,” she said. “It’s a family you can’t get divorced from.”
And that’s more than fine by her.