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Illinois Federation of Teachers Statement on the Passing of Karen Lewis

Westmont, Illinois – Illinois Federation of Teachers President Dan Montgomery issued the following statement on the passing of former Illinois Federation of Teachers Executive Vice President and Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis. 

Karen Lewis was a warrior, an undeniably powerful presence, and she spoke truth to power like no one else. She was one of the most committed unionists I have ever known, and she did absolutely nothing half way for the cause of labor. To stand beside her and see her members’ love for her at rallies on the streets of her beloved hometown of Chicago was a sight I’ll always cherish. 

 “Karen dedicated her life to the fight for equality, fairness, and respect for all people. She led the revival of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and sparked the reinvigoration of teacher unionism across the nation. Under Karen's leadership during the historic strike of 2012, CTU won a fair and equitable contract for members, and reframed the education debate in Chicago around the schools all children deserve. 

“Karen was hilariously funny and could be daringly acerbic. More than anyone I’ve ever known, she contained multitudes and could smartly discuss anything from opera to critical theory to medicine to where to eat in Montreal. In her heart she was a teacher, a nationally board-certified chemistry teacher, no less. It was a privilege to work with her in her role as IFT executive vice president, a position she held for nearly a decade before retiring in 2019. It was an honor to call her a distinguished colleague. Most importantly, it was a joy to call her a friend.

“On behalf of the members of the IFT, I send our love to Karen’s husband, John, and their family. May her memory be a blessing and may she rest in peace.” 


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The Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT) represents 103,000 teachers and paraprofessionals in PreK-12 school districts throughout Illinois, faculty and staff at Illinois’ community colleges and universities, public employees under every statewide elected constitutional officer, and retirees. 



Karen did not just lead our movement. Karen was our movement.

CHICAGO, Feb. 8, 2021 — Our union is in deep mourning today at the passing of our sister, our leader and our friend, President Emerita Karen GJ Lewis. We are sending heartfelt condolences to her husband, John Lewis, and her surviving family and friends. She will be dearly missed.

Karen taught us how to fight, and she taught us how to love. She was a direct descendant of the legendary Jackie Vaughn, the first Black, female president of our local. Both were fierce advocates for educators and children, but where Jackie was stately elegance, Karen was a brawler with sharp wit and an Ivy League education. She spoke three languages, loved her opera and her show tunes, and dazzled you with her smile, yet could stare down the most powerful enemies of public education and defend our institution with a force rarely seen in organized labor.

She bowed to no one, and gave strength to tens of thousands of Chicago Teachers Union educators who followed her lead, and who live by her principles to this day.

Karen had three questions that guided her leadership: ‘Does it unite us, does it build our power and does it make us stronger?’ Before her, there was no sea of red — a sea that now stretches across our nation. She was the voice of the teacher, the paraprofessional, the clinician, the counselor, the librarian and every rank-and-file educator who worked tirelessly to provide care and nurture for students; the single parent who fought tremendous odds to raise a family; and the laborer whose rights commanded honor and respect. She was a rose that grew out of South Side Chicago concrete — filled with love for her Kenwood Broncos alumni — to not only reach great heights, but to elevate everyone she led to those same heights.

But Karen did not just lead our movement. Karen was our movement. In 2013, she said that in order to change public education in Chicago, we had to change Chicago, and change the political landscape of our city. Chicago has changed because of her. We have more fighters for justice and equity because of Karen, and because she was a champion — the people's champion.  

Our hearts are heavy today, but it brings us joy to know that Karen has joined Jackie Vaughn, Marion Stamps, Addie Wyatt and Willie Barrow as the vanguard of Black women who have forged a heroic path of labor, justice and civil rights in our city. Karen now sits among them, still guiding our every move, and still guiding our vision for the schools our students and their families deserve.

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The Chicago Teachers Union represents more than 25,000 teachers and educational support personnel working in schools funded by City of Chicago School District 299, and by extension, over 350,000 students and families they serve. The CTU is an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers and the Illinois Federation of Teachers and is the third-largest teachers local in the United States. For more information, please visit the CTU website at



AFT Mourns the Passing of Former Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis


WASHINGTON—American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten issued the following statement upon learning of the death of former Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis:


“We are all better for Karen Lewis having been a part of our lives, and a part of the education and labor movements. She will be remembered as a force of nature, one of the most consequential voices for public education in this generation, and a tireless advocate for the belief that union power can be a force for community justice. Karen’s political might was notorious, and her appetite for a strategic fight was unmatched. But her goal was always the same: to create opportunity, equity and agency for the students, families and educators of the city Chicago, the state of Illinois and the entire nation. That will be her legacy.


“The conversation we have about schooling in this country today is fundamentally different because of Karen’s efforts to shed light on the perils of the ‘reform’ effort and refocus on meeting the needs of children. But it’s more than that: Like Jackie Vaughn before her, another iconic leader of the CTU, Karen helped our members believe in themselves. Her courage gave them courage to stand up to the bullying and disrespect often heaped on educators. She understood and taught that together we can do what is impossible to accomplish alone. And she practiced what she preached, which is why Local 1’s core strength remains its solidarity and its commitment to the democratic process. Her courageous battle with cancer was marked by the same tenacity and will no doubt inspire an entire generation of people who will just keep fighting, because Karen taught them how.


“For so many of us, Karen was more than a colleague, more than a science teacher, and more than a local president and an AFT vice president. She was a friend, a soulmate and a sister. I treasured Karen’s love and laughed every time she called me mom. Sharon and I celebrated her adult bat mitzvah with her, and she was one of the first people we told that we were getting married. I learned from her and will treasure those lessons.


“On behalf of all the AFT’s members, I send Karen’s family and loved ones my deepest sympathies and join them in cherishing a life well lived. May her memory forever be a blessing.”

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Follow AFT President Randi Weingarten:

The American Federation of Teachers is a union of 1.7 million professionals that champions fairness; democracy; economic opportunity; and high-quality public education, healthcare and public services for our students, their families and our communities. We are committed to advancing these principles through community engagement, organizing, collective bargaining and political activism, and especially through the work our members do.


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