When Karen Lewis ’74 Speaks, Chicago Listens.

Monday, April 28, 2014 - 1:00pm
Karen Jennings Lewis ’74, president of the Chicago Teachers Union

A recent headline in the Huffington Post reads, “When Karen Lewis speaks, Chicago listens ... and responds.”

It aptly describes the influence of the president of the Chicago Teachers Union, Karen G. Jennings Lewis ’74, who will receive an honorary degree at Mount Holyoke’s 177th commencement on May 18.

Lewis led the 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike, which lasted for seven days. It was the first such strike in 25 years and brought to national attention questions about pay, job security, and working conditions as well as the general direction of public schools and the strength of unions.

Preston H. Smith II, chair of Africana studies and professor of politics at MHC, nominated Lewis for the degree.

“She is one of the foremost leaders of human rights and social justice in the United States,” Smith says. “To be a champion of public education and to win a strike in Chicago against all odds is a tremendous accomplishment. For me she represents, in the tradition of Frances Perkins, the best that Mount Holyoke has to offer the country and the world.”

Having attended Chicago public schools, Lewis applied early decision to Mount Holyoke, attracted, she says, by “the bucolic, peaceful campus” and the opportunity to take classes “where the professors took you seriously.”

After college, she worked as a drug rehabilitation counselor and traveled. In 1985 she enrolled at the University of Illinois at Chicago medical school, where she ultimately discovered that although she disliked medical school, she loved chemistry. In 1988, she took a job teaching chemistry at a Chicago high school, following in the footsteps of her father, mother, and husband—all of whom taught in the city’s public schools.

She was elected president of the 30,000-member Chicago Teachers Union in 2010. Lewis says her goal is “to truly improve Chicago public schools and stand firmly against the privatization of public education.”

About her upcoming honor, Lewis says, “I cannot tell you how much this honorary degree means to me. I am deeply humbled by the thought that my first steps on this beautiful campus 44 years ago would lead me to this journey. This is where I took my place among scholars, among women who knew their lives held meaning for the future. MHC is the place where I believed there was nothing I couldn't do if I could dream it.”

—By Ronni Gordon