By Anonymous (not verified) on September 11, 2012

Karen Jennings Lewis is a powerhouse of energy, ideas, and idealism. The head of the Chicago Teachers’ Union, this African-American woman is not easily intimidated.

She was my former pupil, clearly brilliant in high school. She was a feisty, independent girl, with her own ideas spilling out with every challenge. Her dad was a fellow teacher with me at the same high school—now called Kenwood Academy. She’s grown up with education, is dedicated to good and equal education for all the Chicago public school children, and now in her late fifties, she and the Chicago Teachers’ Union have become the epicenter of a major battle.

With two master’s degrees, she’s had an over-20 year career in Chicago’s schools. Her last job was teaching chemistry in one of Chicago’s “select” eight high schools. But the way Chicago schools were going caused her deep alarm. She and others began CORE—the Caucus of Rank and File Educators, and Lewis became its co-chair.

“The Caucus of Rank and File Educators was formed in response to the failure of the old union,” she says. “We thought the old union had not mounted adequate resistance” to the so-called reforms of former Mayor Daley and former school superintendent Arne Duncan (now Obama’s education secretary). These included privatizing schools, promoting charter schools, and codifying standardized tests for all children—thus eliminating critical thinking, analysis, and creativity, decimating unions, and undermining schools in poor Latino and African-American communities with the aim of closing them down.

So Lewis ran for the head of the teachers’ union and in June 2010, she won.

“If you thought Chicago Public Schools were bad back then,” she says, “let me tell you, today they are dreadful. Worse than ever.”

Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel is following up on the Daley and Duncan strategy. Emanuel’s first order of business was to put a longer day on the agenda—an hour and a half longer—without the necessary teachers to provide educational work, without a valid education plan or compensation for teachers’ salaries.

Other critical issues are being fought by the union--issues that do not get much of a hearing in Chicago’s press. These include unworkable class sizes; inadequate staffing for a fully functional school; an absence of social workers to serve deeply needy kids; the destruction of art, music, foreign language, and physical education programs; the purging of experienced teachers; no books on some library shelves; inadequate playgrounds; no air conditioners in many classrooms, making learning impossible.

“It’s about equal access for all,” she says. “The political leaders do not understand the nature of public education. How long have the schools been under-resourced?”

She also understands that corporate America is behind the push to privatize the schools and impose standardized testing.

“We’re fighting big business,” she says. “They want to control the population. They need a permanent underclass to do the available jobs for less pay. They want a compliant, unquestioning work force. They want a volunteer army. They want to terrorize people: ‘Be quiet and don’t complain.’ No critical thinkers here. It’s all about obedience.”

The pressure Lewis feels is enormous. She is struggling with many forces and massive criticism. The strike story has gone national and international.

The union and the Chicago Board of Education have been in negotiations for months. They are continuing today.

No one wants his/her child to be out of school, but people are supporting this strike because they understand the battle is crucial, and it’s about much more than money. It’s about trends that undermine public education and harm children. So many children are treated as pebbles on the beach. They can be washed away in the pursuit of this destructive agenda.

“I feel as if we don’t make a change, we will have no union,” she says. “The leaders want us gone.”

Liane Casten is the founder of Chicago Media Watch.

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By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.


Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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