#teacher | How the Chicago Teachers Union — and its driven vice president — ended up in a fight for social justice

Stacy Davis Gates’ 7th grade world geography teacher taught her a lesson that stuck with her.

“Mr. Jordan, he says that it’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men,” Davis Gates recalls.

Though it’s a simple thought, it explains most everything Davis Gates says and does.

It’s why she ended up teaching in the Chicago Public Schools system. It’s why she finds herself where she is today, the vice president of a teachers union with 25,000 members.

And it’s why she’s on the verge of either helping push Chicago into a massive public worker strike or playing a key role in cementing some of the biggest educational reforms the country has ever seen.

After months of unapologetically and fiercely demanding solutions at the bargaining table that the mayor has said don’t belong in a labor contract, Davis Gates says she isn’t looking for attention or power. She didn’t expect to be here and doesn’t have goals to be elsewhere. She says she’s just fighting for the same thing she has been for years: Permanent social and educational justice for students of color.

In her mind, if that means upending the school year for a few days, then so be it.

‘Should have been dealt with decades ago’

Davis Gates gives an uncomfortable chuckle when asked if working as a teacher at a public school was what she expected.

“Not at all,” she says. “I felt like a failure every single day.”

She didn’t feel that way because of the work she was doing. It was the system built around her students — or the lack thereof — that made her take another look at the type of support Chicago’s black students were really receiving, she says.

When she started in 2004 at Englewood Technical Prep Academy High School, Davis Gates passed by one vacant lot after another on her walk to work. Outside the school, police wagons waited to take away kids. At the door, students went through metal detectors that resembled the ones at the city’s airports. Inside, things weren’t much better.

They had her teaching history in a home economics classroom, stove and all.

“You are acutely aware that something isn’t right,” Davis Gates says.

Her breaking point — the one that “radicalized” her — came more than a decade ago when she says the city started to shut down schools “because you’re a failing institution and you failed the students here.”

“And you’re thinking, we failed them?” Davis Gates says. “You’re looking at the lack of nutritional food. You’re looking at the vacant lands. You’re looking at the building being unkempt. And I’m the failure? When I’m asking for help? When I know that we should have more?”

The district closed the Englewood school, which sat on 62nd Street just west of the Dan Ryan Expressway, in 2008. A privately managed charter school took its place in the building.

“Not only do you have a whole generation of black people who have been labeled as failures when they were children, you also have an entire class of black folk who were also labeled as failures for trying to be a part of the solution,” she says.

Davis Gates started questioning why her union wasn’t speaking out on issues she saw as fundamental to the job. They weren’t bread and butter pay and benefits concerns, but they still affected how teachers did their work and the lives of the students they taught.

‘The same things as white parents in this city’

Growing up with her parents and brother in west South Bend, Indiana, Davis Gates learned the importance of two things: community and organized labor.

Her mom, aunt and grandmother were all Teamsters who worked at Memorial Hospital. They showed her that unions were powerful “especially for black women who were disinclined to be bossed.”

“Their labor contract is what afforded them the ability to have a voice in their job and not risk their livelihood,” Davis Gates said.

“I grew up with a strong sense of pride, a strong sense of justice. I spent a lot of Sundays at church. And so we were raised to believe that we were supposed to be a part of a process of giving back.”

Those values shaped Davis Gates and explain why she’s fought so forcefully as a labor leader. But something else informs her work now, too: She’s a black mom who lives on the South Side, with two daughters and a son who attend CPS schools. She and her kids are among the parents and students she’s advocating for.

“It’s difficult because there are such widespread inequities in schools that are just down the street from each other,” Davis Gates says. “Black people on the South Side and the West Side want the same things as white parents in this city.

“When I go to school meetings on the North Side in the morning, I see kids riding their bikes to school, I see moms with strollers pushing the youngest one to drop off the older ones to school. And I’m envious. Because we’re supposed to have that opportunity for everyone in this city.”

CORE comes to power

As it turned out, when Davis Gates started to think about the union’s responsibility to advocate for more than teacher pay, there was a group of educators with the same train of thought. What happened in the years that followed in many ways shaped the city for years to come.

Karen Lewis and Jesse Sharkey, as part of the newly formed and progressive Caucus of Rank-and-file Educators (CORE), won a 2010 election to lead the CTU as its president and vice president.

Back then, the debate was about whether students of color needed additional supports to overcome decades of disinvestment in their education and trauma in their communities. Today, everyone — including Mayor Lori Lightfoot and schools chief Janice Jackson — says they agree about the resources students need. The fight that has pushed the union to the brink of a walkout is about how best to implement those solutions.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot looks on as Miguel del Valle speaks after she appointed him school board president.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Lightfoot’s school board president, Miguel del Valle, who has a progressive track-record on education, credits the union, all the way up to the national level with the American Federation of Teachers, for helping move the needle on that discussion.

“The impact of violence on our kids in our neighborhoods and what that does to our students — and the need for us to be able to work with our students and provide the services that will help deal with that trauma — this is something that should have been dealt with decades ago,” del Valle says.

“And I give CTU part of the credit for that. … When you talk about the whole child you’ve got to talk about not just arithmetic and reading, you have to talk about a child’s social and emotional well-being. And that’s something that, as far as I’m concerned, was well overdue.”

‘Trauma that none of this room can imagine’

Weeks removed from a historic teachers strike in 2012, Lewis, the charismatic and revered former leader of the CTU, laid out her vision for CPS, which was about to close a massive number of schools.

Lewis asked a lunch crowd at the City Club of Chicago for an honest conversation about poverty and race in public education.

“We don’t like having those conversations because they make us uncomfortable. But until we do, we will be mired in the ‘no-excuses-mentality, poverty doesn’t matter,’” she said.

“Poverty matters a lot when you are teaching children who you know are distracted by their lives. Poverty matters a lot when you are teaching children who have seen trauma that none of this room can imagine.”

At the time, CPS had fewer than 500 social workers and 300 nurses for 405,000 children, she told the crowd. Both the district and union agree the schools are still woefully short of both.

By most accounts, Lewis planted the seeds for today’s battles.

“When we ran, we very much had at the heart of our campaign the idea that we had to defend public education through the broad theme of social justice; the idea that our teaching conditions were students’ learning conditions,” Sharkey says.

“It wasn’t so obvious that it was automatically going to be successful,” he says. But now, many districts — from Los Angeles to Milwaukee — are undertaking so-called “bargaining for the common good.”

Davis Gates, who worked under the duo on the CTU’s political team, didn’t start the union’s push for educational justice. (After Lewis was diagnosed with brain cancer, Davis Gates leapfrogged over more senior CTU officers to become vice president in a move that irked some union members.)

But since she’s moved up, Davis Gates has been a key cog in keeping the train rolling.

“Karen and Jesse winning back in 2010 sent a shock through the system,” Davis Gates says. “Because they started naming the injustice. They started pointing out the actors in this injustice. And I think it was liberating for the educators in Chicago.”

Chicago Teachers Union members, led by then CORE co-chair Karen Lewis, protest budget cuts and proposed increases in class size in 2010.
Dom Najolia/Sun-Times

Ever since, the union has inserted itself as a powerful voice on social issues in the city.

Emboldened by the international wave of support that essentially made her a labor rock star after the 2012 strike, Lewis set her sights on challenging Rahm Emanuel in the 2015 mayoral election until her brain tumor upended those hopes.

Two years later, encouraged by Lewis, school counselor Susan Sadlowski Garza won the City Council seat in the 10th Ward, becoming the first CTU member to do so.

Bob Bruno, a professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign who co-authored a book about the 2012 CTU strike, said the union started its move toward broader reform that year by making bargaining “community-wide for school quality.”

“The union has taken this rather bureaucratic process and turned it into a community-wide resistance movement,” he said. “As long as the community associates their resistance to championing the cause of the students and the parents, it’ll be less important who” the face of the movement is.

Taking the mic

Earlier this month, a few hundred chanting workers in red and purple shirts filled a hall at the CTU’s Near West Side headquarters.

Sharkey and Davis Gates stood among them on a riser at the front of the room, with a long line of news cameras pointed at the duo as they announced the union’s Oct. 17 joint strike deadline with school support staff and Chicago Park District workers represented by Service Employees International Union Local 73.

Tensions flared after a TV reporter shifted topics. He asked Sharkey about a report released that day by a former federal prosecutor who said the union boss was the only person who “failed to respond to multiple inquiries” in her investigation of CPS’ mishandling of hundreds of sexual misconduct cases.

Davis Gates stepped in and asked Sharkey for the microphone.

“So it’s not true,” Davis Gates started, before the reporter cut in: “I asked Jesse.”

“I know you did, and I’m answering it,” she responded, giving a passionate defense of her colleague and the union.

Some might look at Davis Gates’ willingness to throw herself into the ring and use that to draw a comparison to Lewis. Others might think she’s stepping on Sharkey’s toes as his successor-in-waiting.

But Davis Gates says she isn’t looking to become the face of the CTU or planning to throw a coup d’état to take over Sharkey’s position anytime soon. And for those who might think otherwise, she says the two work and think in lock-step.

“Look, we have the dopest team at the Chicago Teachers Union.

“I get politics and how people see stuff, but honestly I am a stronger leader because we are partners. He is a stronger leader because we are partners.”

For his part, Sharkey is more than happy to have the “brilliant and extremely perceptive” Davis Gates by his side.

At the bargaining table, Davis Gates is known as the one to most frequently let loose and speak — or sometimes shout — her mind. Her detractors say those tendencies make her too impractical to work toward a compromise and make them wonder if she prefers waging war to making peace.

When questioned, she answers quickly and bluntly.

Her supporters, like Sharkey, say she brings the passion needed to win the fight.

Davis Gates pickets alongside educators during a charter school strike earlier this year.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

‘Chickens coming home to roost’

The work stoppage in 2012, as Sharkey puts it, was a “defensive” strike to stop the teachers union from “getting rolled” by an aggressive and on-the-attack Emanuel.

It turned into a movement that mobilized the nation’s teachers unions while becoming an embarrassment for Emanuel, whose time in office was partly defined by what many viewed as his poor treatment of the city’s educators.

This time, Lightfoot “has a tremendous opportunity to be a ‘she-ro,’” Davis Gates says.

“She ran off of everything we’re asking for. She promised it. To sign a contract that enshrines those promises makes her better than a politician.”

And for Davis Gates, the current fight offers a historic chance to fulfill a mission.

“We get to give voice on these things because the convergence of all of society’s ills comes into our classrooms on a daily basis,” she adds. “It is a shock to me that this is a shock to everyone else. We are chief players in promoting and educating the common good.

“There’s historical, generational unfairness baked into the system. So this contract fight is about all of those chickens coming home to roost at the same time.”

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