I first met Karen Lewis July 2013 as a new member of the Chicago Teachers Union and excitedly stood for the above photo. I met Corky Lee two summers later at NQAPIA 2015, where I nervously thanked him for taking iconic photos of the Vincent Chin case, which I’ve used to piece together family history.
Both those humans, over the years, have been friends to me, sharing news, positivity, warmth, and wisdoms won. We’ve sat and stood in celebratory moments, in marches, at parties, dances, weddings. We’ve nodded heads in knowing quiet at protests and rallies. And we had our quiet moments where we just talked and talked about everything.
Karen and Corky both knew to listen intently, to be present, and to share. They tried to know everyone they came across, really know them. They were warm, funny, cranky, fierce, opinionated, protective, loving.
They cheered on my fights, whether for more for my students, for my colleagues, for my growth with my family and history, and just for my life.
They wanted more for us. To leave this earth better than it was before them.
When I lived in Chicago, I’d see Karen leading always, with that quiet knowing, wisdom earned from years teaching and living on this earth. She knew what to say and when. She always asked: “Does this unite us? Build our power? Make us stronger?” which became our organizing cries. Those words run through my head always and remind me to do better, be better. Is this for our students, and for the schools they deserve? She reached out when things were rough, asking me how I wanted to fight back, and knowing I’d find my way. I loved her for that, that she took that time.
Karen, as the President Emerita of the Chicago Teachers Union, led this Red for Ed movement, was our icon, our beacon of light, and made our lights shine across the world, so that each and every educator knew they had power and leverage, the courage to fight back for the schools our students deserve. It was not scary to say aloud Black Lives Matter or to tax the rich or demand housing for all, because those statements were just true and real.
I will never forget the tens of thousands of us marching the streets of Chicago, all in red, fighting for justice. The red lives in my blood now, forever reminding us we have the power to fight back.
Karen would have been mayor of Chicago if it weren’t for the brain cancer. I’ve done a lot of canvassing, but none as easy as getting Karen on the ballot for Chicago mayor in 2014. (I once went on a CTA Western Bus and filled up my page with signatures in ten minutes.) It was such a heartbreak when Karen had to drop out: she would have done so much good as Mayor, but continued to fight the brain cancer for years after, succumbing last night to it.
When I moved back to New York in 2016, I immediately kept bumping into Corky Lee in Chinatown, a place he loved so much, and where his funeral procession drove through this Saturday. Corky was everywhere, whether helping Chinese Americans learn their genealogy, their history, exhibiting his photos of Asian American history spanning 50 years, or just chilling at Silk Road Cafe, looking at photo prints or old rolls of film for more of Asian American history to unlock. You never made plans with Corky: he was just always there. He WAS our Asian American Photographer Laureate, documenting our histories and our lives.
I don’t have any photos with Corky because he was always there taking the photo (In fact, after the 2015 NQAPIA dinner, he messaged me, “Spent all too much time photographing that there was little or cold food left on table……”). Corky had so much more he wanted to do. But, he made sure the ABC, American Born Chinese, generations like us knew about important events, knew our history, and put things in context. AND he linked us to each other. He made sure we would be tied to one another long after he was gone.
Corky shouldn’t have died of COVID19. We’re approaching half a million deaths to COVID19 and we’re pretending like everything should go back to normal when it’s not normal and will never be normal again.
We stand on the shoulders of giants, giants who paved the way for us to be where we are today. Who knew what justice meant, who were imperfect human beings who loved and fought fiercely. Who continue to remind us everyday to fight back, hard, for a better world.
May your memory be a blessing, Karen.
Rest in power, Corky.
We love you and will honor your legacies.