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Use your education thoughtfully, EGR grad tells today’s students

Where they are now: Erika Wozniak

This 2000 East Grand Rapids High School graduate was chosen as an American Federation of Teachers “Everyday Hero” Award winner in 2016, and she’s got real skin in the game when it comes to public schools.

Where do you live now, and what are you doing professionally?

I am a Chicago Public Schools teacher, a union steward and a progressive community activist in the Uptown neighborhood. Uptown is a place where people of all backgrounds have historically come to build a life for themselves and their families — regardless of class, race or ethnicity. I have been a fierce advocate for fair funding and education equality for all students in Chicago, an active member and delegate of the Chicago Teachers Union since my first year teaching, and I have been a leader in the fight against the use of public tax dollars for private institutions.

I host The Girl Talk, a monthly live talk show and podcast that highlights Chicago women doing important work in their communities. I serve on the board of directors of the Chicago Votes Action Fund, an organization that aims to increase civic engagement among young voters. I also served on the State Educator and Preparation Licensure Board for the Illinois State Board of Education.

Erika Wozniak is a Chicago Public Schools teacher (courtesy photos)

What are your workdays like?

I teach fifth grade, (then) … typically I go and knock on doors and talk to neighbors as a candidate (for city of Chicago alderman). Sometimes I have a meeting, an event, or need to make phone calls. At the moment I am working about 80-100 hours a week.

Were you a little girl dreaming of alderman-ship, or has this come about more recently?

Absolutely not. Earlier this year, (when) I saw the Chicago City Council’s Progressive Caucus push back against the unelected Board of Education to secure funding for 65 more special education positions, I saw just how powerful an advocate an alderman could be for our kids and our schools and our communities.

I knew in that moment that I had to take the leap and run and fight for (smaller) class sizes, funding and resources for our schools and our kids on a different level, as the Progressive Caucus did.

Is alderman a side gig or will it be your primary occupation?

It will be my primary occupation, and I will take a leave from the classroom to serve as alderman in the event that I win in February.

What is the toughest part of this?

Not teaching. I absolutely love being a teacher, but I know I have an opportunity to step up and lead in a new way that will impact students in Chicago a new way.

Wozniak, left, with classmate Abby Boers (now Nagher), before an EGR football game in 1999

What is the greatest part?

Talking to neighbors in our community. Being able to have meaningful conversations about what kind of neighborhood we all want to live in and how an alderman can help to shape that neighborhood.

What is your fondest memory of your time at EGR Public Schools?

My relationships with my teachers, especially in high school. There were so many incredible teachers who took me under their wings and taught me so many lessons that have taken me through life.

Is there a teacher or lesson that springs to mind from your time at EGRPS?

I usually say Mr. Carnevale, who taught Latin. He was my favorite teacher. But the first thing that comes to mind is Mrs. Mitchell’s English class when we were reading “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison. I was so inspired that she chose this book in particular, and reading it with my classmates helped me to understand and face the idea of my own privilege. She taught the novel in a way where we had to figure it out for ourselves but she led us down the right direction. I am so grateful for this experience.

How did your time at EGRPS affect your career choice(s), and/or how did the district prepare you?

I realized very quickly as a Chicago Public Schools teacher that Chicago’s students deserve the kind of schools that I was lucky enough to attend. EGRPS is a place where public dollars first go toward schools and other necessary entities that help a city run, then when money is left over it can be used for “extras” that a city might want. In EGR, our town’s leadership knew that education had to come first, and our city’s government had a deep understanding of putting needs before wants — unlike Chicago. EGR has an elected school board; Chicago desperately needs to follow suit.

Advice for future EGR grads?

Be unafraid to be who you are, and try to be kind to yourself along the way. You are going to have the chance to use the incredible education that you are receiving at EGRPS out in the world, so use it thoughtfully and wisely and try to help as many people as you can, in as many ways as you can.

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Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema
Morgan Jarema is a Grand Rapids native and a product of Grand Rapids Public Schools, including Brookside and West Leonard elementaries, City Middle/High School and Ottawa Hills. She found her tribe in journalism in 1997 and has never wanted to do anything but write. For 15 years she was a freelance journalist for The Grand Rapids Press, covering local schools and government, religion, business, home & garden and lifestyles. She and her husband, John, think even those without kiddos should be invested in their local schools and made to feel a part of them. Read Morgan's full bio or email Morgan.

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