On March 14, 2021, the Annual Meeting of the Provincial Assembly (AMPA), held virtually, elected Karen Littlewood as the 67th president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF/FEESO). From District 17, Simcoe, Karen brings with her a variety of experiences as an educator, including starting her career as an elementary teacher, along with her most recent leadership work on the Provincial Executive as an Executive Officer for two years and a Vice-President for an additional two years. Earlier this spring, not long after her election, I had the opportunity to sit down with our president-elect to ask her about her story, her trajectory, and her vision for the future.
Karen brings to the position a long history of advocacy beyond the classroom and the Federation. She notes that one of the most influential experiences in her leadership development was being selected as a participant at the prodigious Governor General’s Canadian Leadership Conference in 2012. The program brings together mid-career individuals from across the country, representing private business, industry, public sector, unions, and volunteer organizations. The conference asks participants to challenge their thinking and to develop creative, collaborative leadership practices. Karen has since worked to increase OSSTF/FEESO appointments to the conference, helping develop new leaders for the organization. Her experience at the leadership conference also led to a local commitment to engage with something meaningful and apart from education and unionism. This took her to the David Busby Centre in Barrie, which works on local poverty intervention, homelessness supports, and harm-reduction programs. Karen served as a volunteer with the Centre from 2012–2017 and was awarded the Centre’s Volunteer of the Year Award in 2017. Karen’s advocacy has also been shaped by her work as one of the founding members of Barrie Pride, which began in 2013 and has grown now to be one of Ontario’s most celebrated small-town Pride events.
Originally, Karen studied translation at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario and had no thoughts of becoming an educator. It was only after being introduced to the idea of applying to a teacher education program by a friend that Karen began to consider a career as a teacher. Midway through her teacher education training at North Bay’s Nipissing University, Karen was pool-hired to teach core French, grades 4 through 6 in Keswick, Ontario. Karen spent more than 15 years working as a member of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO), until a newspaper ad for a high school teaching job in Alliston, Ontario caught her eye. Karen had not expected to get an interview, never mind a job offer, so when the offer came she knew she had to embrace this new opportunity. She left behind her seniority with ETFO as well as a part-time local release position with the union. It was in this new role where Karen found her true passion as an educator—teaching in a congregated special education class with another teacher and a number of educational assistants.
Although Karen had moved panels, she did not give up her dedication to unionism. Thanks to her involvement with her local Labour Council, Karen was already actively involved with OSSTF/FEESO members/leaders through their shared work as affiliates during elections. Karen moved through a variety of positions and was an active force in her local Bargaining Unit and District when she was elected in 2014 to be president of the District 17 Teachers’ Bargaining Unit.
When asked about what made her decide to become involved with organized labour, Karen responded by saying: “A turning point for me was the need to participate in a work refusal while I was still an elementary teacher. It was an incredibly scary situation where I was threatened with job loss and other reprisals. My union had my back in such a strong way that I knew I would be able to stand up and protect myself and protect others. My local [ETFO] president at the time was Ann Hoggarth [former Barrie MPP], who is now a very dear friend. I learned so much about unionism from Ann. I often refer to that work refusal because I know how much courage it takes to stand up and refuse unsafe work, and it was the union that gave me the strength.
At the same time, I was becoming more and more involved in my local labour council, serving on the Barrie and District Labour Council executive for many years. Labour council was so eye-opening, hearing from other workers with different experiences. I’ll never forget my first Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) Convention in 2009, listening to tradespeople, blue-collar workers, and others in labour about their struggles and their unique situations. I heard about their differences but I also heard about their solidarity. It made me really appreciate the choices I had made but more so the opportunities I had been given.”
Karen makes a point of highlighting the value of being part of one’s local labour council. As she notes, “…it is something everyone can do to become part of something important. There is so much value in seeing yourself as part of something—it’s a great place to start.”
This dedication to labour is paramount to Karen’s vision of OSSTF/FEESO’s future. She identifies that she is fearful of labour’s future, reminding us that right-to-work states and union-busting south of the border are all signs of how governments are fighting against the rights of workers everywhere. But she is also buoyed by the growth of labour in North America, by the recent increase in the numbers of workers protected by a union, and by the push to organize workers in places like McDonald’s and Amazon. For Karen, labour is the great community equalizer, it is how we work together to protect our communities and fight for a greater good. She is working to maintain and grow OSSTF/FEESO’s position as a leader in labour, advocating for the sharing of wealth and protections, with the knowledge that there is enough to go around and that we must be united across unions to bring everyone up. Karen believes this is best done in consort with all our labour partners, as part of the larger labour movement, including our membership in the OFL and the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC).
When asked where she sees OSSTF/FEESO in five years, Karen says: “Education continues to be under attack and we have nowhere near the resources we need to build the province of Ontario. OSSTF/FEESO is incredibly diverse and we need to highlight that. We lead in so many different ways but we have to make sure our members are ready for the challenges ahead. That starts with building up from within and ensuring our members have the support they need. It continues with building OSSTF/FEESO’s profile and being at the forefront of education in Ontario.
Education truly is an investment and you need people to make the system work. You need the money to fund the system. I’d love to see some predictability and some certainty, but I don’t know if five years is going to be enough for that.”
As only the eleventh female President of OSSTF/FEESO in its 102-year history, Karen recognizes the important role she is taking on and seeks to be a strong role model for women and for others in the organization who do not see themselves reflected in our leadership. This is not a responsibility she takes lightly, noting that: “I’m an ordinary person who has come into this through different pathways and steps. If people can see themselves as someone who can also achieve similar leadership positions, whatever that may be for them, then I am happy to serve as a model in that position. We need to see strong women, and we need to have that throughout the system, with our locals, with our employers, at the provincial level, as well as in the communities we live and work in. I recognize that I come into this position with privilege, not only as a teacher, but also as a white woman.
I’ve ended up here through the experiences I’ve had and the support I’ve been given through my years in education. This is where my need to give back and support others comes from. My hope is to be a role model for all those members who have doubted their worthiness or who have questioned if the union has a place for them. I hope to be the leader they need and a small inspiration in their own steps into Federation work.”
Having spent the time early in her career often saying, “I think I can do that,” but not actually taking on the challenge, Karen urges all members of the Federation to act on their ideas and make them a reality. She says, “The second you think it, you need to go with that and say yes, I can do that.” She cites the “imposter syndrome” that many females who seek to be leaders experience, where we use internalized excuses of not being good enough to deter ourselves from stepping up and believing that we belong in leadership positions. Karen goes on to say that: “Throughout my career, I have had so many opportunities and have worked with such incredible people that I would tell 25-year-old Karen to go with the flow. I know you can’t really tell people that, though, and I think either you do, or you don’t.
I’ve always been willing to take a chance and put myself out there and to see what it brings. When the door opens, you can walk through, and if you don’t like what’s there, you can walk back out. I find it important to look at things as learning experiences and to try and turn them into positives. I think 25-year-old Karen took all of her experiences and found the positives that helped her grow.”
I ended my interview with Karen asking her what she turns to when she’s struggling—is there a song, a piece of art, a poem, or something that helps lift her up. She answered with, “For me, it’s Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s cover of Somewhere Over the Rainbow. It is calm, mellow, and gives me perspective.” She also reflects on how she relies on looking at things from a variety of perspectives and considering different points of view. She makes it a point to consider how her actions, and in turn, that of our organization, will impact others. It is this driving force of working for a greater good that labour must continue to fight for. It is this understanding of the power we have to impact our communities and improve everyone’s life that helps keep Karen focused on the tomorrow, even in the hardest of times.
As we concluded the conversation, we spoke of the weight of the role she has taken on. She views it as a privilege, yes, but even more as a duty. She is ready to lead us forward as part of the labour movement, as a driving force in protecting and enhancing publicly-funded education in this province. She is prepared to do that by opening new doors, strengthening relationships, and by being a powerful voice that represents, respects, and honours our members’ diverse experiences.
Karen Littlewood’s term as president begins July 1, 2021.