It all started with asbestos.
Erika Wozniak (EDU ’04) learned from a co-worker that the toxic material was present in her elementary school classroom. Seeking help, Wozniak called first her father—also a teacher––and then the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), which sent a representative to the school the next day.
“They were helping me be an advocate for teachers, which also means, for me, being an advocate for my students. When [CTU] asked for someone from our school to be the building representative, my hand shot up,” she recalls. “I became a pretty strong advocate—which led me to losing my job.”
Her record of advocacy also meant that she was quickly hired by a principal who admired her commitment. She’s now been a fourth-grade teacher at Oriole Park Elementary School on Chicago’s northwest side for 10 years.
“She’s a really dedicated educator. She cares about equity for all kids,” says Tim Riff, principal of Oriole Park. “She does serve as a voice for a large group of people who ... may not have the avenue to have their voices heard.”
Wozniak’s advocacy goes beyond Oriole Park. She’s been a CTU union delegate since her first year of teaching. She sits on the State Educator Professional Licensure Board and the board of Chicago Votes. She lobbies for smaller class sizes and better funding for Chicago Public Schools through letters to the editor, interviews on local news stations and frequent interactions with public officials.
Her passion inside and outside the classroom led to Wozniak being voted an Everyday Hero in a national election held last year by the American Federation of Teachers.
“When the debate heats up about how to improve Chicago Public Schools, Erika is at her toughest and her best,” said Mary Cathryn Ricker, the organization’s executive vice president, while presenting Wozniak’s Everyday Hero award. “She is someone who is not afraid to go to the mat for colleagues and kids.”
Wozniak considers her advocacy a direct outgrowth of the Vincentian values she gained through the College of Education. “So much of my education ... was about equality and understanding other people’s perspectives and trying your best to be an advocate for everyone.”
So much of my education... was about equality and understanding other people's perspectives and trying your best to be an advocate for everyone.
-Erika Wozniak ('04)
She teaches others how to be advocates through “The Girl Talk,” a monthly talk show during which she and co-host Jen Sabella interview Chicago-area women working for change. “Through the show, we empower and learn from our fellow women. It’s really special,” says Wozniak.
Now in its second year, the talk show sells out its live-audience seats every month. It’s one of the many ways that Wozniak plans to continue advocating for change in Chicago. Always, however, her students come first.
“My main focus ... is doing whatever I can to make sure that my students, and my classroom, and students all across the city have what they need,” she says.
Find out about The Girl Talk at facebook.com/girltalkchicago .