The education and labor communities, along with family, friends and students, mourn the death of NYSUT staff member Sonia Basko, a revered teacher and respected union and social justice activist. While in treatment for cancer, Sonia became ill with pneumonia and died on Dec. 29.
Her legacy is one of service and dedication to public education and the labor movement.
Teaching English, promoting literacy, volunteering, organizing rallies and spending time with her cherished family were all in her life’s logbook. A thick lap blanket resting on a chair in her office is full of famous first lines from great novels that seem to depict Sonia’s own journey. “It was the best of times and it was the worst of times,” from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities; “and “Midway upon the journey of our life” from Dante’s Inferno.
She was just 43.
In a joint statement, NYSUT officers paid tribute to Sonia: “It is with the greatest sadness that we inform you that our own beloved Sonia Basko lost her courageous battle with cancer. Sonia exemplified a new era of union leaders and her loss is a loss for our movement. Her tenacity, her bravery, her commitment to cause, and of course, her smile and her laughter will never be forgotten.
“Sonia was, and will remain, a beacon for the future leaders of the trade union movement. While our hearts are broken today, we revel in the fact that we were honored to know this wonderful woman.”
As a NYSUT staffer, and before that president of the Penfield Education Association, Sonia sought to help union members bring about change through word and action. A graduate of NYSUT and AFL-CIO leadership institutes and a former member of the NYSUT Board, Sonia was a key strategist in the union’s member engagement campaigns.
In 2014 Sonia joined NYSUT as special projects coordinator, where she worked directly with the officers on social justice and philanthropic initiatives. She organized Picket in the Pines, NYSUT’s first statewide rally in the North Country, and the union’s Fair Trade outreach.
She was staff liaison to the NYSUT Civil and Human Rights Committee and instrumental in creating the campaign “Start the Conversation,” addressing racial equality. Similarly, the “Why in Five” campaign she spearheaded communicates how unions are a force for solidarity, educational justice, immigration reform, child labor protections, women’s rights, fair trade, and combatting hunger and poverty. “Be the Union” signs and placards were everywhere in her office.
Sonia advocated for social justice activism — using pioneering communications tools — in presentations at statewide regional conferences and at NYSUT’s annual Local Action Project conference, showing union members how to make social justice attainable. She was committed to making social justice topics everyday conversation, and the creative tools she helped develop empowered activists.
“Sonia’s dedication to the labor movement was second to none. Her ‘union first’ work ethic should only be duplicated by all of us. Through her trials and tribulations, she always had a smile and happy demeanor. This is a great loss for her family, for NYSUT and for the labor movement,” said NYSUT Vice President Paul Pecorale, her direct supervisor.
During her battle with cancer, Sonia’s colleagues and friends showed their support by wearing t-shirts emblazoned with #TeamSonia — a message she appreciated as an expert practitioner of social media.
Sonia was staff liaison for NYSUT’s flagship sponsorship of the American Cancer Society’s Making Strides campaign, with NYSUT volunteers raising approximately $1 million this year alone in the statewide walk. On her busy office whiteboard, she used pink highlighter to list contacts and information for the “Real Men Wear Pink” part of the ACS campaign she had helped to build.
Sonia was a member of the national Coalition for Labor Union Women and the NYSUT Women’s Steering Committee. She worked with the American Federation of Teachers to build and direct a network of social media activists.
Before joining NYSUT’s staff, she was an English teacher at Penfield High School. Her 18 years in education included service as adjunct professor at Niagara University and at Finger Lakes and Monroe community colleges. She also was a literacy consultant, promoting statewide literacy and creating district level literacy strategic planning.
Her death “has shaken all of the Penfield community,” said teacher and Penfield EA President Bob Young, who taught at Penfield High School with Sonia. “She was a great colleague and friend and very compassionate. She put everybody else first. She was a big advocate for everything that mattered.”
One of Sonia’s students, Kelly Tyree, posted: “Today I found out one of my most favorite teachers has passed away after a battle with cancer. She was one of the most real and amazing people I have ever known. This woman took time out of her life to help shape mine. I wish I could have seen you one more time to tell you how much you meant to me. Words cannot express what you did for me. You were the most amazing role model to me. In the time that I was your student and thereafter, you always looked out for me and always were giving me a lesson without me even really realizing it. You made me look at life in a whole different light. I am a MUCH better mother, sister, friend and overall person because of you. “
John Kozlowski, friend and president of the Spencerport TA, worked closely with Sonia on the Monroe County Federation of Teachers, where she served as an officer. “She was just a fabulous friend and colleague,” Kozlowski said. “You don’t meet people like her every day. She had a pure dedication to the labor movement.”
Sonia helped NYSUT establish the Ken Kurzweil Social Justice Recognition Award in honor of the educator, union member and activist who champions civil and human rights issues. She worked on union initiatives for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA).
She prepared for her life’s work by earning a bachelor’s degree in education and teaching certification at St. John Fisher College, Rochester; and a master’s degree in Systems Management Development at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Her first teaching job was in Maryland.
She is survived by her treasured mother, Kazimiera (Kathy) Basko; beloved sisters Alexandra Basko and Michelle Hayes; nieces Kayla Hayes and Emily Garcia; grandmother Helena Basko; great aunt Emilia Czyryca; aunt Wanda and uncle Steve Baka; aunt Krystyna and uncle Steve Skuza; many cousins; and extended family in Poland. She was predeceased by her beloved father Jorge Basko and uncle Joe Goly.
Services will be Saturday at 1 p.m. at Calvary Chapel Westside, 2407 South Union Street, Spencerport, NY 14559.
In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to Camp Good Days and Special Times, Inc. in honor of Sonia's lifelong participation in and support of the camp: Camp Good Days and Special Times, Inc., 1332 Pittsford-Mendon Road, Mendon, NY 14506.