On Monday, June 5, we said goodbye to the indomitable Karen Jo Koonan. The enormity of this loss weighs heavy on those in the National Lawyers Guild who knew her, who worked with her, and who loved her. As the first legal worker to serve as national NLG President, Karen Jo’s compassionate, bold leadership played an immeasurable role in making the NLG what it is today.
In honor of her life and legacy, the annual NLG Legal Worker Award will now be the Karen Jo Koonan Award. We hope that creating this space to celebrate her life will inspire us all to carry her memory forward.
To those who had the privilege of knowing her, Karen Jo was so many things—leader, mentor, advocate, friend. Her absence leaves a hole that is hard to fully grasp.
Karen Jo was diagnosed with cancer in the fall of 2022. After learning of her diagnosis, she refused to slow down, consulting from the hospital while getting chemotherapy and sharing a part of her incredible story with the Guild at a special webinar in February of this year, a recording of which can be found at this link. We encourage you to take the time to listen to her life in her own words.
When chemotherapy did not prevent the cancer from spreading, Karen Jo entered hospice still determined to dedicate what hours she could to her work. Throughout it all, she sent messages of love and care to those she held dear, sat with her friends and loved ones to hold their grief with them, and expressed her joy over the wonderful legacy she would leave.
When our comrades at the SF-BA Chapter spoke with Karen Jo towards the end of her life, she said that she was at peace with the end of her time on this Earth. She reflected on the two amazing daughters she had raised, Camisha and Taima, and the many other women she cared for like family. She spoke with pride about the accomplishments of her grandchildren and the incredible futures they had ahead. She treasured the ways both big and small that she contributed to this world. And she passed with the certainty that she made the biggest and best impact that she knew how.
In the coming months, both NLG National and the SF-BA Chapter will be honoring and remembering Karen Jo and her extraordinary contributions to our work. In the meantime, know that Karen Jo would not want you to wallow in sorrow over her loss. She would want you to press on, love one another, and carry her with you as you fight injustice with the ferocity that she showed every day.
“Be kind, generous and make the world a better place.” Karen Jo Koonan August 7, 1945 – June 5, 2023.
This letter is adapted from the SF-BA announcement of Karen Jo’s passing, originally written by EmilyRose Johns and Camilo Perez-Bustillo.