Spotlight | Brian Lewis

This month, we’d like to spotlight the work of Brian Lewis, from the Spring 2018 cohort. Brian is currently the Director of Programs at Exalt, a nonprofit organization that serves youth who have been involved in the criminal justice system. Exalt advocates for educational engagement as an alternative to court involvement, and as Director of Programs, Brian is committed to supporting the transformation and empowerment of oppressed individuals. He designs and teaches courses related to mass incarceration and education reform; he also pilots new projects and programs that serve disenfranchised youth and their communities.

Brian Lewis has the ease and eloquence of someone who is used to success — someone who was always the best in class and the last to fail. But he was a troublemaker once, and he admits to that with the air of a man who has long since changed.

“I was pretty close to dropping out of high school,” he says, as he reflects on his teenage years. “I didn’t really see the value in school. My teachers weren’t engaging me. My grades were bad. I didn’t see the point in going.”

He breaks into a broad smile. “It is so crazy now to think that I’m an educator, and I have a master’s degree, and I teach at a college level, because I didn’t even think that I would get through high school.”

But his troubled time in high school, he explains, is how he first began to understand social control. “I was always in trouble in school, all the time,” he recalls. “I had detention every single day, because they had a really strict dress code at my school, and my shirt would be untucked, or I would have some stubble on my face, and they would say, ‘you’re not clean-shaven.’”

These draconian punishments for minor infractions, Lewis says, contributed to power imbalances within the school: although the general student body was of a reasonably mixed racial makeup, the students sitting in detention were always the black kids, the Latino kids.

This sense of bias and injustice pushed Lewis away from school, urged him towards more creative endeavors. At the time, he was interested in spoken-word poetry, and he might have dropped out of high school to pursue stanzas and verse – a teenage Saul Williams in the making – if his mentors had not encouraged him to finish high school and go to college.

“By my junior year of high school, I started turning around,” Lewis says. “My grades were better. I found a way to bring my passion for social justice and racial justice back to my school – I made them create a black history class at my school, and I made them hire more teachers.”

After graduating from his high school in Chicago, Lewis moved to New York to attend The New School, where he studied education and learned what he calls “awesome theoretical stuff” – the educational philosophy of Paulo Freire, for instance, which Lewis summarizes quite briefly as being that “you shouldn’t lecture to young people, you should let them use their experiences to create education that is exciting for them and empowers them and alleviates them from oppression.”

He worked for a time with The New School’s youth advisory program, but after funding cuts ended the program, he moved back to Chicago to teach at the very high school he attended. Emboldened to make the leap towards further study, however, Lewis enrolled with the urban education program at the CUNY Graduate Center, where he met the friend who eventually introduced him to Exalt Youth.

“My buddy brought me to Exalt. One day [he] just brought me in and said, ‘Hey guys, this is Brian,’ and, uh, I ended up being there for four years,” Lewis says, with a laugh.

The organization was an ideal fit for him, marrying his desire to teach with his interests in racial equality, in social justice, in advocacy. He started out as a teacher in Exalt’s program, and although he was excited to begin this work, he knew very little about the criminal justice system. As a teacher from Chicago’s south and west sides, and a native of the same area, he was of course aware of the struggles of low-income youth, of gang activity, of incarcerated youth – but he had never been in the position of working exclusively with teenagers who were in some way involved with the criminal justice system.

“It was very different to teach in [a] nonprofit and work only with court-involved teenagers,” he recalls. “Even though I had worked with young people who had faced challenges, this was a whole other level.

“It was very difficult to do this work on an effective level and connect with them,” Lewis continues. “I had to go to court and present letters to district attorneys and judges and understand how to navigate different statuses, like what’s a juvenile offender, what’s a youthful offender… I learned so much, but it was difficult at first.“

His love for the arts and for racial equality all came full circle when, within Exalt, he was given the opportunity to lead a theater project, one which he helped his youth shape – a project called 16 Bars: Youth (Off)Ending Justice. “The young people came up with the title,” he explains enthusiastically. “They were like, ‘Well, there’s rap in it, and rap means you do sixteen bars, and bars means you’re behind bars, so why don’t we call it 16 Bars?’ And it has a triple entendre because, in New York and North Carolina, when you’re 16 you’re considered an adult, even for a minor offense or something dumb and trivial, like shoplifting. […] So when we created the piece we wanted to change that policy and raise the age of criminal responsibility from 16 to 18. It’s 16 Bars because we wanted to make it [harder] for a young person to go behind bars. And we were successful in that push.”

They performed the piece. Hundreds of people came out. “We brought out politicians and stakeholders, and we had these awesome panel discussions where the young people were asking really powerful questions about how we could change this policy,” Lewis recalls fondly. “We sent our young people to Albany and they talked to state assemblypeople.”

Of course, Lewis cautions, Exalt Youth doesn’t take full credit for the movement – but they were part of the movement to get the law changed, and the law did change. In April of 2017, New York approved legislation in the state budget to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18. (At the time, Governor Andrew Cuomo remarked, “The reality of putting a 16- or 17-year-old in the same facility as hardened adult criminals is, on its face, cruel and unusual… [They] are five times more likely to be sexually assaulted, twice as likely to be assaulted by staff, and 36 more times likely to commit suicide.”)

“That was one of the highlights of my entire career, that we were able to create this thing that had an impact on real policy,” Lewis continues. “And that the young people led it, they were the ones who came up with the title and wanted to change this thing. And because of the success we had with that, the people in my organization saw the talent that I had. So I became the director of programs at Exalt.”

“I’ve learned a ton,” Lewis says. “The young people that I’m so passionate about serving have been at the center of everything I’ve done. They’ve inspired me, they’ve motivated me, they’ve driven me to greater success. I’ve failed in front of them and learned candidly about the things I’ve done wrong, and that’s helped me be better. My youth and my staff help me think every day about how I can evolve to be more passionate and civil.”

Exceptional leadership, Lewis explains, is built and modeled on trust and paying attention. Trust, because in order to lead you must earn the trust of your colleagues, peers and community by demonstrating honesty, openness, integrity and a penchant for doing the right thing and doing your best to make things right. And attention, because all too often we are overwhelmed with the immediate urgency of the moment and forget to see the big picture.

“Exceptional leadership requires a strong moral compass and a deep-seated belief in arriving at a better place,” he says. “It also requires those in leadership to think not only about the destination, but also the journey. Are we thinking about things like power, privilege and oppression along the way? Are we humanizing each other and recognizing the full complexity of our identities and affirming our similarities and differences as we undergo this journey together?”

Asked for advice that he would give to would-be leaders, Lewis says that leaders in the making should simply “do what they can from where they are.”

“I began to see myself as a leader when I was in college,” he says. “I began to study and read in order to be inspired by other leaders. I wanted to learn great leaders’ approaches and understand how they thought and lived in the world. I think what I did, and what you have to do if you want to be a leader, is make your mind up to be one, and then pursue any opportunities you can to exercise and practice leadership.”


Watch Brian Lewis speak after Exalt Youth students perform 16 Bars: Youth (Off)Ending Justice: