Undergraduate leads NGO to change Chicago’s gun violence

Sophomore Eva Maria Lewis is tackling the root causes of Chicago’s gun violence crisis and working to create equitable communities.

Eva Maria Lewis, a sophomore sociology major in Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences, says the root of Chicago’s gun violence is a lack of resources. 

Eva Maria Lewis stands in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris

In October, Lewis was the sole representative of the United States at the 2018 Human Rights Defenders World Summit in Paris. Her presentation covered the human-rights violations of people of color in the U.S., the ways systemic hindrance perpetuates economic oppression, particularly for people of color, and how she accomplished what nobody else could: taking steps toward bridging the disparities she saw firsthand.

“If we had sustainability as a community, we would not have had to create the economic infrastructure that results in gun violence,” says Lewis, who identifies as a first-generation, low-income student at Penn, and a queer black girl from the South Side of Chicago. “Our approach is unique and focuses on methods of cultivating equity, starting with education.”

Through her non-governmental organization, The I Project, she is working to create equitable communities, starting in her hometown neighborhood of South Shore. There she says no supermarkets exist; it is a place where there are no leisure activities, no hospitals, no doctor’s offices, no trauma centers, and no top-level schools.

The conditions of the schools on the South Side are dire, Lewis says. The building repairs consume much of the schools’ budgets each year, and without adequate funds the schools are unable to buy materials like laptops, whiteboards, or new textbooks.

Eva Maria Lewis at a table at the Human Rights Summit in Paris 2018
Eva Maria Lewis at the 2018 Human Rights Defenders World Summit in Paris. (Photo: Eva Lewis)

Lewis tested into a gifted program and attended Walter Payton College Prep on the North Side of Chicago, which allowed her to avoid dilapidated schools and to pursue educational opportunities that her friends who lived down the block were not able to access. But that good education came at a cost.

“I had to wake up at 5 a.m. every day to go to a school that began at 8 a.m., while my wealthier peers on the North Side woke up at a reasonable time and ate breakfast before school,” remembers Lewis. Each morning, she boarded a packed northbound bus to downtown Chicago and transferred to a train that took her to a school in a peaceful “oasis,” filled with plenty of everything that didn’t exist near her home.

She notes that 54 more schools were closed on the South and West sides of Chicago in 2013, forcing students to transfer to different schools. “The way territories work is that by living in a neighborhood, you are inherently associated with that gang in the eyes of the rival, regardless of involvement,” says Lewis. “Those school closings put a lot of kids in danger who were just trying to receive an education. That is a human-rights violation.”

So, she decided to make a difference in her own backyard by launching the Education Emancipation campaign, as a part of The I Project. Lewis went to a long-overlooked school down the block, Bouchet Elementary, and asked what they needed the most to start addressing these deep-rooted educational disparities. Their answer was Chromebooks for every student, which would cost approximately $25,000.

Wrestling with how to come up with what seemed like an insurmountable sum, Lewis began to think like an innovator. She went door-to-door to every business in South Shore and told them what she’s trying to accomplish. Every customer in the beauty salons and barber shops gave what they could at the time, but she needed to think bigger she says. In a month and a half, she pooled her friends together to produce a fundraiser with performances by artists, dancers, singers, and rappers.

“The Education Emancipation campaign aims to provide resources to South and West Side elementary schools,” Lewis explains. “We plan on creating a prototype on how to flip a disenfranchised school into an equitable institution, with the support of the administration of our partner school, Bouchet Elementary.”

Currently, The I Project serves as a third-party entity between corporations and Chicago Public Schools, in order to shepherd donations and make things happen for schools in need.

In addition, Lewis created the first community-needs assessment for South Shore. In August, The I Project mobilized 100 volunteers to go door-to-door, distributing surveys and asking neighborhood residents about their needs. They’re still collecting data in South Shore, but Lewis hopes to acquire the Chromebooks and publish a report that analyzes the information her team has collected.

“In doing this work, we realize it is a marathon and not a sprint,” says Lewis.