Eva Maria Lewis is a poet, activist and founder of The I Project. In 2016, she helped lead a two thousand person protest in Chicago against police brutality. This event led her to co-create the Youth for Black Lives movement. Since then, Eva has further developed her platform to educate others on intersectionality and create opportunities for the most marginalized members of society.
To understand where you are today. It’s important to know where you came from, I wanted to understand a bit more about your childhood and how you were raised?
I was raised on the South Side of Chicago. in a South Shore neighborhood, by my single mom. For most of my life, she hasn’t had a stable job. She gave up her corporate job when I was four because it meant moving to the suburbs and she wanted to be present in my life. If she would have taken that job, she would have not been able to be the hands-on parent she wanted to be. So she sacrificed her economic stability for my own development and my own education, which was really important, and it's kind of been my premise for everything that I've done. I grew up in the hood. I grew up in a neighborhood that didn’t have a lot. She made whatever she could out of nothing. I couldn’t go to the schools in my neighborhood because they weren't as good as they could have been, and I always had to travel outside of my neighborhood to go to school.
I know what it means to wait for your mom to go to the food pantry. I know what it means to be in poverty and that’s why I'm so passionate about providing educational opportunities for people who don’t necessarily have access to those things because I myself did not have have access to them.
I also come from a family that understands a lot about gang activity. I understand that people aren’t doing that because they feel like it. People are doing that because they have to. It’s a last resort as a result of not having resources, which we should have access to all the time.
So that’s why I started the project that I'm doing right now because I think the root of our problem is our lack of everything and no access to education and no access to just grocery stores and no access to just basic things that are a part of our human rights. That’s why I’m fighting for those things.
If you were to pinpoint specific moments through everything that you’ve mentioned, what would you say are one or two moments that are key triggers for you?
One thing was when Trayvon Martin died and my mom took me to a protest and there were all of these kids and their parents in downtown Chicago, just protesting for black livelihood. That was the first time I had really seen the power of the people. That was important to me because that made me realize that these are things we don't like but they are things we can also change and we are more powerful in numbers. That was one thing where my mom, and my family in general, just let me know what I deserve, even if that’s contrary to what’s been shown to me in the real world.
The second thing would be going to high school. I went to the number one public high school in the country, which is in downtown/ Up North Chicago, which is an hour from my house. I had to wake up at 5 o’clock in the morning every day just to go to school. I would leave when it was dark in my neighborhood and I would come back home and it was dark. There was gun activity on the commute, so I had to be careful where I got off the bus, and I had to get picked up in certain places. That entire experience made me see it wasn’t okay, because I went to school with kids who woke up 7 a.m. and got to school on time and got a whole breakfast and who got to sleep after doing their homework. Being in that environment was really life changing because people were living the life that I wanted to live.
One key idea that comes up very often in your work is intersectionality. I wanted to understand what intersectionality means to you and why it is important and how your organization is playing a role in this space.
The better question would be what is intersectional in general. So many people get it wrong all the time. It’s better to not know what it means, then change the definition of it to suit them when it doesn’t. A lot of people try to take the label of black women and make it catered towards themselves, which shouldn't be happening. Kimberlé Crenshaw started talking about “intersectionality” and created the theory in 1989. It started as an academic work that explains the unique situation that black women are in the world.
There was a court case and there was a woman who was suing a company, saying they were discriminating against her. The company was saying, no they were not, "we have black people and we have women." But all the women in the company were white and all the black people were men. And she was like what about me?
So Kimberlé was saying there were intersections between race and gender and this is where black women are. It’s that unique experience. The I Project, which is my non-profit, is activism through that initiative. We’re creating equitable societies. We root ourselves in intersectionality theory, this essentially means that black women are going to benefit from everything we do.
In 2016 you led a protest of 2,000 people in Chicago, can you tell us more about that experience?
When I led that protest with 3 other black girls, which resulted in the founding of youth for black lives, I had already had the I Project. I was already doing groundwork. When it came to protests, I was observing a lot. I was going to meetings, I was going to rallies, I was understanding how those things were being created. So when I saw someone say, I want to have a protest downtown and I saw it gaining a lot of traction, I was like do you need help? Because I knew I could do something and she didn’t know how to do everything, we were all so young. We didn’t expect 2,000 people to be there, we did not think that was going to happen, I just asked if she needed help. That changed the direction of my life because when that protest got all that media attention, suddenly all the work I was already doing also got attention.
Did that change the direction you were headed or did it just amplified everything you were doing?
It didn’t change the direction, it gave me the tools to do what I wanted to do. People had more interest in me, people wanted to invest more in me, I had more opportunity. It became the basis of the work I had already been trying to do.
You’ve led a big march, you’ve launched two organizations, how have you seen your movement evolve over the years from the I Project?
The I Project is my baby. That is the root of all of the work I do. That is where I put all of my energy. I want it to be more sustainable. What I’m doing right now is using my academia to enhance the work that I’m already trying to do. There is so much work for the I Project to do. I have a team of 8 women of colour working on the project, plus a team of artists. Everyone is donating their time to do this. What I imagine, as that pool of people gets larger, we become more sustainable, we learn from our mistakes and we learn the best way to do this and we just keep going. I don't want us to stop. I don't want it to be a stagnant thing that just dissolves. Our whole goal is to create those sustainable communities, starting with education all throughout the South Shore. Eventually all through the south and east side and then to other cities.
What advice would you give someone who wants to create social change and knows their passionate about a cause, but they don’t know where to start?
The first thing I tell people in general, and young people especially, is that you don’t need a lot to try something. The I Project started because I made a terrible film on a really bad camera. You use whatever you have available to you and you use that to your advantage. If you want to change something, you just have to do it.
From your perspective, what roles should business and brands play in this space?
There are too many barriers between people who have those idea and they know exactly what they need and they know the solution, but their solution does not get invested in because it's not profitable to those with money, or to those with resources. We have to break those barriers down where the profits don't matter but what matters is the intent.
Eva Maria Lewis is a young African American woman who has only just begun her journey to sparking social change. She will continue to focus on intersectionality, creating educational opportunities for youth in low-income neighborhoods, and remains a strong voice of empowerment for her generation.