Activist Eva Maria Lewis: ‘Our communities hold that grief. It’s embedded.’

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In April, a month shy of the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s death, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of his murder. “But many people have been killed by the cops since then,” said Chicago activist Eva Maria Lewis. “When we got the guilty verdict in the Chauvin trial, at the same time, 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant was murdered in Columbus, Ohio — and she’s the one that called for help from the police.”

Last year, during the height of the protests, Lewis — a sociology major at the University of Pennsylvania who graduates next semester — was part of a group providing support and supplies to those who were protesting in Chicago.

Reflecting on the Chauvin verdict, she said: “I’ve seen so many celebrities and influencers be like, ‘Justice is served for George Floyd,’ and I’ll be like: ‘Y’all know George Floyd is not the only person who was killed; why do we just focus on one person?’ For them it’s almost like, justice is done here so I’m going to ignore the others. That’s what I find striking and what saddens me; there are so many of us that have to live in this all the time. You can’t just move on because there was one verdict. Our communities hold that grief. It’s embedded.”

Not much has materially changed locally in the past year with regard to policing or efforts by the city to reverse the kind of disinvestment that has eroded so many communities on the South and West Sides, she said. “I’m done with asking politicians to do what they’re supposed to do,” said Lewis. “Because actually they’re doing their job; their job just isn’t what we think it is. Their job is maintaining the status quo.

“So we cannot revolve our work around what these people are doing,” Lewis said. “The work I spoke about last year was about providing resources and creating sustainability outside of these politicians and these systems. And that is exactly what I’ve continued to do.”

Since last year, she has launched a nonprofit called Free Root Operation.

“We combat gun violence through compassion and opportunity,” she said. “This is something I’ve always fought for because I understand the root of the issue is not this inherent chaos, but rather the lack of resources and the lack of the ability to get through trauma. So we have an education and emancipation program that has peace rooms at Bouchet and South Shore elementary schools, and they’re stocked with things like yoga balls, mats, pillows, rugs. It’s a replacement to detention and suspension infrastructures in an effort to mitigate the effects of the school-to-prison pipeline.”

The idea is if a child is acting out, they try to understand what’s going on, instead of just punishing. “Some of these kids are going through issues like domestic violence or they don’t have enough food or someone to do their laundry. And they’re also learning conflict resolution and how to tap into and cope with their emotions. It’s a beautiful space.”

Free Root also runs the Chicago Food Pairing Program, which is more or less a localized version of Instacart, funded by donations.

“Last year we were able to service 543 families with the help of over 500 volunteers across the city,” Lewis said. “We have a slogan, which is: If you want crab legs, we’ll get you crab legs. And people are usually like, ‘What?’ But the rationale behind that is: There’s a difference between need and necessity. We can’t tell you what you need. You tell us what to get for you, and we’ll go get it. We’ll set a budget, of course.”

If someone requests a birthday cake, there are no judgments — they’ll get a birthday cake along with whatever other groceries were on their list.

“We ask people to tell us their stories and it’s just been an amazing way to connect with the community and get to know people and to expand our mindset about food justice and what our communities could look like if we truly had everything we needed.”

What keeps Lewis feeling optimistic about the future?

“I see joy and I see miracles everyday,” she said. “Seeing kindness in our community, seeing people help each other or overcome circumstances. That brings me a lot of hope.

“And also, just the fact that we are here today after our ancestors have gone through so much. Our victory is inherent.”

nmetz@chicagotribune.com

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