Eva Maria Lewis is a Chicago Scholar and the founder and Executive Director of the Free Root Operation (FRO), a nonprofit intercepting poverty induced gun violence by investing in the healing and empowerment of Black and Brown communities in Chicago and beyond. In 2021, Eva Maria was honored with the Reebok Human Rights Award, and she is set to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania in May of 2022. Eva Maria has been featured in the Chicago Tribune for her work as an activist and community organizer multiple times, most recently for the South Shore data project. Eva Maria gave the following speech at Chicago Scholars’ 25th Anniversary Celebration in October.
My name is Eva Maria Lewis and I have a slew of titles. I’m a senior at the University of Pennsylvania studying sociology. I am the Founder and Executive Director of the Free Root Operation, which is a nonprofit combatting gun violence through a lens of compassion and opportunity in Black and Brown neighborhoods in Chicago. I am an artist, the daughter of a single mother, a born and raised Southsider, and a survivor. Most relevant to you all, I’m also a Chicago Scholar. I’m honored to share a bit about myself and my journey as a Chicago Scholar with you today.
I became interested in social justice when I realized that there was a side of the city where the grass is literally greener with a multitude of abundance in the form of grocery stores, excellent schools, clean parks, shops, and so much more. I am from the South Shore neighborhood, the last Black neighborhood on the lake, which many would associate with gun violence and other qualms. Because of the state of my neighborhood, I always acquired my education outside of it. For high school, I ended up traveling the farthest. My commute required me to wake up at 5 am to embark on an hour and a half journey on public transportation. I endured because I had a dream of receiving a high-quality education so that I could follow in the footsteps of my mother who is a first-generation college graduate. After two years of this, at 16, something about getting five hours of sleep just for an education struck a chord in me. I realized it was not just, and it could change. My passion to pursue equity was born from that struggle. And so, I began to plant the seeds for what would grow into the Free Root Operation. Little did I know, that was just the beginning.
Since then, I’ve advocated for the safety and success of Black and Brown people in Chicago and in the United States at the United Nations and abroad, combatted gun violence and police brutality, and become a community organizer and leader. The moment the incredible folks at Chicago Scholars found out about my passion, support was never a matter of if but how. Chicago Scholars went above and beyond to provide tools so that I could build. After I got into college, like many of my peers I felt that my role as a Chicago Scholar was over. But, after our graduation, Chicago Scholars faculty made sure to tell us about all of the resources and opportunities we had access to while actually in college and beyond. I took them up on that. From allowing myself and my team to use the office for meetings and planning to helping us mass print community surveys, I recognized that when there was a missing piece I could go to my Chicago Scholars family for help. I was actually doing all of my nonprofit work at the office up until it closed because of COVID. The extra resources Chicago Scholars had to offer also equipped me to continue pursuing my degree even when it felt hard. Academically, professionally, and personally, Chicago Scholars made it clear that they were there to help ME thrive in all aspects. That sort of support and care is so rare. It encouraged me to persevere.
If there was ever a time to exercise perseverance, it was 2020. As you all know, the George Floyd protests last year sparked a worldwide recollection of racial injustice and systemic oppression. All of us were affected, and many of us were called to action. I was one of those people. I saw an opportunity to utilize those tools of innovation and perseverance I’d gained over the years. After the first day of protests, the bridges of the city rose and the already obvious segregated divides were more prominent than ever. Over a span of a couple of days, all grocery stores on the South Side were shut down and many wondered what protection looked like in the aftermath. Like many others, I got to work to mitigate harm. I started the Chicago Food Pairing Program which is now a recurring FRO initiative. Last year we raised and spent over $71,000 to provide groceries for over 500 families with the help of a network of volunteers from the North Side and suburbs. We were able to receive more funding to fully launch as a nonprofit and further sustain our programming.
Fast-forwarding a bit—this August, just two weeks before I embarked on my last semester of college, I won the Reebok Human Rights Award which grants $100,000 to changemakers to support their work. I recognize that an accolade like this is not usual for people from my community. I am grateful that, despite some of the challenges life faced me with, I have been invested in and allowed to create my own path and foster my dreams.
It is surreal to recount these successes, now approaching the other end of my Chicago Scholars journey as a self-employed budding college graduate. I wish I could tell the 17-year-old version of myself that first started the college readiness workshops how what I would learn and gain throughout these years would change my life. It is important to listen to and validate young people of color. In the work I do with the community now, I take from Chicago Scholars the value of providing people with what we can because there is always something we can do for others. I’m grateful to not have just been serviced by this program but to pass the blessings forward. Thank you to Chicago Scholars for sticking with me, and others like me along the way.