Interview with Paulette Lewis

by Jeffrey Hillard
Jan 2009


Your non-profit organization, Urban Success, recently passed the one year anniversary mark. What are a few of the major challenges and successes you’ve experienced so far?

Actually, I began Urban Success in 2000 and the biggest challenges to me so far, aside from financial of course, have been convincing people that they can personally make a difference and that our city is worth their interest and efforts. There is a solution to the problems we all have to live with in this city and it requires our community to become active and genuinely care about the issues that need to change.

2008 was the most amazing year ever! Landmark Baptist Church has been such a blessing! They really stepped up and supported Urban Success in more ways than I could have imagined. They had our first fundraiser, collected donations of clothing, shoes, food and household items. They provided Thanksgiving dinner for several families and the most amazing Christmas! Pastor Matt, Pastor Lonnie, Youth Pastors Angel and Jason and the entire youth group have demonstrated what true service to God is. They believe that serving God requires action and they got busy. I am so incredibly grateful!

I have several favorite success stories, but you'll have to wait to see them in their entirety in my future columns.

You were working in Cincinnati Public Schools and in volatile pockets of the city of Cincinnati a good while before you started Urban Success.  How did it first happen?  How did you gain the trust of those you reached out to?

I began by giving the kids a chance. Just taking the time to listen to THEM and let them explain their perspective gained me a reputation for respecting them and helped me start to build relationships no one thought were possible. Once I established a good rapport with some kids, I began introducing alternatives, suggesting positive choices and developing their communication skills because that is a huge factor in the problems we see in our communities.

I emphasized that adults cannot settle things with our fists - we have to use our words. It got them thinking and that's how the program, "Use Your Words" came about.

I also made myself available to them and took some risks. I would stand up for them in school if I felt they were right or, because of their inability to appropriately communicate, misunderstood. I would do little things that meant a lot to them - gave them a snack bar for breakfast, a pencil to use in class, a ride home to avoid a dangerous situation.

When I moved into a community role, more and more people saw me helping. Bringing groceries, giving kids safe rides, tutoring and showing up in crisis situations to support or show that I care. You have to build bridges to cross any gap, whether it be cultural, socio-economic or whatever and you have to be completely genuine and "real" with them.

You’ve had an interesting relationship with the Cincinnati Police Division. Could you relate how, at times, police have depended upon you?

I really have not established a "relationship" with the police to where I can say they "depend" on me, but they are usually accepting of my assistance after the confusion subsides (ie: what is that white girl doing here syndrome). I explain when I "arrive on the scene" that I am the mentor of whoever they were called for and may be able to help them de-escalate the situation or at least the kids I know that are involved in the situation. So far it's been successful and they even thank me in the end, but I am VERY careful not to represent myself in such a way that my kids think I am working "with" the police or the police think I am involved with any particular crew. It is difficult to walk a fine line but the police need to know I am there to help and the kids must continue to trust me or it won't work.

One part of your mission has been to pro-actively address and help curtail violence in urban areas. In so many cases, you’ve established close ties with many violent-prone kids and, many times, leaders of local gangs. And you write in this issue about aspects of hope that you see emerging in that culture. How do you feel about their future? Are you still hopeful?

I will ALWAYS have hope for the kids and families I work with. They know where the street life leads. They live with the risks day in and day out of being in a gang. They have to reach a point of change. THEY have to come to the decision that they want to live a long life. Most of the yhouth I work with can't see a life for themselves beyond the age of 21. But they know that I pray for them and that I will literally do anything I can to help them when they are ready to change. A complete lifestyle change, in my experience, takes about 4 years. They begin small - usually by doing a "favor" for me such as NOT beating up someone; NOT exercising their authority and exacting revenge on someone; NOT robbing someone but working with me to find a job. Little decisions I refer to as "favors" because they generally do it because "Ms. Lewis wants me to." They know how much the violence bothers me and deep down, most of them know it is wrong. Eventually, they become "peace leaders" - breaking up fights and "squashing beef" on their own, like one boss told me the other day, "because its the right thing to do." Talk about progress - THAT'S what I hold out hope for.

Seeing what you see, and knowing what you know first hand, if you could change one thing about the way the citizens of and/or the the city of Cincinnati operate, function or respond, what would it be?

I have so many things I would like to see changed. First, it starts with people's attitudes. I see women clutch their children and their purses when my bigger guys walk by. I see white people cross the street when a group of my kids comes toward them. We need to be cautious at times, but reacting with fear when you simply SEE these kids, honestly makes them feel bad. People make terrible assumptions and draw their own conclusion simply based on the differences they see in my kids. If you provoke them - be worried. If you simply pass them on the sidewalk - say hello. It's a nice icebreaker.

As a city, we need to give solid opportunities to the youth - more career training and more jobs beginning as young as 12 and 13 because that's when some of them begin "hustlin" in the streets.

Pastors, elders and church members need to come out from the safety of their sanctuary and get in the streets where the people need them to be. Jesus fellowshipped with sinners not saints on a regular basis. He went after ONE lost sheep. We walk past thousands of lost sheep every day who would honestly enjoy a word of encouragement or a warm smile. I believe it is going to take believers coming together, representing Christ, to make an impact in this city. We will never have the changes we need without God.


RED! Columnist Paulette Lewis is a young woman deeply embedded as a gang interventionist in the most violent parts of Hamilton County, read her January 2009 feature story.


Paulette Lewis

Paulette Lewis