When Eva Maria Lewis got the email asking her — a 19-year-old African-American woman from South Shore — to represent the United States at this week’s Human Rights Defenders World Summit, she couldn’t believe it.
“I was at work, and I screamed,” Lewis said over the weekend, heading to the airport to board a flight to Paris, France for the international summit running through Wednesday.
“They were like, ‘Your name was brought up, and we really want you to represent the U.S.’ I was like, ‘Me?’ I still don’t know how my name came up, or why me, but I’m grateful,” she said.
Led by eight international human rights groups, the summit drew delegates from 160 countries, highly recognized international human rights leaders and United Nations officials to discuss progress of human rights around the world in the two decades since the inaugural summit of 1998.
That summit birthed a Declaration on Human Rights Defenders adopted by governments worldwide, committing to recognizing and protecting defenders of human rights.
“I’m most excited to hear people’s stories, network and build international relationships, especially with people of color, because we’re going through the same thing in different spaces,” said Lewis, a sophomore studying sociology and nonprofit leadership at the University of Pennsylvania on a full-ride scholarship.
This isn’t the first time the Gen Z’er has been on the world stage. Lewis, who at age 16 founded The I Project — her nonprofit devoted to fighting gun violence and creating equitable communities — is used to making headlines.
In October 2016, on International Day of the Girl, she was tapped to speak before the United Nations on the marginalization of women, particularly black women. She came to U.N. attention after organizing a staged, silent sit-in at Millennium Park on July 11, 2016, that drew over 1,000 people in protest of shootings of unarmed black men by police.
She’d organized the sit-in with three of her African-American girlfriends: Natalie Braye, Sophia Byrd and Maxine Wint. Together, the four established Youth for Black Lives, a group that achieved a highly-publicized meeting in 2017 with Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson over their concerns around police brutality.
Last November, she was tapped with six other young activists from around the globe to participate in an “Empowering Women and Girls Around the World” forum with former First Lady Michelle Obama, at the Obama Foundation’s first annual summit at the Marriott Marquis McCormick Place.
A regular contributor to Teen Vogue and host of a TedxTeen talk, she was also tapped this past March for a project in which she and Michelle Obama interviewed each other. She and her nonprofit team of several teens were also tapped by the foundation to manage a community needs assessment for South Shore.
“I’m a sociology major because there are few academic sources on the correlation between gun violence and lack of resources in marginalized communities,” said Lewis, whose I Project grew out of her experience attending Walter Payton High School, and was later informed by a senior year project.
“Going to Payton, being on the North Side, I noted most of the students didn’t have to wake up at 5 a.m. to get to school like I did, because there aren’t enough good schools in my community,” said the South Sider, whose mother, Valerie Andrews-Lewis, raised her as a single parent.
“I also saw noted the North Side had so many grocery stores — my neighborhood didn’t even have one — and how easy it was for these kids to excel because of all that they had in their families and in their communities. I wanted to figure out how to bring those resources and that experience to my own community,” said Lewis, a poet and musician.
“I was grappling with the idea of equity as opposed to equality, because at Payton, teachers would treat everyone equally, and not take into account that people come from different backgrounds. If equity was the premise of how they treated students in the infrastructure of the school, it would have been easier for more students to excel.”
Her nonprofit adopted Bouchet Elementary Math & Science Academy in South Shore, and engages in fundraising to deliver the school extra resources.
“Basically, through our work with Bouchet, we’re trying to uplift the entire South Shore community, ideally, to create a prototype for what flipping a disenfranchised community into an equitable community without gentrification looks like,” said Lewis, who will be speaking at the world summit on the “Americas” panel, alongside human rights activists from Latin America.
“It’s rare to have conversations about disenfranchisement in this country on an international scale, and I’m going there to advocate for black and brown people in this country and to talk about how human rights are being violated in the ‘hood. I want to let them know that the ‘hood is not the ‘hood because people want to live that way. The ‘hood is the ‘hood because we haven’t been given much to work with.”