Amy Lewis wins emerging leader award
Doctoral student blends activism and music education.
Amy Belinda Lewis can point to two significant events that shaped her identity as a music educator. The first was receiving the Illinois Education Association Bob Haisman Teacher of the Year Award. The second was advocating for Black Lives Matter as one of two Black teachers in her school district.
Those two experiences propelled Lewis toward community activism, her Ph.D. program in the MSU College of Music, and a third life-shaping event. In April, the doctoral candidate in music education received the Emerging Leader Award for Dedication and Commitment to the Black Student Community. Given through MSU’s Black Faculty and Staff Association, it’s an honor she said reminds her she is on the right path toward driving change in today’s world.
“Talking about racism and system inequities has been taboo for a long time,” said Lewis. “But we maintain oppressive systems by ignoring them, or by believing we live in a color blind society. My hope is that music educators can widen and expand the dialog around race and racism and acknowledge what we are doing to perpetuate exclusion.”
Talking for change
Lewis came to MSU in 2016 after working as a teacher in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. The Kansas City, Missouri, native had just completed her bachelor’s of music education at DePaul University and her master’s in teacher leadership at Concordia University Chicago. En route to her degrees, her awareness grew of the disparities between school districts and communities, and that she had grown up in an area of privilege.
“As an undergraduate student, I started to question why my school district had resources when the district down the street didn’t,” she said. “Those realizations led me to participate in different student organizations that were very heavily focused on social justice and Black women empowerment.”
Lewis was driven beyond simply recognizing injustice and inequities to take action. She got involved with Black Lives Matter. She attended marches. She adhered to her beliefs and worked to address inequities she saw in educational culture.
“I encountered people who were uncomfortable,” she said. “But I felt it was important to facilitate understanding of social justice and movements like Black Lives Matter. You have to talk about system inequities in order to progress toward a more equitable future.”
Organizing to lead
When Lewis moved to Greater Lansing to study with educators, scholars and social justice advocates in MSU’s Music Education area, she remained involved with the Black Lives Matter movement by helping to organize rallies, orientations and candidate forums. She infused her scholarly efforts with her advocacy for Black Lives Matter by participating in conferences and Election 20XX—an electoral justice educational platform created by Black Lives Matter Lansing and allies.
Juliet Hess serves as Lewis’ dissertation adviser and nominated Lewis for the BFSAA Emerging Leader Award. The assistant professor of music education said Lewis has become a well-known community leader in just three short years, and has also been an active member of the college’s student diversity committee.
“In this political moment, talking about race is really important, and something we, as educators, need to be talking about in a significant way,” said Hess. “Amy is trying to find ways to do that with educators to push the profession forward.”
Lewis will finish her Ph.D. coursework in May and plans to defend her dissertation in Spring 2020. She recently received a fellowship at James Madison University where she will complete her work on creating a curriculum on critical race theory for use by music teachers and music teacher educators.
Stratton Lee was a member of the review committee for the BFSAA Emerging Leader Award. The vice president of the BFSAA said while Lewis’ work focuses on the Black community, it will ultimately help everyone live better lives — particularly people in historically disenfranchised communities. That, he said, is indicative of an individual who serves as a catalyst for change, and is deserving of recognition as an emerging leader.
“What stood out about Amy is her endurance, grit, perseverance and truthfulness,” said Lee. “To do the work that Amy is doing at MSU and in the Lansing area takes someone who can thrive while in a variety of environments while being authentic to who she is.”