To say Tony Lewis Jr. loves the District of Columbia is an understatement.
The 31-year-old is a change agent who loves wisdom woven into Jay-Z’s lyrics, Gandhi’s teachings and the spiritual truths of Catholic Church leaders such as the 13th century’s Saint Francis of Assisi.
Lewis, who proudly hails from Hanover Place in Northwest, recently got tattoos on his arms featuring the city’s flag (three stars and two stripes) and a slogan he promotes online, in conversations and on gear: D.C. or Nothing.
The statement reflects his movement to bind newcomers and native Washingtonians — folks from different walks of life committed to energizing the city.
“I like how he breaks down all of those barriers, and he’s got this energy – really positive energy,” said Tasha Ferguson, a Washingtonian who owns EyeCatching Entertainment, a marketing and promotions company. “He’s charismatic, and he brings you into what he’s doing. The whole ‘D.C. or Nothing’ brand really embodies what D.C. should be and what D.C. is coming together to be.”
Lewis appears regularly on local radio programs advocating for youth and other causes and speaks at community meetings and at events including a benefit concert on April 1 to raise money for slain Florida teenager Trayvon Martin’s parents’ attorney fees and other costs associated with the case.
When asked about his thoughts on the case, the activist said: “My goal is to help redefine what it means to be a young black man in this country. . . . It was the negative perception of what or who black men are that led to the death of Trayvon Martin.
“I hope my actions can chip away at that negative perception in the hopes incidents like that will stop occurring across this great country,” Lewis said.
He said the relatively new D.C. or Nothing is a “movement created to form solidarity among local musicians and enhance the lives of District residents.” He volunteers to engage politically conscious people of all backgrounds. He celebrates the efforts of local hip-hop artists and he works to help ex-offenders and mentor youth — particularly children of prisoners.
“I felt compelled to link with the local music scene because the kids are intrigued by the local hip hop scene,” Lewis said. “This generation really wants to be rappers, entrepreneurs, somehow involved in the industry versus just fans of the music. I also believe that the industry can really come here, to D.C., and thrive, create opportunities for talented people.”
Patrons who recognize Lewis interrupt his lunch at D.C. landmark Ben’s Chili Bowl with compliments and updates about their lives. During a visit at his former job at the District’s Department of Employment Services, he’s summoned into a training class and gives a short speech to ex-offenders, encouraging them to stick with programs and services the agency offers and to stay encouraged despite setbacks they may encounter as they redefine their lives.
“He bleeds D.C. He loves the city,” said Joe Green, a program assistant at in the agency’s Project Empowerment. “He’s just an advocate for those who need help. . . . Overall, I don’t have one word to describe him. He’s just a phenomenal person.”
“When you think of Tony Lewis, he’s a phenomenon,” said Project Empowerment Director Charles Jones, Lewis’s former boss. “An old spirit yet he’s so young. He can reach anybody, any age. I’m so proud of him.”
Green added: “That’s a special talent.”
Lewis’s passion is born from witnessing the impact of drugs on his neighborhood even at the hands of men he loved and admired including his father, Tony Lewis, who is serving a life sentence in a federal penitentiary. He was an alleged partner of notorious drug dealer Rayful Edmond III, who, at one time, police called “the city’s largest cocaine importer, bringing in millions of dollars of Colombian cocaine each week from Los Angeles,” the Washington Post reported in 2010.
The younger Lewis has never been arrested. He is a developer/vocational development specialist at the federal Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency (CSOSA) where he works to build relationships with the business community and others to produce employment for ex-offenders.
He also handles training, and, with his colleagues and under the supervision of Luella Johnson, he coordinates programs designed to assist and overcome challenges facing the formerly incarcerated. His duties also include working on a television show on employment developed in conjunction with the National Institute of Corrections of the U.S. Department of Justice.
“Tony has been instrumental in every television and radio show produced by public affairs to promote the hiring of offenders,” said Leonard A. Sipes, Jr., CSOSA’s senior public affairs specialist/social media manager. “He’s relentless in his suggestions as to new avenues to convince employers to consider people with skills who are years away from their last crime or positive drug test yet are struggling to find employment.”
Sipes noted that the agency’s job development team consists of many stellar, hard-working people, but Lewis “brings unique perspectives to the discussion.”
“He’s an extraordinary young man. There’s something special about Tony Lewis that transcends government,” Sipes said. “He’s always looking for a new way of doing things, always making suggestions and always making for solutions. . . . We have a cadre of extraordinary people who form their own relationships, but I love Tony because he pushes the limits. Tony’s always saying, ‘Why don’t we try to this? Why don’t we do this?’”
During a tour of D.C. with Lewis, he points out the recreation center where he once worked, a church where loved ones worship as well as a house in which his father grew up that’s now home to a music studio.
He credits his family among the chief reasons why he’s never been locked up, saying, they “encouraged me to focus on education. They also supported me and loved me and I understood and stopped putting myself in certain situations.”
Lewis manages activities for Sons of Life, an initiative formed in 2010 by a small group of men to help youth. It arranges visits, organizes activities for young people and provides gifts and other supplies throughout the year. A mini-documentary, “Son of Life,” based on his life and the impetus behind the initiative was named Breakthrough Film winner at the DMV International Film Festival.
“I never wanted it to be a formal program, but a way of life,” Lewis said, adding that often prisoners reach out and ask him to assist their children or younger relatives and friends.
Lewis, who earned a degree in urban studies from the University of the District of Columbia, is the first and only man in his family to graduate college. Last year, he received the Best Community Leader award during the ninth annual Hoodie Awards, a show created by comedian Steve Harvey and TV/radio producer Rushion McDonald to honor educators, schools, businesses, religious and neighborhood leaders around the country.
How does he know he’s making a difference?
“Sometimes people tell me, but when I see people change the way they think, their lifestyle — how they look at the world and see how their actions can make a difference, can reverse a culture of violence, of rivalries. . . . I see the love and respect when I’m shown cooperation and I see people are encouraging others to walk down this track that I may have helped put them on.
“Or a kid says, ‘I’m doing this because Tony told me.’ That really means a lot.”
In early March, Lewis took a handful of Sons of Life proteges to see lightweight fighter Ty Barnett’s boxing match at the Convention Center; Barnett gave 10 tickets.
“We always support our alumni and want to inspire our students with their stories,” said Deniese Jackson, mother of two sons at the school, as breakfast was served.
The luncheon is one of several annual activities organized by Gonzaga Mothers’ Club.
As he spoke, Lewis described his life as a student, and how the Catholic school was a place pivotal to his formation, a place that he said helps make strong men. He said experiences he had at the school with students and faculty shaped him into the man he’s become. He also discussed how he could relate to some of the challenges his proteges face; Lewis was 9 when his father went to prison.
The Rev. Stephen Szolosi, director of campus ministry, said the school’s motto, “men for others” means to “give your life to service and the promotion of the common good and to be sensitive of the most needy and marginalized.” And servant leadership is cultivated several ways on and off campus through volunteerism, projects and other endeavors.
“Mr. Lewis and his compelling life story was a narrative that resonated with the event chairs and the administration. His work in the community was recognized and respected at Gonzaga, and he was recommended as a potential speaker,” wrote Maureen McCarty, president of the Gonzaga Mothers’ Club in an e-mail sent after the luncheon. “The chairs reached out to him and once he agreed, they were off and running. He was absolutely terrific.”
After Lewis’s speech, Szolosi said, “He certainly reflects the school’s educational goals and mission. He’s a great model for our students.”
“I loved his inspiring words,” said Sabrina Easterling, mother of freshman DeAndre Easterling. “You can relate to him whether you come from the same background or not. I’ve been following him for a few years so when I knew he was speaking this morning, it was a must that we came to see him.”
“That was so nice,” said his grandmother, Jabella Hinton, about the occasion. “Everything was so beautiful.”
His aunt, VonDeleah Williams, couldn’t contain her pride, beaming throughout the program. “I was proud of him giving me and my mom the recognition,” Williams said, referring to one point in which Lewis thanked them for their guardianship when his mother was hospitalized. “You never know how much you’re appreciated until you hear it like this.”
She said watching Lewis grow up was a privilege, and the way he’s conducted himself “epitomizes the mission of this place,” waving her arm in the school gymnasium.
“He makes me smile,” Williams said, watching Lewis as he greeted students and their parents before leaving the campus.
“I always tell my friends my nephew makes me feel so good about life, about myself. He’s so giving,” she said with a chuckle. “But we’ve got to get him to give time for himself. I say, ‘Okay sweetie, you’re almost 32 and you need to give more time for you.’ But I know he won’t. That’s Tony. He loves to give.”
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